Why social democracy matters (part 1)

“The American left is at its lowest ebb in many decades,” writes W.E. Smith in The Social Democrat. He says the Democratic Party lacks a clear vision of the kind of society it wishes the United States to be. But it may need only turn to a hidden and poorly articulated theory that has long been part of the party’s identity: “social democracy.”

[This article, the first in a series, is reprinted with permission from The Social Democrat.]

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last year both stunned and appalled those on the left of America’s political spectrum. Perhaps even more dismaying, along with Republican control of Congress, is the fact that 25 states are now under total Republican control (governor and both legislative houses) as against only five for Democrats.

The American left, such as it is—poorly defined, without a rigorous theoretical framework for government—is at its lowest ebb in many decades. This in spite of the fact that its opponents on the right have grown more, not less, reactionary over the same period.

We are told from some quarters not to worry, that the victory of the left (as represented by the Democratic Party) is inevitable, that demographic change will overtake the (electoral) majority of conservative, older whites who have disproportionately selected Donald Trump, Congress’s current majorities, and state governments throughout the country. This thesis, unfortunately, is problematic from many angles.

The first is time: even were we to grant the thesis’s (unproven) validity, how long are we to wait for this promised demographic shift to become operational, while the nation suffers under either reactionary regimes or paralyzed politics? How much damage will be done meanwhile: to the environment, to workers, to a generation of children who will grow up in deprivation, to the nation’s civic fabric?

A second—and more troubling—concern goes to the questionable validity of the demographic thesis itself. We see no guarantee that the nation’s forecast demographic shift (toward new generations and away from the present majority of citizens of European descent) will bring about the political and social adjustments that many Americans long for. It is true that younger whites appear to be, on balance, more “liberal” (more on this term later) than their parents, but who is to say that, as in previous generations, they will not become more conservative as they age? How can we be sure, given what we have seen lately, that they will not turn in significant numbers to new alignments, libertarianism or xenophobic nationalism, vaguely articulated Marxist-Leninism, or nihilistic anarchism? They may simply turn away from political involvement altogether—a trend already underway.

As for citizens of other than European descent, we have no guarantee that they will cast their votes with Democrats, either. Among other shocking elements of the 2016 election were exit polls showing Trump receiving as much as 29% of Latino votes in some jurisdictions, a percentage equal to the billionaire’s support among those who identify as Asian-American. And this was for a candidate openly hostile to further immigration from Latin America: in the 2010 midterm elections for Congress, with immigration less a hot-button issue, a full 38% of Latino voters voted Republican. Consider further: perhaps the most reactionary member of the current Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, is an African-American.

The Democratic Party has largely gained the image of a catch-all organization, a clearinghouse for the grievances of specific identity groups against the wider system. The rectifying of specific grievances, however, is not a political program capable of leading a nation.

In short, it does not appear that ethnicity is a reliable indicator of political affiliation. Nor should it be. To assume that all people who share the same ethnic heritage will vote identically turns people into stereotypes: exactly the kind of thinking that should be avoided by those who stand for the proposition that all should be respected as individuals.

Finally, are any of us really comfortable banking our hopes on citizens of non-European descent (people “of color”) aligning against citizens of European descent: a nation divided into ethnic enclaves (and skin shades), the sole political dividing line being one’s tribal identity? Do we want to become the Balkans of the 1990s? 1970s Ireland? Rwanda? This is a vision, clearly, that we should all turn from in horror. It is the same terrain being covered by the Steve Bannons of this world, the Marine Le Pens, with the protagonists and antagonists interchanged. The same can be said about counting on the young to vote against the old, or women to vote against men. To invert Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan, divisions will not make us stronger.

Attachment to the demography thesis of ultimate Democratic triumph is, I fear, more a product of intellectual laziness, wishful thinking, and a lack of stomach to confront the philosophical chaos of modern “liberalism” than a sound prediction of America’s future. The Democratic Party has largely gained the image of a catch-all organization, a clearinghouse for the grievances of specific identity groups against the wider system. The Democratic Party should never relinquish its historic role as the champion of any person or group of persons who receives unequal treatment or who is systematically marginalized from full participation in American society. The rectifying of specific grievances, however, is not a political program capable of leading a nation.

What the Democratic Party lacks is a clear vision of the kind of society it wishes the United States to be, with a set of government programs resting on a rigorously defined theory of the mechanisms under which access to economic goods, social integration, and political participation should be achieved. Happily, the framework for such a vision, such a set of programs, and such a theoretical basis already exists: together they are called “social democracy.” Not only is this model already extant, with decades of practical experience in the field of European politics, it has long been part—albeit a submerged and poorly articulated part—of our own Democratic Party’s identity.

What then is social democracy? Broadly speaking, social democracy is a philosophy of social-political organization in which private enterprise is the chief engine of economic production but in which government does not hesitate to intervene to assure that monopolies of wealth do not run roughshod over the rights of ordinary citizens; that no one is excluded from economic, social, or cultural participation; and that all citizens are accorded certain basic necessities. Social democracy, in its European birthplace, has especially focused on jobs for all at decent wages, the right of workers to participate in decisions affecting their well-being, and a social safety net that protects citizens against such “social risks” as unemployment, old age, or poor health.

Put differently, we might say that social democracy is democracy with an emphasis on the fact that we are social beings—and that to a fair extent we rise or fall together. The social democracy outlook runs counter to the philosophy, dear to the right wing, which sees us each as separate atoms, fighting all against all to gain power and wealth, with the government playing no more role than that of a referee.

Social democracy, it must be emphasized, is not socialism. Socialism, according to Merriam Webster, refers to “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” That is to say that, properly speaking, “socialism” is the sort of arrangement that existed in the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about the term: a confusion which stems from several sources. The American right, to name one such source, has long used “socialism” as a slur against any social democratic program it dislikes. In Europe, meanwhile, many social democratic parties, which historically emerged from truly socialist parties, still go under the name “Socialist,” though they long ago abandoned a socialist agenda. More topically, in our recent presidential election, Bernie Sanders famously admitted that he was a “socialist”: it is unlikely, however, that he meant to convey that he favors a command-and-control economy for the United States.

(The fact that Sanders has clarified elsewhere that he is a “democratic socialist” does not change the equation: a “democratic socialist” is merely one who believes, like any proper socialist, that the “means of production” should be in the hands of the state, but that such a system should be installed and maintained through democratic means, rather than through the kind of dictatorships that ruled the Soviet Union and still rule China, Cuba, and North Korea.)

All this confusion of terms does no one any good. The Social Democrat will maintain a clear distinction based on dictionary definitions: “socialism” is a belief in state ownership and control of economic production; “social democracy” is a political philosophy encompassing a chiefly private-enterprise economy, along with a democratic government unapologetically committed to using its power to protect and advance the welfare of all citizens.

W.E. Smith is editor of The Social Democrat, a news, information, and advocacy site dedicated to monitoring and promoting the practice of social democracy in America. Educated at Towson University and the University of Maryland School of Law, Smith is the author of several novels, including Tanaki on the Shore, Heaven Help Us All (published under the pen name Moose Eliot), and I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.


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Ginger Walters

Good article. Before Obama became president, I saw him speak on behalf of other Democrats. I always thought he articulated the vision of democratic socialism quite well. Obama (IMHO) is an extraordinary man. It’s sad that so many Americans were blinded by racism and/or ignorance.