Next Steps for Social Democracy: An American Perspective

By Steven Hill, December 16, 2009, Social Europe Journal

As an American, I have been following this discussion with great interest. The predicament of social democracy strikes at the heart of several modern dilemmas that will be at the forefront of the twenty-first century. Much hangs in the balance.

From the faraway shores of San Francisco and the Pacific Rim, allow me to offer a few observations. First, while I have been impressed with the thoughtful commentary from so many bright and accomplished people, I am also struck by the steady dirge of lamenting – as if you have lost the battle. And yet, from a US perspective – where we can’t even do health care right, much less the comprehensive menu of social supports provided to European families and workers – it really looks like social democracy has triumphed in Europe. Allow me to explain.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the goal of a political movement is not necessarily to win elections – it is to shift the political centre. When your opponents start adopting your philosophy and policy agenda in order to win elections, you have won decisively. For all intents and purposes, the Christian Democrats are now social democrats, even if not Social Democrats. When the European political parties of the centre right, and in many ways even the far right, are to the left of the Democratic Party in the United States, that catches my attention in a dramatic way. If one could trade politicians like baseball or football stars – not a bad idea, eh? – I would trade away Barack Obama and Joe Biden for Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy in a New York minute.

So it’s very important that you keep your losses in perspective. Social democracy is still intact. Yes, the Social Democrats – the political parties, not the movement – didn’t do so well in the last round of elections. And yes, the pendulum has swung back a bit toward the centre from its progressive heights, and cutbacks have been experienced. Losses of course never feel good to those on the receiving end.1 But from an American standpoint, the cutbacks have been pretty mild. And the political pendulum always swings. It will swing your way again. Barring some unforeseen implosion, one day you will be back in power. Be patient, and don’t be desperate. For now, be a vigorous opposition, and use all means to expose when your opponents slyly try to undermine social democracy itself. That will speed up your return.

And make sure you know what you are defending. Given the many obstacles and challenges presented by globalisation, global warming and geopolitical shifts, from my perspective you – social democrats AND Social Democrats – have made remarkable gains. You have provided a beacon to the rest of the world, a development model that is the most humane and human-centred in history. It is one founded on a ‘social capitalism’ that has learned how to harness the raw power of the greatest wealth-producing engine the world has ever known in order to enact a more broadly shared prosperity. It is one that provides real support for families and workers – beyond, unfortunately, what most Americans can even imagine. It is one founded on a measure of economic democracy as manifested in practices like codetermination, works councils, co-operatives, public-private partnerships and a vibrant small-business sector. It is founded on pluralistic political institutions, including proportional representation, public financing of campaigns, free media time for parties, universal voter registration, and other important democratic advances. These ‘fulcrum institutions’ are the very foundations of your social democracy, and I am sometimes struck by how much Europeans take them for granted. You must defend them and not allow anti-democratic forces to wear them down.

Amidst all your soul-searching and doubts, recognise that Europe is the leader of the world now. If you aren’t, who is? China? India? Obama’s America? Forget it, it’s not happening in the US. Despite his inspiring speeches, Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt, and even if he were, he needs 60 out of 100 votes in the US Senate to pass anything. Forty right-wing Republican senators (that represent only a third of the nation) can block just about anything. America is suffering through the worst form of ‘minority rule’ because of a constitutional defect that elects two Senators per state, regardless of population (California with 37 million people has two Senators just like Dick Cheney’s Wyoming, with only a half a million people.) This gives the most conservative senators a veto over anything significant. Obama does not have a solution for this, and it will not change anytime soon due to the difficulties of amending the US Constitution.

Looking forward, many of the elements for a successful social-democratic vision have been raised by others in this discussion, including the green economy (which has great potential to address not only economic insecurity but also global climate change), re-establishing links with trade unions, finding alternatives to America’s/Obama’s wars, and more. Allow me to offer three other potential areas of opportunity for social democrats.

First, be internationalists, even missionaries, for your vision and values. It will be harder for social democracy to survive if the rest of the world is not on a path moving toward some indigenous version of the European standard. Clearly China, India and Russia have a ways to go, though Brazil seems to be on the right approximate path. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is the United States, which unfortunately will be an untrustworthy ally in your bid for international social democracy. I believe that Europe should embark on a serious programme of creating a modern-day equivalent of Radio Free America to help educate Americans and raise their consciousness. The US media is part of the problem, in addition to the political system.

Second, work with ethnic minority/immigration rights advocates and organisations in Europe to push a civil rights agenda for integration. Like the Democratic Party did in the 1950s and 1960s, become the parties of equality and fairness for all. Doing this not only is the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons, it also will maintain and extend ‘solidarity’, the crucial basis on which social democracy rests. And don’t forget that those minority individuals are potential voters. Embrace this, and they will vote for you for years to come, which will be particularly important as their numbers increase as a percentage of your population. This is a long-term strategy, and I have a hunch that greater swathes of the European electorate are ready for a credible integration agenda (Swiss anti-minaret referendums notwithstanding).

Third, support women. Most European countries lag behind the US in terms of the numbers of women in the workforce. Having more women in the workforce will help address the ‘dependency ratio’ challenge presented by declining populations. Evidence also suggests that when women don’t have to choose between working and family, they are more likely to have children. And women also are voters. So supporting women will be good for Europe and also good for your political fortunes.

Feminism and integration – a civil rights movement in Europe? What a concept! Those are values that can be translated into a real political programme, so that, when the pendulum swings back and it is your time, not only will these be the right thing to do but they might allow you to win elections.

Finally, I would say, be quietly bold and confident. Europe now is the leader of the world, and social democracy is the very foundation of Europe. Pretend you are the United States after World War II, but without the bellicosity. Europe now is what Ronald Reagan once called America: ‘The City on the Hill’. Again, if you aren’t, who is? Obama’s America? China? India?

It is Europe’s time, which means it is social democracy’s time. Congratulations. Are you ready?


Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky have shown that people dislike losing things they already have much more than they like gaining things they don’t have—a phenomenon known as “loss aversion.”

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