Farewell to Social Democracy?

Co-presented with the Sydney Democracy Initiative (SDI) and the School of Social and Political Sciences (SSPS) at the University of Sydney

Professor Wolfgang Merkel
2 December, 2010

Why you should listen

Ever since the publication of Ralph Dahrendorf’s famous pamphlet After Social Democracy (1980), there have been many swansongs by public intellectuals about the ‘crisis’, ‘decline’ or the ‘end’ of social democracy. Yet two decades later, in defiance of their forecasts, most West European countries were governed by social democratic parties guided by the principles of the ‘Third Way’. First sketched by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, these principles inspired the economic and social policies of a wide range of social democratic governments, including those of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, whose supporters were convinced that a new governing paradigm had been born.

The Third Way certainly gave direction to social democracy at the end of the twentieth century, but it has since proved to be a dead end. Its champions both overestimated the positive effects of globalisation and deregulated markets and underestimated the negative effects of market failures, the changing role of tax states and the problem of rapidly increasing inequality throughout the OECD region. Meanwhile, it has become obvious that the heyday of ‘catch-all’ parties occupying the centre ground of politics is over. The catch-all strategy, so successful for half a generation, no longer works in our 21st-century world.

Social democracy is in trouble. In this public lecture, Wolfgang Merkel draws on his extensive research and practical involvement with social democratic parties in Europe and Latin America to show how the survival of social democracy during the coming decades crucially depends on finding new voters and party members and inventing new policies, programs and different visions of a better future.

Professor Wolfgang Merkel

Professor Wolfgang Merkel is Director of the “Democracy and Democratisation” research program at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB) and Professor of Political Science at the Humboldt University Berlin. He is a member of a number of key bodies, including the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the International Council of Advisors to the Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodr'guez Zapatero. He is also a non-party member of the Basic Values Commission of the Executive Committee of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a member of the social sciences review board of the German Research Foundation (DFG).