The fourth stage of social democracy

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This article examines the political crisis of social-democratic parties in Western Europe in light of its impact on the social-democratic emancipatory project, and asks whether the first calls the second into question. It begins by defining social democracy as an emancipatory project, and identifies three major historical phases that correspond to three distinct conceptions of the project. “Social-democratic dilemmas” section examines recent literature in comparative welfare state economics, political sociology, and studies of populism and authoritarianism, to show how the socio-economic transformations of the last five decades have enlarged and fragmented the constituency of social-democratic parties, and contends that this situation has generated powerful tensions between the normative and the mundane dimensions of the social-democratic project. Three major dilemmas—economic, cultural, and political—leading to three deep conflicts internal to the social-democratic constituency are identified and discussed. Combining these empirical findings with the three rival interpretations of the social-democratic project introduced in “Social democracy as an ideational and a mundane project” section, “Three scenarios” section develops three possible scenarios for the evolution of this project in the near future: decline, drift, and renewal. “Implications for policy and politics” section assesses the likelihood and political meaning of each scenario for the pursuit of the social-democratic project, taking into consideration the recent upsurge of left-wing populism.




Frega, R. (2021). The fourth stage of social democracy. Theory and Society, 50(3), 489–513.

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