Towards the End of the left / right Paradigm

With the rise of populism on both sides of the political scpectrum, raising new oppositions, is the traditional left/right political divide still relevant to understand contemporary European societies? Four experts from Europe and beyond answer this critical question.

This commentary was first published in QUERIES, Spring 2015, p. 27-31

The left-right paradigm is still making sense. But the notions of what left and right means have shifted.

Historically, left and right were defined by how they wanted to distribute wealth. For two thirds of the 20th century this could still – in a Marxist perspective – be determined as a problem of private control of means of production. Those Marxist notions lost their significance, but the topic of wealth distribution lived on. It was handled with taxation, welfare state handouts and salaries. The neo-liberalisation of the world since the eighties then exacerbated inequalities – wealth distribution became a controversial topic again. But in times of globalisation, it’s the possession of capital both financial and human that carries the edge over people with less developed professional competences. Progressive parties and governments have so far failed to develop the policies that could attract investment without promoting social inequalities.

Besides, a cultural turn occurred on the left at the end of the seventies. Socialist and Social-Democratic party programs concentrated on non-materialistic values such as women’s rights and multicultural societies. Working class parties transformed into middle-class parties – the political left today advocates women’s equality, liberal immigration policies, non-discrimination of homosexuals, an open society and integration. The right, on the other hand, hasn’t changed: it still identifies with a paternalistic order, the nation state, a leading national culture and the rejection of a multicultural society.

But neither left nor right is the cause of voters’ growing scepticism towards politics and politicians. This weariness doesn’t have an ideological home, it arises from the enormous discrepancy between politicians’ promises and the little scope of action they have in a globalised world with deregulated markets. Democratic elections and free media reinforce that effect: to get ahead in the tough competition for votes, politicians tend to offer simple, understandable solutions they don’t have the power to implement. This is true for economic problems like investment and employment but also for environmental policies or the fight against terrorism.

And a new paradigm is cutting through the old left/right division. It’s a divide between communitarian/national views and cosmopolitan views. It’s a division between globalisation losers and winners. The former want to open borders further for trade and immigration, they support European integration and universal human rights. The globalisation losers fear open borders, they see the nation state as a guarantor of security, prosperity and social protection. This separates the clientele of progressive politics based on the redistribution of wealth from the advocates of a multicultural, open society. The communitarians will tend towards right-wing policies when it comes to immigration and civil rights. Social democrats until today haven’t been able to address this dilemma.

Wolfgang Merkel heads the department “Democracy and Democratisation” at the think tank WZB in Berlin and holds the chair of Political Science at Humboldt University in Berlin. His research focuses on the evolution of political systems.

The left-right paradigm has not completely disappeared, but a new rift is emerging: the Europe-nation divide.

The left-right paradigm has lost much of its relevance in France and elsewhere in Europe. Not to say that the ideological roots of the divide between left and right—the issues of inequality, the economic role of government and, more generally, capitalism—no longer exist, but another rift has emerged and continues to widen, which I call the Europe-nation divide. This new division pits partisans of European construction, the market economy and political liberalism against their anti-European, xenophobic and anti-capitalist counterparts. A substantive divide exists in France, where there is a stark contrast between the middle class and the working class, who have rallied behind the Front National at the ballot box. This new split is orthogonal to the left-right divide, provoking rising strains at both ends of the political spectrum and stripping the left-right paradigm of its ability to form coalition governments.

As a result, the French Socialist Party can no longer govern with the communists and the radical fringe of the Greens, while the conservative UMP party has rejected any form of alliance with the Front National. Yet at the same time, a coalition government between the Socialist Party and the UMP remains highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. So the left-right divide remains intact, albeit in a weakened state. Voters on both the left and the right remain attached to this binary opposition, despite it having lost much of its ability to engage voters. The resilience of the left-right paradigm prevents an alliance between the radical left and the radical right—unlike in Greece, where such a pact was recently formed—although they have moved closer to one another on economic and social issues. Immigration and national identity policies continue to stand as a barrier between the two groups.

Thus, while the Europe-nation paradigm has continued to grow in importance in recent decades, it has yet to fully take hold as a modus operandi within the political system, in particular with regards to forming coalition governments. Nevertheless, the paradigm represents a growing source of tumult in the system.

The question is therefore whether the two main governing parties will be able to win future elections and lead while rejecting the new paradigm, despite the fact that large coalition governments can no longer be formed under the traditional divide. It is impossible to predict who will emerge triumphant from the 2017 legislative and presidential elections, but even if the majority voting system sealed the victory for the centre-right, the victors would run into major difficulties once in power due to their refusal to accept one of the potential alliances that could be made. When attempting to enact the major reforms required, the centre-right would only be able to rely on a narrow voter base and political mandate, as do the Socialists today. The weak, divided left would be forced to decide between an extended stay in the opposition and a strategic shift in the direction of the governing right-wing party. Sometime in the future, the UMP and the Socialist Party will likely be faced with the choice of either maintaining the left-right divide at all costs or adjusting to the principles of the new Europe-nation divide, which would bring the two parties closer together. Parties in many European countries with proportional voting systems—which are more conducive to such alliances—have opted for the latter option. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy and Sweden (in some respects) have all done so; Spain and Portugal could soon follow suit. Greece, where the radical left and right have decided to govern together, has also chosen in favour of the second divide. The system governing the European Parliament itself has long been dictated by the Europe-nation dichotomy.

Gérard Grunberg is Emeritus Research Professor at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Associate Researcher at the Centre d’Etudes Européennes (CEE), Sciences Po Paris. He specialises in electoral studies, partisan systems and European socialist parties, and serves as director of the website Telos.

“Statesmen are full of good intentions; they simply don’t know how to go about them.” (Montesquieu)

The left-right axis remains crucial to a proper understanding of the evolution of modern-day society because it allows us to distinguish governments that favour collective development from those that believe in the power of market rules to reduce social inequality.

Over the years, however, the technocratic/bureaucratic state has given way to the “negotiator-state”, in constant arbitration between different social groups. A number of governments have allowed themselves to simply go with the flow without really thinking about how to improve the lives of citizens or curb inequality.

Any exploration of the concept of governance in today’s world involves asking whether there is a difference between the policies of left and right. This kind of debate is vital in refocusing the message of the left and gives rise to the key question of how the left should govern if it is to do so successfully. The art of government, especially on the left, lies in seeking to re-establish the state and government administration as one of our core concerns to ensure that all citizens can expect to see their governments serve the common interest.

GOOD governance

Good governance now hinges on the idea of restoring the badge of honour once worn by the state and civil servants, and making them a cornerstone of planned reforms.

Over the past few years, we have become nothing more than “customers” of the managerial state. As a result, the very idea of New Public Management has not only undermined the relationship between state and citizen but has also introduced tunnel-vision criteria targeting effectiveness and efficiency that often fall wide of the mark when it comes to improving services and quality of life for citizens.


Unable to straighten out public finances or to offer innovative, consensual policies and adapt to new changes in society, the modern state once again finds itself in search of social democratic parties able to chart a safe course for citizens.

The left needs good governments able to craft good policies! The problem is that politicians no longer know how to go about the task and are often dragged into debates that divide the population. The thrust of the matter is that the left must re-establish the state as its core concept in order to better manage change and put forward effective policies.

Guy Lachapelle is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He is also secretary general of the International Political Science Association (IPSA).

Despite attacks from populists who present a political landscape of “people” at the bottom and the “elite” at the top, the lift/right paradigm remains valid for fundamental issues. But new lines have to be drawn.

The left-right dichotomy still holds true for important issues like freedom. The question of economic and political freedom is at the core of the decision between left and right. What degree of economic freedom should be given to people and to the market? What is the role of the state? How much do you go for growth and thereby tolerate inequalities? Pre-distribute or re-distribute? These fundamental questions about the state and the market are still valid. The same goes for moral issues like same-sex-marriages, abortion, divorce, biotechnology, most of which come down to the question of individual freedom – here you may not have left and right in a traditional sense but you have a very strong divide between conservative and liberal.

the “people versus elite” paradigm

So there is still enough variety to structure politics around left and right dimensions, even if the populists are trying to get rid of this. They are trying to replace the confrontation between left and right by a confrontation between the people “down there” and the elites. Populism in Spain and France, for example, are very different but they have one thing in common: they want to get rid of the left/right classification and picture politics as a confrontation between the elite and the people. That is, to replace a horizontal axis of competition with a vertical axis of competition.

Democracies haven’t been doing their homework

If their strategy seems to work it is because democracies haven’t been doing their homework for 20 years. When the Berlin wall came down, the ideological challenge that was the Soviet Union vanished. Once communism had disappeared, democracies acted as though they didn’t have anything to do but to sit back and enjoy themselves. As though they needn’t reflect on the relations between the state and the market, economy and society, anymore. They took their citizens for granted and didn’t pay attention to rising inequalities. This coincided with a new wave of globalisation that considerably diminished the states’ capacity to redistribute. Put the financial crisis into the mix and you see people revolting against too much insecurity in their lives: job insecurity, identity insecurity, uncertainty about the future. It is worth to be noted that the crisis didn’t create those problems, most of them existed well before. But the crisis aggravated those problems.

exploitING the weaknesses of each country

The most obvious political consequence of this process is a shrinking centre in all European countries. Threats may be coming from the left or the right, from populist or secessionist movements like Catalonia in Spain. In each case the movements operate on the base of existing weaknesses in that particular country.

In this landscape, Social Democrats face a fundamental dilemma: their political space has shrunk and they have to make hard choices. If they move to the centre they lose their identity and they are punished. But if they move left and stay loyal to their principles – that may be beautiful and make everybody feel good about it, but they cannot win elections that way. Conservative parties, by the way, face similar problems. Parties have to reinvent themselves and draw new lines.

José Ignacio Torreblanca is Head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations and professor of political science at the National University of Distance Education.



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