Of Course Americans Are Turning to Social Democracy

Jorge G. Castañeda

There is a debate underway within the Democratic Party over what kind of candidate can beat Donald Trump in 2020. A centrist candidate will attract moderate Republican voters, but perhaps demobilize young, minority, college-educated Democrats. A more exciting, perhaps more radical candidate, will mobilize Democrats but scare away moderate Republicans.

From the perspective of a citizen of the country that has probably suffered most under the Trump administration’s policies, the debate signals a historic shift. The rooting of a more Social Democratic identity for the Democratic Party may mean more, in the long run, than defeating Donald Trump in 2020. This is the most interesting and seductive aspect of this presidential campaign. The last two Democratic debates revealed how the party’s center of gravity has shifted to the left: the more liberal members seem increasingly Social Democratic and the more moderate ones, increasingly liberal.

The Social Democratic movement first emerged in Germany in the late 1800s under Otto von Bismarck, the country’s first chancellor. It proliferated and flourished in Western Europe as an antidote to the violence of the Russian Revolution, the emergence of totalitarian Communism and the destruction wrought by two world wars.

In Europe, and later in Latin America, governments placed a greater emphasis on the role of the state in regulating market economies, protecting the weakest sectors of society, seeking to reduce poverty and inequality as much as possible under a capitalist model, defending the environment and strengthening labor unions, workers’ parties and progressive institutions.

The United States missed that train, largely because it didn’t face the same challenges. The American, more deregulated, everyone-for-himself, free-market model delivered the goods for years, without labor parties or strong unions, with a distant and reduced role for the state in the market and society, and with the exclusion of important sectors of its inhabitants from that society.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was a semi-Social Democratic response to the Great Depression, but it didn’t stick. Until Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the economy’s steady growth kept inequality down, and the middle class thrived. Americans could afford the luxury of a smaller, less expensive welfare state because of its rich middle class. After the 80s, that began to change.

Europe has been much better at keeping inequality in check. Tax systems redistribute income across countries and include generous transfers like social security, health insurance and unemployment benefits. Now after four decades of growing wealth and income polarization, rising racial tensions and greater domestic challenges, one sector of the American electorate is seeking to finally put in place what the Europeans built over the half-century following World War II. The conditions that made it possible for the United States to manage without a large, generous, expensive but highly popular welfare state have slowly vanished.

Paradoxically, the rise of social democracy in the United States may save it from dying in Europe. With the exception of Spain, Social Democratic parties are losing their grip in the Old Continent. Moderate socialist experiments in Brazil and Chile have lost ground south of the Rio Grande, while the Mexican version is not faring well.

The hope that social democracy has finally come to America stems from positions that the contenders jockeying for the Democratic Party’s nomination are adopting. For the first time since Roosevelt and the New Deal, policies devoted to reducing inequality, helping the poor, supporting the young, protecting the elderly and considering the issues of race in a different context are being proposed by Democratic candidates. Ideas that in 2016 were considered radical or fringe have now become part of the mainstream conversation.

Medicare for All or universal health care, whether with a single public payer or through a private option for those who prefer it, costs a great deal of money. So does true universal and free child care, as well as parental leave for all, crucial benefits today when more parents than ever find themselves in the workplace. Nearly all the Democratic challengers support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and tuition-free higher public education. Financing for these proposals is in typical Social Democratic fashion: raising existing taxes, or creating new ones.

Even if a candidate who is committed to many of these ideas is actually elected, they may not be able to put these promises into practice. They certainly will not be if the Senate remains in control of the Republicans. But altogether, these proposals represent a sea change in American politics.

Already, in the midterm elections, voters sent two new members who identify as socialists to Congress. A recent Fox News survey found that raising taxes on those who earn more than $10 million a year enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. The Green New Deal may not be as mainstream as other proposals, but polls show that a majority of likely Democratic voters would support it.

Since the Russian Revolution, the Social Democratic experiment has been the most effective antidote to authoritarian socialism: It proved that a prosperous working class was feasible. Today that same experiment’s possible arrival in the United States may well be the best response to the authoritarian, populist challenge emerging on the right, from Hungary to Brazil, from Britain to South Africa. The best response to the undeniable downsides of globalization — growing inequality, and the fear of the “other” — is more democracy, more social benefits, more equality.

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