American Social Democracy?

Social Democratic America is the provocative title of Lane Kenworthy’s new book, which has received rave reviews from Matthew Yglesias and Matt Bruenig. An adapted excerpt of the book ran in Foreign Affairs, in which Kenworthy argues that

the [Affordable Care Act] represents another step on the long, slow, but steady journey away from the classical liberal capitalist state and toward a peculiarly American version of social democracy. Unlike, say, northern Europe, where social democracy has been enacted deliberately and comprehensively over years by ideologically self-aware political movements, in the United States, a more modest and patchy social safety net has been pieced together by pragmatic politicians and technocrats tackling individual problems (88).

Once social programs are instituted — as the New Deal and the Great Society proved — they are difficult to get rid of. It’s like the triumphal neoliberalism of the 1980s was only a bump against the wall as Americans sleepwalked towards social democracy.

Nor is America simply different because of its size and heterogeneity, Kenworthy argues in an interview with Dylan Matthews:

I suspect homogeneity does make a difference in the degree and pace at which social policy advances, but I don’t think the categorical approach is really the right way to think about it. We have a lot of impediments that have led us to go at a much slower pace than many other rich nations, but we have advanced, and I think we’ll continue to in the future. Another way that I think about this is that, in terms of social policy size and scope, there’s much less distance between the U.S. today and Sweden and Denmark today than between the U.S. in 1914 and the U.S. today.

Yglesias isn’t so sure that this somnambulism should be called “social democracy”. Nor am I sure that the patchwork social safety net built across the 20th century was entirely pragmatic — perhaps Pragmatist would be better.

Nordic social democracy used ethnic homogeneity as a foundational idea. The Swedish Social Democratic Party’s self-aware march to social democracy touted Folkhemmet — the people’s home — as basic to their idea of social cohesion and social responsibility. Technocrats in the United States will never have recourse to this acclaim; populism is not a mainstream feature of Swedish politics the way it is in America.

Americans — I point out Kenworthy’s faith in the ‘long arc of policy bending towards justice’ — invoke a different principle, progressivist, not social democratic. Obviously in a diverse society of 300 million, politicians have no recourse to language of a Folkhemmet. Instead, progressives announce our faith in history. In Nature and History in American Political DevelopmentJames W. Ceaser describes the “underlying continuity” with the way progressives and new liberals like FDR understood their responsibility to History, or an ‘evolving consensus’ (65-6). Rogers M. Smith, in an essay responding to Caesar, shows the basic continuity between new liberals and their Republican critics; when it comes to foundational ideas, figures like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush turn to religious providentialism to shape the ‘evolving consensus’ (154-5).

The progressive cocoon predicts a beautiful social democratic butterfly will spread its wings in America.

But they lack an imagination for the dark, groteseque, and gothic features of old antisocial undermocratic America.

Under what circumstances could newly emboldened protectionism, a new federalism, or a new populism emerge in the United States and change the shape of our politics? What might happen such that Americans would be unwilling to continue to allow their values and mores to be shaped by late consumer capitalism, to which social democracy is perennially complaisant? What situations could make the security state or the therapeutic state defining features of our political life? There are plenty of reasons to suspect that, when looking for critical concepts with which to define our politics, we should not look wistfully at mid-20th century Sweden.


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