The Death and Life of Social Democracy

Why Idealism Eventually Beats Populism

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron at a political rally near Nantes, April 2017. Stephane Mahe / Reuters

The seemingly endless stream of “rise of populism” stories as of late—cue French election results putting Marine Le Pen in the presidential run-off—ignore a complementary and no less important trend in Western politics: the downfall of social democracy.

Not so long ago, it appeared that modern social democracy—the marriage of free market capitalism with some form of social safety net—was taking over the world. In that ephemeral moment when “history was over,” center-left politicians implemented structural reforms that would have pleased Margaret Thatcher while proudly maintaining and sometimes deepening social protections. There were always some European holdouts, but by the late 1990s many followed the political “third way” that became closely associated with the youthful good looks of the United States’ Bill Clinton, the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair, and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder.

The 2007­­–08 global financial crisis that rocked capital markets and the neoliberal

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