Social democratic parties and the rise of ecologism: A comparative analysis of Western Europe

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The rise of green politics and new social movements posed serious challenges for existing party families. Social democratic parties, in particular, found themselves increasingly crammed between old demands of rising industrial productivity and a stable economic growth on the one hand and new demands regarding ecological sustainability and environmental protection on the other. In this study, I examine the influence of green politics on social democratic party ideologies in Western Europe (N=19) during the last decades of the twentieth century. In the first step of the analysis, I carry out a descriptive examination in order to identify parties where ecological demands are clearly present. Here, the empirical observations indicate that parties domiciling in the northern and central parts of Europe generally have been more prone to establish ecological views than parties in Southern Europe. The second step of the study presents at least indicative evidence regarding possible causes of these ecological shifts. Building on previous research on party change – but using a qualitative comparative analysis (csQCA) in order to detect equifinal and conjunctural causality – I identify four sufficient paths leading to considerable ecological change within social democratic parties.

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Figure 1


  1. 1.

    I note that the research by Inglehart and his associates has been criticized on several occasions, perhaps most noticeably by Flanagan (1982; see also Inglehart and Flanagan, 1987). These criticisms are, however, not directly relevant for my purposes and does not reject the basic claim that significant value changes took place in western societies during the late twentieth century.

  2. 2.

    The parties included in the study are the Icelandic AF and its successor SF; the Norwegian DNA; the British LP; the Irish LP; the Luxembourgian LSAP; the Greek PASOK; the French PS; the Portuguese PS; the Spanish PSOE; the Dutch PvdA; the Swedish SAP; the Danish SD; the Finnish SDP; the German SPD; the Austrian SPÖ; and the Suisse SPS. The Belgian social democratic party PSB-BSP is succeeded by the Wallonian PS and the Flemish SP in 1977. Both parties are included in the study. The Italian social democratic movement is represented by PSI up until its dissolution in 1994. After this year, the post-communist PDS (founded in 1991, later succeeded by DS and PD) is considered as the main representative of the Italian moderate left. Despite being the successor party of a (euro)communist party (PCI), PDS soon declared its will to connect with the European democratic and socialist tradition, and, as a consequence, applied for membership in the Socialist International (SI). Membership was approved in 1992 (Baccetti, 2003, p. 38).

  3. 3.

    As my focus is on more radical elements of green thinking, I henceforth prefer the somewhat more restricted term ‘ecologism’ instead of more comprehensive and general labels such as ‘environmentalism’ or ‘green politics’.

  4. 4.

    For a detailed description of the content analytical approach used by MARPOR, see, for example, Klingemann et al (2006, pp. 164–194).

  5. 5.

    Here I note that per416 was included in the scheme as late as in the 1980s or, in some cases, the 1990s. Test codings have, however, shown that ‘parties before the beginning of the 1990s hardly ever advocated anti-growth policies’ (Klingemann et al, 2006, p. 157).

  6. 6.

    A total of 279 social democratic documents are included in the study. Of these, 270 (97 per cent) are regular election programmes, 8 (3 per cent) are joint or party bloc programmes and 1 is an estimation on the basis of existing programmes.

  7. 7.

    Theoretically, these projects are primarily inspired by Panebianco (1988) and Harmel and Janda (1994), and by Downs (1957) and Budge (1994), respectively.

  8. 8.

    Some examples hereof are the early Erfurt programme (adopted by the German SPD in 1891) and the post-war Bad Godesberg programme (adopted by SPD in 1959), both of which were later imitated by socialists in other countries.

  9. 9.

    As shown in Table 4, the vast majority (8/11; or 73 per cent) of the parties that changed their positions towards a more pronounced ecologism did so during the 1980s or the very early 1990s. Hence, this time period can be considered as a critical juncture during which there was an increased probability for all (social democratic) parties to take interest in ecological issues. For the cases where no ecological change is observed, I focus on the period before the midpoint of this critical juncture (that is, before 1987).

  10. 10.

    The parties considered are listed in Appendix (see Table A1).

  11. 11.

    For parties with no considerable ecological shift, the year 1987 is used as reference point (cf. Note 9 above).

  12. 12.

    The concepts of necessity and, above all, sufficiency are central to QCA. A condition c is necessary for the outcome o if c is always present when o occurs (in Bayesian probability notation; P(c|o)=1) and if c never is absent when o occurs (P(~c|o)=0). Moreover, a condition c is sufficient for the outcome o if o is always present when c occurs (P(c|o)=1) and if o never is absent when c occurs (P(c|~ o)=0) (see Caramani, 2009, pp. 43–45). To calculate the consistency of a necessary condition (or combination of conditions), the following equation is used:

    The coverage of a (combination of) necessary condition(s), in turn, is measured as

    When calculating the consistency and coverage of sufficient (combinations of) conditions, these two formulas swap so that (2a) gives the coverage and (2b) gives the consistency (cf. Thiem and Duşa, 2013).

  13. 13.

    The basic rule for the minimization is the following: ‘[i]f two Boolean expressions differ in only one causal condition yet produce the same outcome, then the causal condition that distinguishes the two expressions can be considered irrelevant and can be removed to create a simpler, combined expression’ (Ragin, 1987, p. 93).

  14. 14.

    Here I note that organizational change in itself is sufficient for ecological shift (Consistency S (O)=1).

  15. 15.

    In Boolean algebra, ‘∙’ symbolizes conjunction (AND), ‘+’ disjunction (OR) and ‘~’ negation (NOT). The ‘∙’ sign, however, is usually omitted. The minimization is conducted using the QCA-package (Duşa and Thiem, 2012) for R (R Core Team, 2013).

  16. 16.

    An (enhanced) intermediate solution formula for the negated outcome (~E) underlines the importance of good political fortunes (~P) and a stable organization (~O):

  17. 17.

    Whether a (combination of) condition(s) can be considered ‘sufficient more often than not’ can be tested using the binomial probability formula

    where n equals the number of cases displaying the causal combination, k equals the number of cases displaying the outcome, p equals the given benchmark proportion (in this case 0.5; or ‘sufficient more often than not’) and q=1−p (cf. Ragin, 2000, pp. 107–115).

  18. 18.

    Admittedly, the appropriateness of some of the codings and measures used can be discussed. I note, however, that the standard (intermediate) solution is fairly robust to alterations. Below, I report a number of alternative (intermediate) solutions (using frequency criteria to solve possible contradictions):

    (i) With a reduced threshold (4.00) for membership in the outcome (and, similarly, in the condition R):


    (ii) With contradictory cases excluded:


    (iii) With all electoral losses included:


    (iv) With all leadership shifts included:


    (v) With fringe green parties excluded:


    In all, the alternative solutions are either identical (iii), essentially similar (i, ii) or – given the radically changed coding procedure in specifications (iv) and (v) – fairly similar to the original solution formula. The parameters of fit are also rather stable; the consistent solution GRD/GROD/RD reaches the highest coverage (0.38–0.67) in all solution formulas.


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Correspondence to Andreas Fagerholm.



Table A1

Table A1 Rival parties considered in the study

Table A2

Table A2 Diffusion patterns within West European social democracy

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Fagerholm, A. Social democratic parties and the rise of ecologism: A comparative analysis of Western Europe. Comp Eur Polit 14, 547–571 (2016).

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  • political parties
  • party ideologies
  • party change
  • social democracy
  • ecologism
  • qualitative comparative analysis