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Review Essay: Social Democracy, Here and Now

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Lane Kenworthy. Social Democratic America. Oxford University Press, 2014.
James Cronin, George Ross, and James Shoch, eds. What’s Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times. Duke University Press, 2011.

What use might the European tradition of social democracy be to the American left? Lane Kenworthy’s answer is not a bad place to start: the public policy model developed by the labor and social democratic parties of Sweden and its neighbors, he proposes, can and should be adopted in the U.S.

In Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America, “social democracy” means a certain policy architecture, a group of programs and laws that fit together and reinforce one another. Kenworthy presents such an architecture, defending its feasibility and explaining how it would enhance Americans’ “economic security.” As an accessible policy brief from the pragmatic left, his book has few recent peers, and it poses a needed challenge to American liberals’ tendency to avoid programmatic thinking.

An invocation of Swedish social policy can mean at least two different things, so it’s worth noting which Sweden Kenworthy has in mind. A previous generation of observers—Gøsta Esping-Andersen, most prominently—saw the universality of the Swedish welfare state as its distinctive feature. Because Sweden offered inclusive social insurance rather than means-tested or job-based benefits, so the argument went, the Swedish welfare state “decommodified” daily life as much as possible, so that (in Esping-Andersen’s words) the individual person’s prospect of a decent life was not “contingent upon the sale of labour power.”

That’s not Kenworthy’s social democracy. Instead of seeking decommodification, he endorses the policy model toward which the Nordic countries and the Netherlands have turned since the 1980s. He praises the Swedes and their neighbors for their “services aimed at boosting employment and enhancing productivity, from early education and active labor market programs to public infrastructure and support for research and development” and their acceptance of “market dynamism” (9). In the new Nordic model, countries open themselves to international trade, and their domestic employment policies make it easy for employers to hire or fire workers, but they compensate for the market’s disruption of society by spending public money on education, job training, unemployment benefits, and child and elder care. A worker in an unproductive or obsolete job is neither secured in that old job nor abandoned to poverty nor protected from labor market participation altogether, but is instead eased into a different job. Nordic governments spend a bit less on social welfare than they once did, and aim now for “investment” in “human capital.” Rather than carving out a zone of life free from market pressures, active labor market policies use the power of the democratic state to set decent terms for individuals’ entry to the labor market; they color the market economy rather than drawing a boundary around it.

Kenworthy’s policy agenda includes some items that would be in nearly any left-of-center program: universal health care, paid vacations, paid family leave. On the whole, however, Kenworthy’s agenda has a distinct “active labor market” tone. Kenworthy wants supports for workers in the low-wage sector (“modestly” higher minimum wages, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit) rather than trade or re-industrialization policies that would encourage more high-wage jobs; cushions against the pain of job loss (wage insurance, expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance) rather than provisions for job security; measures to move more people into the labor market (job search support, effective welfare-to-work programs, public sector jobs building or maintaining infrastructure or public spaces) rather than policies that reduce the demand for employment (like a low retirement age or a basic income grant). As Kenworthy demonstrates, this is a coherent set of policies—one already tested in the Nordic countries—and it deserves to influence American policy thinking.



One scholar’s idiosyncratic vision would be of little interest. However, Kenworthy has company: he is one of a number of scholars and writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who are trying to figure out the center-left politics that comes “after the Third Way” (the title of a recent edited volume to which Kenworthy contributed). Advocates of a “Third Way” between neoliberalism and “old” social democracy dominated the center-left for much of the past decade and a half. Although there were serious Third Way thinkers—like British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who argued that the left’s historic principles of equality and solidarity should be displaced by the principles of inclusion and opportunity—most of the time the Third Way was simply a style: a velvet-fisted rhetoric about “modernization,” a studied coolness toward trade unions, a headlong rush to give the market what it wanted. That style has not disappeared—Manuel Valls and Matteo Renzi, the current prime ministers of France and Italy, still favor it—but it is no longer the only style available to center-left leaders, and writers like Kenworthy can now respond to the context the Third Way left behind while claiming a connection with the social democratic tradition that the Third Way’s champions a few years ago would have passionately denied.

Tellingly, Kenworthy’s policy preferences are on the whole similar to those supported by the authors of the most useful recent overview of North Atlantic center-left politics, What’s Left of the Left. Gathering thirteen authors who write about social democracy’s history and current travails, What’s Left provides a historical scope, an international breadth, and an analytic depth that Kenworthy’s short book does not attempt. Some chapters focus on the democratic left parties of specific countries (Sweden, the U.K., France) or regions (Central and Eastern Europe); others look at overarching problems (electoral decline, immigration policy, European integration, the “new social risks” of shifting age and family demographics). There have been many books that devote a chapter to each of several European labor or social democratic parties. In addition to its historical scope, What’s Left sets itself apart from the rest of its genre by including three chapters on the U.S. (regarding the Democratic Party’s evolving coalition, the American welfare state, and U.S. trade policy), making the point that the experiences of the American and European lefts are similar enough that the “Democrats and social democrats” of the book’s subtitle have much to learn from one another.

A rough storylineemerges from What’s Left, something like the following.Beginning in the 1930s, political parties of the center-left—European democratic socialists and social democrats and American Democrats—constructed a new policy model. The welfare states, Keynesian fiscal policies, progressive taxes, and union-friendly labor laws they developed were admirable but impermanent. After the economic and political crises of the 1970s, and ever more so as what we now call “globalization” proceeded, it became harder to maintain the regulatory regimes and high taxes that this policy model requires, and the center-left began to reexamine its policies. For a time, the idea of a “Third Way” was a useful “rubric” for the debate about how to respond to these circumstances (136), but the debate needs to move on. Neoliberal market fundamentalism now reigns, and the work of the center-left today is to pose an “effective opposition” to neoliberalism (4). As the center-left has tried to respond to these “vast shifts,” the editors of What’s Left write, it has been “hard to know what to believe, what to hope for, and what to actually do” (8-9).

For the What’s Left writers, in other words, social democracy is a political endeavor: a partisan conflict, a collective activity that poses problems of belief and hope. In this regard, they think differently than Kenworthy, for whom social democracy is a scientific search for optimal economic policies. At the same time, when it comes to policy, the What’s Left writers and Kenworthy generally agree. Like him, they endorse what the editors call a “slimmed down and updated Swedish model” (21) of “social investment” and active labor market policies. What’s Left writers insist that left policy models other than the Nordic have fatal problems. The German and French models, in particular, have labor laws and social policy regimes that defend job security at the price of economic stagnation and a gulf between the well-employed and the unemployed. Moreover, increased capital and wealth mobility preclude the steeply progressive taxes—and, thus, the aggressively Keynesian fiscal policies—of a previous era. Fiscal constraint is unavoidable today, the What’s Left writers think—which is not the same as saying that austerity budgets are mandatory: like Kenworthy, they propose targeted but substantial public spending on education and infrastructure, along with social policies that buffer workers from the otherwise punishing consequences of the labor market. This is not a program of “politics against markets,” as Esping-Andersen described an earlier social democracy, but rather an effort to “tame the market and temper its effects,” as one What’s Left author puts it (30).

This should not be the last word. Keynesian stimulus can still be a useful tool; continental left policies—German co-determination and corporate governance rules, for example—have their thoughtful defenders; our conception of justice may require us to defend some public spaces or common goods from even a tempered commodification. But Kenworthy and What’s Left have located the new center of center-left policy debates.



In our time, the What’s Left editors write, “center-left victories, when they come, are modest, while defeats, when kept within bounds and understood for what they are, need not be crippling” (358). That’s enough; it has to be. But can the American left win even modest victories?

Frankly, Kenworthy is not helpful in thinking about this question. He argues that neither U.S. political culture nor U.S. political institutions make a social democratic America impossible—true, but trivial—and then insists that American social policy will increasingly resemble that of the Nordic countries. Kenworthy’s confidence is not based on optimism about the political organizations of the democratic left: he casually dismisses the prospects for a revival of American unions (132), and he has more to say about the electoral prospects of moderate Republicans than of liberal Democrats (173-175). His claim is, simply put, that social democratic policies are reasonable, and reasonable policy makers are, over time, likely to adopt them. American public policy, he writes, is already on a century-long “trajectory” (176) toward social democracy, and there is no reason to expect that trajectory to change. This is, he admits, a “probabilistic” (149) rather than a predictive claim, but it nevertheless reveals a profoundly anti-political way of thinking, a soft determinism that occludes questions of who will take action, and with whom, and against whom, and how, and why.

What’s Left reveals a richer sense of what Americans might have to learn from the political life of European social democracy: as the What’s Left writers understand it, “social democracy” means not only a set of policies but also, more fundamentally, a family of “parties and movements” (1) with a distinctive strategy and ethos. Social democracy, the What’s Left editors write, began as an effort to “empower the people to demand changes to humanize harsh market societies” (1). Sheri Berman, in her chapter on social democratic history, points out that social democracy’s characteristic form of action is to seek “the support of a majority of society” (32) by organizing “cross-class coalitions” (35). Gerassimos Moschonas’s analysis of social democracy’s eroding electoral support (in the book’s second chapter), set beside Jonas Pontusson’s insistence that strong unions are a defining feature of social democracy (101, 112), underscores what Berman and the editors are getting at: that social democracy, at its best, has been a politics of mass organizations and broad coalitions—not elite technocrats or militant minorities. It has been the work of legislators and organizers, insiders and outsiders, working in tandem to establish what Berman calls the “primacy of politics” over economics (32). Social democracy, in other words, has its own political method, its way of engaging in public life. Kenworthy is right that the American liberal left could do with a more programmatic approach to public policy—but we should add that it could also do with a new appreciation for the kind of inside-outside movements that made possible not only European social democrats’ past victories, but also the American New Deal, civil rights laws, and Great Society programs.

Part of what the European left’s history has to offer to the American left, then, is a feel for the value of self-conscious commitment to what Berman calls a shared “way of thinking” (47) on the part of a political movement. Berman argues that the European left has been most successful where it has “wholeheartedly” (35) pursued not just a social democratic policy program, but a broader and deeper set of social democratic commitments. Can we imagine a broad American left organized around some idea of solidarity, fellowship, or public life—an American analog to the Swedish social democrats’ notion of the “folkhemm” or “people’s home”—and conviced that democratic politics can establish its primacy over economics? The U.S. has sometimes had what Michael Harrington once called an “invisible mass movement” for social democracy. An American social democracy aware of itself, however, would be something new.


The What’s Left editors write that the democratic left’s “crusading spirit has ebbed” (353), and they are candid in their uncertainty about how or whether this lost spirit can be recalled. This ebbing of spirit is a political event, a matter of tangible organizations: social democracy’s “crusading spirit” has always been embodied in the “participatory culture” of a social democratic movement, and is not easy to imagine a social democracy that can survive a “participation deficit” (as one pair of What’s Left writers put it, on 316). What’s Left takes stock of social democracy’s organizational troubles: parties with shrinking vote shares (50-83), unions with shrinking membership (10, 95), the eclipse of the old left’s “broader working class culture” and the widening gulf between ordinary citizens and the professionals who manage unions, parties, the state (10). In the new political world these changes make—what Colin Crouch has called “post-democracy”—the left’s loss of “big ideas” (Moschonas on 72, Cronin on 135) can come to seem like nothing more than a factor in the career difficulties of “la classe politique.” Revealing as much about European politics as about American, a number of What’s Left writers treat the national leadership of the Democratic Party as the U.S. counterpart to European social democrats. Social democratic politics, it would seem, has been reduced to the actions of social democratic politicians. Something is missing here—namely, the public lives of citizens. New thinking—or, better, careful thinking—about how to cope with this erosion of public life, and the loss of spirit that comes with it, is needed.

Perhaps this is a point at which the American left has something to teach the European. Ignazio Silone seemed surprised by his own fate when, in a 1961 interview, he declared himself a “socialist without a Party.” The whole European left is now troubled by this fate. The American democratic left, in contrast, has long been familiar with it, and for European social democrats, unsettled by the recent inability of their political parties to act as Parties—as hegemonic inheritors and arbiters of an ideology—our history of locally-rooted organizing efforts and motley electoral coalitions may be worth learning from—for its examples of failure and disarray, of course, but also for its stories of creative experiments and lively engagement. A sequel to What’s Left might need to look not only at the Democratic Party but also at the para-party groups (for lack of a better term)—like the Working Families parties and organizations active in a few states, the more politically astute Central Labor Councils, and other local- or state-level labor-community coalitions—that make up the really-existing democratic left in America.

The What’s Left editors suggest that social democracy has lost its old élan because “the basic programmatic and utopian projects that lefts developed over more than a century” have become “exhausted.” They are right to say that “‘transcending capitalism’ is no longer politically plausible” (352), but this is less important than they think. A policy program—even a radical one, like “transcending capitalism”—cannot, by itself, drive a movement of organized citizens. Policy ideas are vital to the electoral prospects of party leaders, but if social democracy is to be once again a movement, it needs a different kind of inspiration: not goals of the sort that might or might not be reached, but the moral sustenance for what Irving Howe called the “steady work” of democratic politics.



Seemingly despite themselves, the What’s Left editors gesture toward a better way of understanding social democracy. More than once, they write that social democracy has sought to “humanize” market societies. The word tells. When social democratic policies have opened the way to an inclusive public life, and, no less, when social democratic organizations have drawn citizens into shared work for shared ends—not just casting the occasional vote, but attending meetings and marching in the streets and planning campaigns together—social democracy has put flesh on the idea of solidarity, and has thus confronted fundamental human questions. Unlike Kenworthy, content as he is with a narrowly economic vision, the editors of What’s Left seem torn: they clearly want to keep their feet on the ground, but they also seem to sense that no word short of “humanize” can name the democratic left’s goal. “Economic security” means merely staying alive. The worry about “belief” and “hope” that What’s Left admits to suggests something more. Maybe it’s this: haunted by an unrealized and unrealizable dream of solidarity, social democracy is concerned with figuring out what can make a modern society humane.

If this is right, then a social democratic America—may there be such a place!—means not only an America with less economic anxiety. Beyond this, it means an America where there are more, and more meaningful, occasions for us to ask: how shall we live together? That is not merely an economic, but a political—and more than a political—question.


Geoffrey Kurtz is associate professor of Political science at BMCC-CUNY and the author of Jean Jaures: The Inner Life of Social Democracy.

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