I’ve been reading Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land, his 2010 plea for social democracy in the last days of his life. It turns out that Judt presciently anticipated the appeal of Trumpian authoritarianism in our insecure age — and offered social democracy as our best hope to withstand it.
Judt was a steadfast if begrudging admirer of social democracy–a political ideology that “does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.”
Social democracy is the true center of modern political thought. Where socialism outright rejects capitalism, social democracy accepts it. Social democracy aims to harness the engines of capitalism while tempering its rough edges, crafting the institutions and guardrails necessary to balance capitalism’s chaotic dynamism with a measure of ordered security.
That sense of security is dangerously amiss today, roiling much of the West with anxiety. “We have entered an age of fear,” Judt wrote. “Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies.” This is the insecurity of terrorism, of technological change, of globalization, of economic inequality, of the prospect of job loss. “And, perhaps above all,” Judt wrote, “fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach.”
This combination — an electorate both gripped by fear and inflicted with skepticism of their leaders’ ability to do anything about it — produces anti-democratic movements that offer stability by turning aggressively inward. “If we can have democracy, we will,” Judt observed. “But above all, we want to be safe. As global threats mount, so the attractions of order will only grow. [. . .] Outsiders, however defined, will be seen as threats, foes and challenges. As in the past the promise of stability risks merging with the comforts of protection.” That’s the lure of Trumpism that Judt saw coming.
The fearful society craves stability. This stability can be provided one of two ways: First, it can be anti-democratic stability. This is the order promised by a strong man — one who exploits this insecurity by vilifying the weak and the “other.” One who looks at blighted communities cast to the margins of the American story and declares “I alone can fix it.” One who assures those forgotten communities that he will “give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years.”
“Unless the Left has something better to offer,” Judt warned, “we should not be surprised to find voters responding to those holding out such promises.”
Fortunately, the Left does have something to offer — Trumpism isn’t the only answer to insecurity. Stability can also be provided through democracy by crafting institutions to truly protect people from the risks of modern life. “Social democracy in Europe, the New Deal and the Great Society here in the US, were explicit responses” to challenges and threats wrought by previous eras of insecurity, Judt wrote. Where Trumpism offers recriminations in response to insecurity, the Left must offer reassurance.
What does that reassurance look like? By and large, it means insuring individuals against commonly-shared risks in the twenty-first century. Political scientist Lane Kenworthy laid out a full agenda for a Social Democratic America, including wage insurance to protect workers from cuts in pay, sick leave to insure workers in case of illness, a child benefit to insure parents against the costs of child rearing, and other social insurance programs. It might also include an aggressive program of targeted government investment to stimulate stagnant communities, coupled with a federal works program, to function as a form of insurance against creative destruction discarding whole regions of the country.
Of course, a program of that scale and ambition will directly confront a public with ever-diminishing expectations in the capacity of its civic institutions and their leaders. As Chris Hayes wrote in The Twilight of the Elites, we face a crisis of authority in the United States after a generation of catastrophic elite failure at every turn across virtually every pillar of society. This makes for a receptive audience for the authoritarians promising anti-democratic stability that bludgeons these very institutions, and a much more doubtful audience for those looking to achieve democratic stability through better and more comprehensive institutions.
Which means the Left’s message and messenger matter. A compromised center-left version of social democracy in the hands of a leader closely tied to decades of institutional failure won’t be compelling. While Hillary Clinton pushed an agenda packed with progressive technocratic reforms and programs, her institutional ties were too unshakable and her ambition to restructure the American economy too trimmed to compete with the vociferous anti-democratic stability offered by Trump.
The Left will need an outsider insurgent that can credibly lay claim to moving the country in the direction of social democracy. Barack Obama pushed a centrist progressive agenda, but did so as an outsider reformer offering hope and relief from the failures and disappointments of the previous generation. Bernie Sanders positioned himself as an outsider to the political class vowing social democratic revolution of the country’s institutions, but lacked the inspirational and heroic appeal of Obama that cut across all core Democratic constituencies. Some combination of the two is what’s called for.
Moreover, a social democratic response to Trump isn’t necessarily about specific policies. Rather, it requires making an unabashed positive case for the role of government to better citizens’ lives; for the capacity of a democracy to craft institutions to guard against threats new and old; for the ability of elected leaders to chart a course that enlivens struggling communities and ensures that prosperity is broadly shared.
Even if Trump’s presidency crumbles under the weight of chaos, incompetence, and scandal, the resonance of his dark message won’t necessarily follow suit in four years. As the closest approximation of the Left in mainstream American politics, Democrats will only defeat Trump by offering voters their own vision of how to achieve security in the twenty-first century. In an age of fear, the hostile illusion of security of the Right can only be matched by a hopeful communal security of the Left.