America’s Social Democratic Moment

Bernie Sanders at a 2015 campaign rally in Springfield, Massachusetts (Source: Dalton Lampro)

I wrote this in 2018 as content for the website of a now defunct organization, Massachusetts Social Democrats, and later posted it to Medium. The update I added last year adequately summarizes the additional thoughts I’ve had regarding its substance and why I continue to keep it online.

Update, 5/14/21: Time hasn’t been kind to this piece. Overly optimistic would be one way to describe much of my framing of the 2018 midterm election results and the country’s political direction back then. There are still portions of this I think are accurate (mostly my characterization of Bernie’s politics and description of social democracy,) but for the most part, this is a premature celebration of something that never came to be. Namely, the “moment” in the title. My own views have changed a fair amount since I wrote this and I discuss said shifts in personal beliefs at further length here. In any case, I’m leaving this post up as (I’d argue) a decent introduction to social democracy for an American audience, an historical artifact and, to some degree, as a warning.

With millions across the country rising in vocal opposition to the Trump administration’s regressive policy initiatives and in enthusiastic support of social justice, equality and the embattled welfare state, it’s difficult to deny that the American left has been reinvigorated. While seemingly logical to point to Trump’s victory as the primary catalyst for this development, doing so would be a mistake. At the beginning of the decade (on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis), Occupy Wall Street brought the issue of income inequality to the center stage of the national discourse. Disenchantment with the status quo fueled the rise of a populist left movement, and by the decade’s mid-point, one man in particular had become its figurehead.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime voice of leftist dissent in American politics, had been calling attention to the issues of inequity and oppression highlighted by Occupy for most of his career by the time terms like “the ninety-nine percent” entered common parlance. Upon declaring his candidacy for president in 2015, Sanders popularity increased exponentially as he ran on a platform built on policies including universal healthcare, subsidized state university tuition, and minimum wage increases. Though he ultimately lost the Democratic Party nomination for presidency to Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ magnetism and accessible rhetoric had drawn thousands into the fray of left politics (many of whom were young and had little to no prior experience). What’s curious, however, is how Sanders identified and continues to identify himself ideologically. Despite describing his politics as “democratic socialism,” Sanders fits far more comfortably into the social democratic tradition.

The roots of social democracy can be traced back to the reform socialists of 19th century Europe, whose skepticism towards the revolutionary rhetoric of Marx and others led them to hypothesize an alternate means of achieving their egalitarian aims. Proto-social democrats like Eduard Bernstein and Carlo Rosselli advocated for social reforms and strong labor movements. Eventually, this school of thought broke from socialism altogether. Contemporary social democracy can best be described as a liberal-democratic system of governance in which an expansive welfare state exists alongside a regulated market economy. Taxation redistributes wealth via funneling it into various social programs that ensure the citizenry can have their basic needs fulfilled, regardless of societal or economic status. Healthcare, housing and education are recognized as rights.

Sanders’ platform (which is not revolutionary or anti-capitalist but instead is rooted in welfare expansion and wealth redistribution) fits perfectly within the framework of social democracy. This is particularly apropos given that he has consistently cited the Scandinavian “Nordic model” as an example of the efficacy of his beliefs. In fact, the generally high living standards of the Nordic countries are a testament to the success of social democracy, not socialism. Even Canada’s single-payer healthcare system, frequently presented as a template to be emulated in the United States by Sanders and others, was implemented largely due to the efforts of the late social democratic politician Tommy Douglas. With this historical context in mind, it’s clear that the brand of progressive politics currently proving so popular with Americans is a rather orthodox variant of social democracy.

Right now, a plethora of progressive candidates with essentially social democratic platforms (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Kara Eastman of Nebraska and Ben Jealous of Maryland) are winning primaries across the country in this year’s elections, not only signaling a clear pushback against the reactionary, xenophobic nativism and pseudo-populism of Trump, but a noticeable shift towards the left within the American political paradigm. Even prior to this year, the first openly-transgender candidate to win a major party primary for congress was Colorado’s Misty Plowright, a self-identified social democrat. Social democracy is finally having its “moment” in this country, and it is imperative that those of us who adhere to social democratic values take advantage of this development in the pursuit of a more just, equitable and prosperous future.