From Counter-Elite to Hegemon: the Access to Power of Left-Wing Politicians in the Three Major Swiss Cities in a Long-Term Perspective
Nowadays, many cities in post-industrial societies are strongholds of left and progressive political forces. This urban left hegemony has not always been in place, however. Over the course of the 20th century, cities in Western countries have experienced different waves of left-progressive and right-conservative dominance. For example, the rise of “municipal socialism” was a development common to many cities in Western countries in the beginning of the 20th century, seeing Municipality as a lever for social progress. Yet, this left-progressive dominance was often followed by a resurgence of right-conservative forces.
The aim of this paper is to trace these developments in more detail in the three largest Swiss cities over the course of the last 130 years to understand the evolution of left-progressive parties from counter elites to new urban hegemons. Switzerland is an interesting case to study these developments. National politics are until today dominated by center-right parties, with the left being a minority. Yet, at the local level, there have been important power shifts between left and right for the period 1890 to 2020.
We take two steps to understand these developments and to document these long-term changes and transformations of political elites in Swiss cities. First, we provide a periodization of the political strength of left-progressive parties in the three major Swiss cities (Basel, Geneva and Zurich) in identifying key moments for their affirmation, access to power and integration with local political institutions. We distinguish four different phases. First, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of World War I the three cities were largely dominated by local patrician families in the economic, cultural, and political sphere, but left forces were starting to challenge this hegemony. During the second phase, roughly between the end of WWI and WWII, the left challengers managed to seize power for some period in each of the three cities, experiencing “municipal socialism”. This phase was also characterized by strong, sometimes violent, confrontation. The post-war growth period marked by a renewed domination of center-right parties is generally more consensual with left-progressives remaining important minoritarian actors. Finally, since the 1990s, left-progressive parties have become dominant political actors, and sometimes the new hegemons, in all major Swiss cities.
In a second step, we analyze the changes in the profiles of left-progressive political elites across these four periods. Based on a unique database including all political elites in the three cities for seven benchmark years (1890, 1910, 1937, 1957, 1980, 2000, 2020) we provide a prosopography highlighting the transformations of the social, educational and professional background of left-progressive elites in the three cities. While we expect left-progressive elites to have a working class background and to be clearly distinct from right-conservative elites during their first phase of dominance (1920-1940), they probably have a more middle-class and academic background in their second phase of dominance (1990-). In addition, we expect left-progressive politicians holding executive positions to constitute a “socialist super-elite” with (upper) middle-class and academic profiles compared to those in the legislative communal councils.