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Center-left challenges to diversifying its issue agenda

Matthew E. Bergman

5 mins - 20 de Enero de 2022, 12:15

The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic drop in the vote share of center-left parties across Western Democracies. These parties had historically argued for a strong welfare state, income redistribution, and a mixed economy. Yet, even as these parties have decreased in their popularity and government participation, their policies remain. Why is this so?

My research provides an explanation for both phenomena: issue diversity. Parties throughout Europe have been increasing the number of issues discussed in their party programs. The center-left no longer has a monopoly when it comes to a focus on the welfare state and social protection. While indeed this might have resulted in the Social Democrats return to power in Denmark in 2019, green parties, nationalist parties, and parties of the mainstream right now regularly support the maintenance or expansion of certain aspects of the welfare state (related research, here and here).


Using measures employed in my research, below you can see a measure of issue diversity contained in campaign materials of several party groupings across Europe. Note how since the 1980s, Green parties, Christian democratic parties, and national parties have increased their attention to a broader number of issues. If voters begin to trust these parties with these new issues, then they will be more likely to vote for them.


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However, parties face tradeoffs when embracing new issues, some more than others. For one, parties may be viewed as disingenuous. Yet if parties do not address new issues, they voters might turn to newer parties that better represent the issues they find important. After a period of time, perhaps these new issues become credible. Take for example the rise of environmental and nationalist issues (displayed below) in political campaigns across Europe. If mainstream parties do not address these issues, they risk losing voters to new challenger parties that try to bring these issues to the fore.


The center-left is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to addressing new issues. First, should they politicize the environmental issue, they might motivate voters to support Green parties, who have a stronger association with ecological issues. Alternatively, if mainstream-left parties emphasize centrist issues they risk losing supporters to further left parties committed to market regulation, organized labor, and welfare state expansion. Increasing attention to education and social investment issues risks alienating the working-class constituency of social democratic parties. If center-left parties focus on anti-
immigrant issues, they could alienate their core ideological liberals. If they focus on pro-immigration issues, they could alienate working-class voters. Other parties do not face such constraints.

Nationalist parties have increasingly contested the working-class support of mainstream-left parties by placing greater emphasis on redistribution for the native born. Engaging in economic issues, however, need not turn away nationalist supporters. Welfare Chauvanism is one such strategy available to nationalist parties. Here, they can argue that the welfare state must be defended against immigrants. Matteo Salvini in Italy has also argued that infrastructure spending strengthens his core voters. By engaging with mainstream economic issues, nationalist parties can expand their voter base towards the center.

Center-right parties are also advantaged when it comes to addressing more issues. Previous research has demonstrated that 'cross-pressured' voters (those who hold inconsistent economic and social positions on the left-right dimension) tend to identify with the right. Should center-right parties thus engage with economically centrist issues, more socially conservative voters that typically aligned with the center-left might have less hesitation in switching their vote. Emphasizing welfare state issues or increasing social expenditures enable center-right parties to gain economic credibility in line with center-left parties. Center-right parties also face fewer risks in expanding into environmental issues as recent climate related initiatives put forth by the conservative-led Austrian government recently exemplify. In short, while center-left parties may alienate core constituencies by focusing on new issues of identity, immigration, nationalism, the environment, or the European Union, the mainstream right and nationalist parties need not be worried about losing their core economically conservative cross-pressured voters.

What does this mean for the future of the center-left? With migration, the environment, and the European Union receiving high amounts of attention, the center-left will have difficulties crafting a coherent response without alienating some of its voters towards more credible political challengers. Should economic or welfare issues again return to the fore, perhaps the center-left will again be in an advantaged position. Recovery from Covid could serve as way for the center-left to remind voters of its traditional issue strengths. Relatedly, the center-left can focus on its historical rootedness, public sector and union backing, and political experience holding the center-right to account should it be serving in official opposition. When the center-right underperforms or faces a crisis, the center-left can serve as a recipient of mainstream voters. Currently, for example, the center-right and center-left are polling near equal in Austria and the UK (potentially as a reaction against center-right leadership during the pandemic response) and the center-left has overtaken the center-right in German polls for the first time in over a decade.
(Here, the version translated into Spanish)
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