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Social Democracy

Social Democratic America

America is headed toward social democracy, not socialism

By Lane Kenworthy

To the surprise of many political experts, Bernie Sanders has turned out to be a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Though he still faces fairly long odds, he has generated large, enthusiastic crowds at his campaign rallies and has raised a sizeable quantity of money despite relying mainly on small contributions.

Sanders calls himself a "democratic socialist." If elected president, would he move America in a socialist direction?

No. Sanders isn't really a socialist in the standard sense of the term. He isn't proposing to nationalize firms or industries. He doesn't favor shifting from private ownership to public ownership. His chief proposals are to create some new public insurance programs (paid parental leave, sickness insurance) and expand some existing ones (Social Security, Medicare); to create some new publicly-funded services (early education) and expand some others (training and job placement); to reduce user fees for some existing services (public universities); and to increase the minimum wage. Politicians and political parties who favor these sorts of measures typically use the label "social democratic" or "progressive" rather than "socialist."

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? In the 1960s and 1970s, the label was common among people and parties on the political left. That's when Sanders began using it, and he simply hasn't dropped it since then. Running for electoral office solely in Vermont as mayor, congressional representative, and Senator he hasn't needed to.

But now that Sanders is running for president, isn't the socialist label a liability? Actually, it might make him more attractive to some Democrats who blame capitalism for the 2008-09 economic crisis and the subsequent slow recovery. On the other hand, it almost certainly reduces his appeal among Americans as a whole. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, only 47% of Americans say they would vote for a socialist for president fewer than would vote for a homosexual, an atheist, or a Muslim.

So America isn't heading toward socialism. Social democracy, though, is another matter. Regardless of the fate of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, America is likely to move toward greater use of public insurance to reduce risks, equalize opportunity, and ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. Put another way, half a century from now American social policy will look a lot like it currently does in Denmark and Sweden.

I lay out this argument in detail in Social Democratic America. Policymakers, drawing on reason and evidence and perhaps with a push from organized interest groups or the populace, will recognize the benefits of a larger government role in pursuing economic security, opportunity, and rising living standards and will attempt to move the country in that direction. Often they will fail. But sometimes they'll succeed. Progress will be incremental, coming in fits and starts. But it will have staying power. New programs and expansions of existing ones will tend to persist, because programs that work well become popular and because our policy making process makes it difficult for opponents of social programs to remove them. Small steps and the occasional big leap, coupled with limited backsliding, will have the cumulative effect of significantly increasing the breadth and generosity of government social programs.

This is how things have played out in the past hundred years. As a result, in the realm of public social policy, the distance between the United States today and Denmark or Sweden today is smaller than the distance between the U.S. a century ago and the U.S. today. Getting closer to social democracy doesn't require a radical break from America's historical path. It simply requires continuing along that path.

There are obstacles, to be sure. The most notable is the recent oppositional stance of the Republican Party. In a two-party political system that features many veto points, a unified minority can obstruct most, if not all, attempts to legislate new social programs. But history suggests that the Republicans' hard turn to the right is unlikely to persist.

The most common substantive objection to expansion of public social programs is that they will hurt the economy. However, America's economic growth hasn't slowed over the past century despite a large increase in government spending and taxes, and the Nordic countries have had equally strong economies despite even bigger increases in government size.

Another common objection is that "Denmark is different." But this, too, isn't compelling. The United States does differ from Denmark and Sweden, most obviously in size of population. But California is very different from Alabama, yet K-12 schools, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and myriad other programs work quite well in both of those states. The same is likely to be true for early education, paid parental leave, universal health insurance, and other expansions of America's welfare state.


Lane Kenworthy is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona. He is author of Progress for the Poor, Jobs with Equality, and Egalitarian Capitalism, and Social Democratic America. His writings have appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and on his blog, Consider the Evidence.

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