Social democracy has long been a part of the Democratic Party’s core identity. But the Party struggles to define and embrace it. Meanwhile, Republicans have spent the past 40 years honing their identity so that it’s now easy to articulate and understand. Democrats must do the same.
[This article, the second in a series, is excerpted from and reprinted with permission from The Social Democrat.]
A major problem facing social democracy in the United States is a lack of focus within the political block which should be its natural home—the Democratic Party. We won’t go into the tortuous history of the Party other than to say that, because of its disparate roots,
it has failed to telegraph its core identity to the American public. Is it the party of citizens of African ancestry who argue that police killings occur disproportionately against members of their ethnic group, or the party of women who complain of unequal pay? Is it the party of the transgender teen who feels uncomfortable in the bathroom of her birth gender, or the party of the undocumented immigrant who wants amnesty and a path to citizenship?
The Democratic Party is, of course, the party of these and many other separate issues (and constituencies). But what we argue here is that the Party, while naturally taking a stand on such hot topics of the day, must constantly remind the voting public of its abiding philosophy of governing—and be prepared to vigorously act upon it. We argue further that that abiding philosophy is, and should remain, social democracy.
In the core of her convention speech, Hillary Clinton laid out a program that would make any social democrat proud. It included the following: a living wage; universal healthcare; historic-level public infrastructure investments to create jobs, foster innovation and assure a sustainable energy future; vocational training programs for non-college-bound students; free college tuition for all but the wealthy, with debt-free college for all; easier credit for small business entrepreneurs; affordable child care and family leave; an end to subsidies for outsourcing firms; higher taxes on the wealthy; and gun control measures to protect public safety.
Unfortunately, a program so clearly designed to improve the lives of average Americans failed to convince tens of millions of them to give Clinton their vote. Why? A large part of the explanation lies in media sensationalism (as well as complacency on the part of the public the media serve). Voters have become so attuned to hot-button issues that completely dominate the nightly news that when a politician announces a sober-minded, practical, and vitally important program to govern the nation in the interest of average workers, it is simply tuned out. It does not register.
We are now paying a catastrophic price for an internecine campaign battle that was far uglier than it should have been. The Clinton and Sanders programs were not that far apart. In fact, studies have shown little difference among Clinton and Sanders voters on specific issues.
Clinton faced another major challenge in 2016, of course: that of the Sanders wing of young “radicals.” We are now paying a catastrophic price for an internecine battle that was far uglier than it should have been. The Clinton and Sanders programs were not that far apart. To make sure that a 2008-style great recession does not recur, Clinton wanted to regulate financial institutions more carefully, à la Dodd-Frank; Sanders wanted to break up the big banks. Clinton wanted to make college free for all students of moderate means; Sanders wanted to include children of high-income parents. Clinton supported the TPP process during the treaty’s negotiation, but after its provisions were finalized opposed it; Sanders opposed it all along. It is difficult to ascertain here anything rising to an existential difference between two philosophies of governing.
Support for Sanders relied to a great extent on a matter of tone. In branding himself a “socialist,” however ambiguously, and in his combative attitude toward business, Sanders appeals especially to that significant portion of young Americans who now hold a negative view of “capitalism.” As one would expect, this same age cohort also holds a favorable view of “socialism,” though studies find little agreement among them about what the term means; surprisingly, survey respondents simultaneously hold a favorable view “socialism” and dislike too much government intervention in the economy.
Our Revolution, the title of Sanders’ November 2016 book, as well as the political movement his campaign spawned, suggests a total—and violent—upheaval of the existing order. Although Sanders has stated clearly that he is a democratic socialist, there is that whiff of violence about his rhetoric (and labeling) and that of his supporters, suggesting the elimination of disdained private enterprise in the United States through some sudden overthrow of the government.
An understanding—and appreciation—of “social democracy” matters. If Sanders is, in truth, a “social democrat” who believes in a chiefly private enterprise-based economy closely regulated by the state, he should explain to his supporters that, for a social democrat, capitalism is considered a critical component of a successful society.
Here, as elsewhere, an understanding—and appreciation—of “social democracy” matters. As pointed out in part one, socialism traditionally indicates state ownership and exercise of the means of production—the ex-U.S.S.R., in other words. If you don’t want a government-run economy, your other choice is some form of capitalism. If Sanders’ supporters are trying to create a new definition of socialism, communication would be greatly aided if someone would explicitly state what it is. If they don’t want capitalism, they could clearly lay out what alternative they are recommending. If their definition of socialism does not imply a command-and-control economy, what is it?”
It could be that the Sanders camp is simply advocating for social democracy but doing so with a greater degree of impatience and more violent rhetoric than, say, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. And, in fact, studies have shown little difference among Clinton and Sanders voters on specific issues. Sanders’ ambiguity only encourages theoretical confusion among his supporters who, like him, call themselves socialists without sharing any consensus among themselves or with the wider world (or Merriam Webster) regarding what the word means.
If Sanders is, in truth, a “social democrat” who believes in a chiefly private enterprise-based economy closely regulated by the state, he should explain to his supporters that, for a social democrat, capitalism is considered a critical component of a successful society. He should devote an appropriate amount of time and energy to explaining what alternative he has in mind and making a case for it—a case that has generally been difficult to make, given the abject performance of socialist economies in those nations that have tried it (cut to food riots in Venezuela). By straightening out the matter of his political philosophy, Sanders could work with other social democrats more effectively, while also helping to bring his supporters solidly into the social democratic movement. Or, he could give voters a clear option of a truly socialist agenda. It would seem to be incumbent upon Sanders, who has created this confusion, to dispel it.
During the election cycle many in the Sanders group, with some assistance from the candidate himself, painted Clinton as a corporate shill and enemy of the common citizen. Everything we know about Clinton’s history—as well as her precisely articulated program for governing—reveals this as a crude and false caricature. Nonetheless, it was widely accepted and articulated by Sanders’ supporters.
A final problem for Clinton was globalization. Not just in the United States, but across the developed world, political actors have been caught flat-footed on the issue—witness Brexit or the Marine Le Pen nationalist surge in France’s recent presidential election. As Peter Goodman wrote recently in the New York Times: “the debates that we are having about globalization and the adjustment cost…we should have been having when we did NAFTA, and when China entered the WTO.” Well, we didn’t have them, nor were programs put in place to shield workers whose lives have been disrupted.
The rift within the American left revealed by the 2016 Clinton-Sanders slugfest—a rift that has occasioned much huddling of Party officials and much ink-spilling on op-ed pages—has transmogrified into a battle for the “soul” of the Democratic Party.
The rift within the American left revealed by the 2016 Clinton-Sanders slugfest—a rift that has occasioned much huddling of Party officials and much ink-spilling on op-ed pages—has transmogrified into a battle for the “soul” of the Democratic Party. Again, nuances of tone and feeling can be as important, or more so, than actual issues. One camp argues that the Party needs to “go bolder” in order to convince a governing majority of Americans. Or that the Democrats can win without reaching beyond their committed base of educated urbanites, African Americans, and advocates for immigrants. A second camp argues for toning down controversial issues like abortion and transgender bathroom bills and focusing on the kind of worker-support issues (like higher wages, better jobs) and broad-based safety-net programs that appeal to a wider swath of Americans—including many who supported Trump last year.
The Democratic Party’s confusion over its identity is all the more damaging in that its opponents on the right have spent the past forty years honing theirs. Their philosophy of limited government and untrammeled capitalism has remained constant over decades and bears the advantage of being easy to both articulate and understand. The chief demerit of their free-market philosophy—that in its many over-simplifications it avoids huge swaths of reality—is, in a nation where most of the electorate is both uninformed and unwilling to focus attention on social policy, a major tactical benefit. What the Democratic Party needs is an equally clear statement of basic principles and programs that go with them—programs that stem from core commitments about fair access to economic, social, and political participation and that appeal to a winning (electoral) majority of American voters.
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.
See related story: Why social democracy matters (part 1)