Why you should care
Because, say what you want about the tenets of democratic socialism, at least it’s an ethos — and maybe a more American one than we think.
The chances of a Scandinavian-style social democracy sprouting from America’s rocky frontier soil would seem as unlikely as the United States adopting Swedish-born ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” as its national anthem. Yet here we are at a moment when an avowed democratic socialist is among the leading contenders for president, and growing social inequality has many Americans across the political spectrum frustrated with the outcomes generated by their country’s more laissez-faire, capitalist democracy.
Sure, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ momentum is losing steam against Hillary Clinton. But could his ascendant candidacy be a harbinger of broader social and economic forces conspiring against capitalism-as-usual in the U.S.? Thomas Piketty, perhaps the world’s most influential liberal economist, recently made headlines when he claimed Sanders could “change the face of the country.” Is this just the latest installment of a progressive pipe dream, or could the U.S. evolve into a more European form of democracy? According to some scholars, it’s more a question of when than if.
The point of social democracy is to make capitalism better — not to replace it.
Democratic socialism appears far less popular among Americans than ABBA, but that is in part because they mistake it for a different band with a similar sound. When most Americans, particularly older ones, hear the word socialism, it conjures up images of centralized one-party states like the Soviet Union and McCarthyite witch hunts. Only 29 percent of Americans had a favorable view of socialism, according to a recent YouGov poll. As a result, when it comes to social democracy, a rose by any other name would almost certainly smell better. Many Americans still mistakenly conflate socialism with the democratic socialism of Sanders and the Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark he often invokes. But what Sanders really offers is reforms, not revolution, and the point of social democracy, says Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and author of Social Democratic America, is to make capitalism better — not to replace it.
For Sanders and the Scandinavians, making capitalism more humane largely means using public insurance programs — government transfers funded for the most part by higher taxes on the wealthy — to promote greater equality, better schools and services and a social safety net through broader social policies like universal healthcare, publicly funded childcare and university education and the expansion of entitlement programs like Social Security.
According to Kenworthy, even in a country like the U.S., famous for its aversion to “big government,” the long arc of social policy bends toward some form of social democracy. “Americans have a very longstanding antipathy toward the idea of big government in the abstract,” Kenworthy tells OZY, but when you break it down into its component parts, including Medicare and Social Security — two of the most popular programs in U.S. history — you get a different picture. The numbers back him up and also suggest that there could be some pent-up demand for a candidate with Sanders’ views. In one recent Pew poll, 65 percent of Americans, including 50 percent of conservative Republicans, say the economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests.” Around three quarters support a higher minimum wage, and 85 percent favor paid family leave. As Peter Dreier, a political scientist at Occidental College, puts it: “Social democracy is on the agenda, but it’s not called social democracy.”
Kenworthy expects the size and scope of American social policy to expand significantly in the coming decades — though not overnight. It will happen in fits and starts based on the political feasibility of the moment, as it always has; he points out that the distance between the U.S. and Scandinavia today on social policy is less than the difference between the U.S. and the America of a century ago. Kenworthy anticipates that universal early education, paid parental leave and an expansion of the child tax credit will likely be the first steps in what could be a 50-year sojourn to social democracy, American-style.
Sanders is certainly helping to popularize democratic socialism, especially among young people, but can one campaign help organize a latent movement, particularly if he loses, which looks increasingly likely? Dreier is somewhat skeptical. “Nothing guarantees America will move in a particular direction,” he argues, pointing out that we have had progressive moments and movements like this before, from the Jesse Jackson campaigns of the 1980s to Occupy Wall Street, so it is too soon to tell whether the reform energy will persist beyond Sanders’ candidacy.
Several other factors could serve as major roadblocks, from a Republican-controlled Congress dead set on shrinking government to the fiscal strains already caused by existing entitlement programs. Even Picketty recently argued in Le Monde that a Sanders coup would not result in social democracy on American shores so much as a restoration of the progressive taxation system the U.S. already had before the Reagan years. And as Dreier points out, the pace of change can depend on unpredictable events. For example, Antonin Scalia’s recent death may have dealt social democracy a major, and unexpected, break by preventing the Supreme Court from taking action this term — and perhaps for the foreseeable future — to curtail the power of unions, a major driver of the democratic socialist movement.
For the moment, it’s probably enough to say that democratic socialism is at least on the menu in America, even if its proponents may want to consider — in the grand tradition of liberty cabbage, hot dogs and freedom fries — calling it something that sounds less European in order to make it more acceptable to the finicky American palette.