What is Social Democracy?

Social democracy is a political philosophy as well as a form of political practice. Though the term is not widely used in the United States, social democracy is the prevalent form of political organization in virtually every European nation as well as Canada and Australia. It would not be entirely inaccurate, indeed, to describe the United States itself as a social democratic polity.

Broadly speaking, social democracy refers to a form of social organization governed by representative democracy, in which economic production is left predominantly to private enterprise but in which government does not hesitate to intervene to both regulate that economy and to provide a social safety net for all. Economic textbooks traditionally referred to such societies as “mixed economies,” those in which both private enterprises and governments play a role. There is probably not a nation on earth today that does not fit that description, however, which limits the usefulness of mixed economy as a meaningful descriptor. What factors, then, distinguish social democracy from other “mixed economies?”

A brief look at the history of social democracy may help clarify the matter. Social democratic parties first appeared in Europe in the early years of the 20th century, generally after having broken away from the “socialist” parties that preceded them. Since there is a great deal of confusion over the meaning of “socialism” in modern America, reference to  Merriam Webster’s definition might be useful:

1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administation of the means of production and distribution of goods; 2(a): a system of society or group living in which there is no private property (b) a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.

As we see, the term “socialism,” properly used, refers to a type of social organization advocated by Karl Marx and practiced by the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, and still practiced today by North Korea and Cuba. In response to the oppressive regimes of late 19th century Europe, socialist parties, advocating the overthrow of the present order and the establishment of socialist societies, were formed in every nation. Only in Russia, however, were socialists able to take over the state, while in other European nations socialist parties remained a minor force, unable to obtain significant parliamentary voting blocs. In the 1920s and 30s, many former socialists, dismayed with the terror occurring in the Soviet Union and wishing to have a greater voice in their nations’ affairs, moderated their position. These former socialists still longed for a distant Marxist utopia, but they accepted that in the near term the best they could hope for was, working through democratic institutions, to moderate the harsher effects of unbridled free market capitalism, both through the regulation of working conditions and through the provision of social safety nets to protect those whom laissez faire capitalism was not serving. With this move toward the center, social democrat parties began to poll significant percentages of the vote and to be represented in governing coalitions across the continent. After the interregnum of WWII, social democrat parties advanced even further, establishing a dominance in virtually every Western European parliament that, with a few notable detours, continues to this day. Along that journey, most of Europe’s social democrats have distanced themselves even further from their socialist roots, amending their founding principals to eliminate the ultimate achievement of Marxism as their goal. Instead, the social democratic compromise between private enterprise and state intervention is now considered the preferred end state for social organization by most social democrats.

The United States, while being closely tied to Europe by history and culture, has taken a somewhat distinctive path when it comes to the development of social democractic institutions. Hardcore socialist parties were relatively weak in the United States in the early years of the 20th Century, never posing the threat to laissez-faire capitalism that did their European counterparts: only two socialists were elected to Congress in the century’s first two decades. It was only under the stress of the Great Depression that American government began to seriously amend the reigning order of laissez-faire capitalism with FDR’s New Deal programs, many of which remain major pillars of American social democracy today: Social Security, unemployment insurance, a national minimum wage, work relief programs, bargaining rights for labor, to name the most salient.

The American experience with social democracy since FDR has seen the expansion of New Deal era programs as well as the addition of news ones—notably Medicare and Medicaid during the Johnson administration, and the Earned Income Tax Credit in the 70s—along with some transformations, such as the substitution, during the Cinton administration, of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for the New Deal – era Aid for Families with Dependant Children (AFDC). Some measure of national health insurance was finally established by the Affordable Care Act, under the leadership of President Obama.

So, with all of these various social democratic programs in place, is the United States a social democracy? Ask preeminent political scientists and economists and you will receive a range of responses. Klaus Zimmermann, a respected European economist, wrote in the New York Times that the United States is indeed a social democracy, but an “un(der)funded” one. The United States exhibits aspirations toward social democracy, Zimmerman observes, but is unwilling to fund social democratic programs at a level that would make them truly transformative. Others argue that the U.S., while having implemented some social democratic programs, lacks many of the elements that generally characterize social democratic polities, or possesses them in only skeletal form; The Social Democrat is inclined toward this belief. The true complexity of the situation, of course, is that the two major political forces in the U.S., and the opposing camps of citizens who support them, are deeply divided by their views on social democracy: the Democratic Party would not only preserve those elements of social democracy we currently possess but expand them; the Republican Party wishes to shrink, if not outright eliminate, social democratic programs.

One way of looking at social democracy, and perhaps the most useful, is through the underlying values that animate it. One of these values, an obvious one, is democracy. Social democrats believe in the sovereignty of the people, freely expressed. Those systems and policies, whether it be forms of voting, redistricting schemes or campaign finance laws, which best approximate the ideal of an equal opportunity for every citizen both to have their view counted and to be involved in the shaping of policy, will find social democratic support. Another value of social democracy, one it shares with virtually any other theory of government, is justice. Justice subsumes the rule of law and the right of every citizen to receive equal treatment. As such, social democrats strongly believe in equality of opportunity: that every citizen have an equal chance to participate in the economic, political, social and cultural life of her community. This is why social democrats support such policies as free pre-school for all children, so that every child be given an equal chance to thrive and develop. Next come two principles that more clearly distinguish social democracy from the reigning philosophy of our current United States: those principles are solidarity and inclusion. Whereas libertarians and laissez-faire Republicans see citizens as atomized individuals who struggle only to gain advantage for themselves and their families, the social democrat sees himself as part of a community, a community to which he is indissoluably connected by bonds not only of history and necessity but also of human fraternity. To the social democrat, citizens work together in the project of civilization building, a project in which the particular gifts of each of us are cherished and welcomed. The social democrat cannot be happy to be doing well when those around him are suffering. For the social democrat, we advance together, or we are not really advancing. This is why social democrats support living wages and bargaining rights for labor. One way of describing the social democratic philosophy is to say that in a social democratic regime, no one gets “thrown under the bus.” If the factory which provides the major source of employment in your region goes to China, the government doesn’t throw up its hands and, after dispensing a paltry amount of unemployment insurance for a too-limited time, say “good luck”; instead it has programs in place to help you and your family transition safely to another way to make a living—and a contribution to your community. It might even find some way to keep that factory in your town. Closely related to solidarity is the concept of inclusion. Inclusion encompasses the notion that, not only should no one be thrown under the bus—no one should be left off the bus. The social democrat strongly feels that our society is better and stronger when everyone feels that they are part of things. This is why social democrats favor strong public schools and free college tuition, accomodations for the differently abled, civil rights regardless of ethnic background or sexual orientation, and programs that help under-advantaged children be a part of the world around them: pre-school and after school programs, help with school supplies, guaranteed access to the Internet, and even culture vouchers, so that the least economically advantaged child can go to a play or a concert.

Coming back, with these core principles in mind, to the question of whether the United States is a social democracy, we must conclude that we are, at best, an embryonic one trying—over many generations—to emerge. For not only is social democracy in America “un(der)funded,” as astutely argued by Klaus Zimmermann in his New York Times op-ed piece, American social democracy is also un(der)-recognized and un(der)-appreciated. That failure to recognize and appreciate the social democratic gains that have been made in the U.S. must be corrected. The recent election of Donald Trump (and the capture of both houses of Congress by the right) has left many Americans feeling like Joni Mitchell’s musical protagonist when she saw the big yellow taxi driving off with her old man: “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

The American left, failing to properly understand itself as a social democracy in the making, has become woefully scattered. It leaps from one emotionally charged issue to another, without a solid focus on certain essential programs and policies that form the core of the social democratic project. Left-leaning actors define themselves as “liberals” or “progressives,” without anyone clearly defining what concrete policy positions those vague monikers suggest. (Who isn’t for “progress?”) It is the conviction of The Social Democrat that it will take something far better organized to stand up to what is a highly organized right-wing propaganda machine in America. The American left must rally around a social democratic program that places solidarity with the average American at its core: decent-paying jobs for everyone who wants them, investment in human capital through education and training, a solid safety net that throws no one under the bus and equalizes the chances of every child for inclusion, regardless of the economic status of her parents. These are not pie-in-the-sky, utopian fantasies, but solid programs with long and successful legacies in the many European nations that share the social democratic project as well as, to some extent, in the U.S. We only need understand what it is we are trying to be: there are a wealth of real-world examples showing us how to get there.

For some concrete proposals for a social democratic America, click here.