Social democracy

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Social democracy is a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and capitalist economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve: a commitment to representative and participatory democracy; measures for income redistribution and regulation of the economy in the general interest; and welfare state provisions


  • In the best of cases, these two dimensions of Social Democracy were mutually reinforcing — welfare reforms promoting class confidence and organization, class mobilization giving renewed electoral mandates for further reformism, through a dense network of trade-union and party structures.
  • Within the Western democracies, especially in Europe, the main challenge to the liberal conception is social democracy. This view is linked to the ideology of socialism. From a “social democratic” or “democratic socialist” perspective, the key to democracy is equality, especially equal power in society and government. Social democrats argue that liberal democracy puts poor and working-class people at the mercy of the rich. In the modern world, they say, money is a major source of power, and those who have wealth have power over those who do not. Wealth makes it possible to run for office and to influence government policies, so the rich exercise much greater influence when public policies are made. Yet this advantage, social democrats insist, is hardly democratic. Democracy is rule by the people, and such rule requires that every person have a roughly equal influence over the government, in keeping with the principle “one person, one vote.” But we will not really have this equal influence, social democrats say, unless we take steps to distribute power— including economic power—in a more nearly equal fashion. That is why the program of social democrats typically calls for the redistribution of wealth to promote equality, public rather than private control of natural resources and major industries, and workers’ control of the workplace. Like liberals, then, social democrats want to preserve civil liberties and promote fair competition for political office. Unlike liberals, however, they deny that most people can be truly free or political competition fair when great inequalities of wealth and power prevail.
    • Terence Ball, Richard Dagger, with the assistance of Daniel O’Neil, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal (9th ed., 2014), Ch. 2 : The Democratic Ideal
  • If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.
  • Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments. That these accomplishments were no more than partial should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing those same improvements: this should make us much angrier than we are. It ought also to worry us, if only on prudential grounds: Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come? A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing—but misleading—to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. It does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else to hand.
  • Social democrats, on the other hand, are something of a hybrid. They share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy social democrats believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.

    Understandably, social democracy is a hard sell in the United States. One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties—and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want. In any case, much that was best in American legislation and social policy over the course of the 20th century—and that we are now urged to dismantle in the name of efficiency and “less government”—corresponds in practice to what Europeans have called ‘social democracy’. Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it.

    The European dilemma is somewhat different. Many European countries have long practiced something resembling social democracy: but they have forgotten how to preach it. Social democrats today are defensive and apologetic. Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.

    • Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Introduction
  • Social democracy was always a mongrel politics. In the first place, it blended socialist dreams of a post-capitalist utopia with practical recognition of the need to live and work in a capitalist world that was demonstrably not on its last legs, as Marx had enthusiastically projected back in 1848. But secondly, social democracy took seriously the ‘democracy’ part: in contrast to the revolutionary socialists of the early 20th century and their communist successors, social democrats in free countries accepted the rules of the democratic game and compromised from early on with their critics and opponents as the price of competing for power.
    • Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Ch. 2 : The World We Have Lost

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