Social democracy as the answer to Trump

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.

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Tony Judt (New York Times)

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.

A Nordic cure for American anxiety

Any time liberals try to expand the American social welfare state, conservatives can be counted on to howl in resistance in the name of freedom.  Government helping parents pay for childcare?  An invasive infringement on the freedom of families to make their own childrearing arrangements, according to the conservative National Review.  Guaranteeing paid family leave for all workers?  A job-killing big government burden on free enterprise, according to conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio.  Providing universal healthcare through the private insurance market?  Government coercion on the freedom to take your chances without health insurance, according to virtually all Republicans.

We’ve become accustomed to this serve-and-volley routine in American politics.  Liberals pitch their policy ideas in terms of fairness, justice, and equity.  Conservatives furiously respond as the guardians of freedom from government overreach.

But this one-sided conception of what American freedom means warps the debate and obscures a richer, fuller understanding of what it means to enjoy the fruits of liberty in the twenty-first century.  Sometimes it takes a voice from outside of the bubble to show us what we’re missing.

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In The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen provides that voice.  Partanen was born in Finland but moved to the United States as an adult.  Upon landing in America, Partanen quickly noticed that for a country that prides itself as the land of opportunity, American life was remarkably laden with anxiety, dependence, and constriction.  With little in the way of public support, Partanen encountered the reality that Americans are largely on their own to obtain basic modern necessities and navigate complex systems that are publicly provided in other countries.  Americans had little sense of just how unfree their lives were.

Partanen’s home country of Finland provides a robust and modern welfare state.  Back home, Partanen had enjoyed a whole host of public benefits: simple and comprehensive universal healthcare, a year’s worth of paid disability leave, nearly a year of paid parental leave (with the option of lesser-paid leave for an additional two years), affordable public daycare, universally high-performing K-12 education, free college, and free graduate school.

In the United States, however, Partanen was struck by the degree to which Americans are on their own to manage the complexities of modern life, and how this fosters strangely backward relationships.  “[T]he Americans I encountered and read about were being forced to depend more and more on one another,” Partanen writes, “in a throwback to the traditional relationships of old.  And in the process, individuals were becoming beholden to their spouses, parents, children, colleagues, and bosses in ways that constrained their own liberty.”

For instance, Partanen grew disturbed by the grotesquerie of financial tax incentives to marry, and using marriage as a solution to poverty to compensate for lack of government support.  “[I]n Finland,” Partanen explains, “a policy like America’s would be considered government meddling in matters of private morality.”  To Partanen, promoting marriage—“one of the most precious of human experiences”—as a poverty fix “sounds like something from the distant past.”

Partanen explains that the Nordic welfare states arise from what she calls the “Nordic theory of love.”  This is the idea that love and fulsome relationships arise between individuals who are equal and autonomous.  Dependency is anathema to love.  This theory, Partanen explains, “has inspired the broad variety of policy choices in the Nordic nations that together ensure a single, predominant goal: independence, freedom, and opportunity for every member of society.”

These are quintessential American values.  But American fear of the welfare state has endangered them as increasingly hollow aspirations.  There is an odd contradiction in American life, Partanen writes: “Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problem the system creates.”

Leaving it to families and others to fill in the gaping holes in our safety net can dampen relationships that ought to be sacred.  The dependency of the elderly on their children to act as caretakers, for instance, breeds resentment and exhaustion.  That’s why Nordic countries provide public eldercare centers.  Nordics, Partanen writes, “want their love for the elderly to remain untainted by the sort of resentments that can arise when aging parents are stuck in relationships of dependency with their own children—relationships that destroy the autonomy, independence, and freedom of everyone involved.”

This is true at the opposite end of life, too.  New parents must solve logistical puzzles to take time off from work to be home with their new child, and to coordinate childcare while staying in the labor force.  Those who are lucky have paid leave as a fringe benefit from their employers, but far from all have this luxury.  The Nordic theory, however, is that “parents should be able to focus on welcoming new life into the world and loving their newborn, rather than being overwhelmed by the logistical challenges involved,” Partanen writes.  That’s why Nordic countries each provide at least nine months of paid leave for new parents to stay home with their children.  And Nordic countries provide public daycare for working parents, sparing them the exhausted mental bandwidth that American parents expend figuring out how to juggle work and childcare.

The Nordic brand of freedom means the absence of burden.  Children don’t bear the burden of their parents’ income status—kids of all classes can access high-quality education and are entitled to a basic child allowance.  Workers aren’t stuck at a job for fear of losing health insurance—and employers aren’t burdened with running complicated social insurance schemes, either.  Entrepreneurs can put business ideas in practice, knowing that there’s a safety net to catch them if they fail, and that their startup won’t be tasked with paying for costly employee benefits.

Skeptics might argue that this freedom is merely replacing one dependency with another—making citizens dependent on government instead of on family, neighbors, civil society, and themselves.  Indeed, the prospect of government dependency has long been the bogeyman in American politics.  Why should Nordic dependency on the state be preferable to American informal dependency elsewhere?

Henrik Herggren, a Swedish public intellectual, has one answer.  In The Myth of the Nearly Perfect People, author Michael Booth deals with similar themes of Nordic freedom and personal independence, and poses the question of government dependency to Herggren.  According to Herggren:

“[Swedes] are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.  [. . .]  [T]he point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

In Herggren’s view, the state can provide a support structure and a set of guideposts to create equal opportunity in a way that no other actor or institution can.  Any other arrangement of dependency—on families, on employers, on charities—will create varying and unpredictable levels of support.  Only the state can guarantee a basic level of opportunity to all, setting everyone on a path of self-exploration and meaningful freedom.

So what is to be done for the stressed-out and stretched-thin United States?  Partanen has a clear vision for what the country needs.  “What Americans need,” she writes, “so that they can stop struggling so hard to be superachievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacations.”  In short, real freedom requires government to step in to provide the goods needed to loosen the squeeze on everyday Americans.

Of course, Nordic citizens pay handsomely for these types of generous public services.  But as Partanen explains, when you tally up all of the United States’s public and private expenditures on items like health care, pensions, unemployment benefits, and childcare, it winds up spending as much as Sweden does as a share of its GDP.  Given the bounty that her tax bill bought, Partanen says, “it was a bargain.”

The United States is stuck in an outmoded, negative view of freedom.  This brand of freedom is negative in that it focuses solely on freedom from government infringement on personal liberty.  But modern society calls for a more positive understanding of freedom—a freedom from knowing that certain basic goods and services are accessible to fall back on in order to meaningfully actualize personal liberty.

“Today nations that have progressed into the twenty-first century see freedom as something much richer,” Partanen writes.  “They see freedom as the assurance that all individuals get real opportunity, so they’re free to pursue the good life for themselves, and real protection from the lottery of bad luck, so they’re free from unnecessary fear and anxiety.”

Let’s hope we join these nations soon.  Our incomplete idea of freedom is obscuring all of the ways that we are already unfree and dependent, constrained and burdened.  A modern and comprehensive welfare state is necessary to replace mounting American anxiety with real American freedom.

The Scandinavian Dream

 

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British writer Michael Booth, while living in Denmark, sets out to explore the much-heralded success of the Nordic countries.  Denmark regularly tops indices of global happiness.  Sweden’s welfare state is the envy of progressives around the globe.  What is it that makes these countries so great?

The Scandinavian countries are famed for their high-tax, high-benefit social welfare regimes.  Booth meets with numerous local experts, revealing some of the thinking behind these countries’ choices for such robust social insurance.  For instance, Henrik Herggren, a leading Swedish historian and social commentator, explained that the aim of the Swedish welfare state is to eliminate dependency and provide people with the foundation to lead a secure, fulfilled life:

  • Berggren: “The main objective is not to be dependent on your family, the wife shouldn’t be dependent on her husband, the children should be autonomous when they are eighteen, old people should not be dependent on their children taking care of them, and therefore to a large extent the state steps in and provides these things.”
  • Booth: “But doesn’t this just replace one dependency with another—the state . . ?”
  • Berggren: “We are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.”

    “For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing . . . .  But the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

That is, Swedes believe a generous social welfare state is a perquisite to true individual freedom.  In order for individuals to pursue self-realization, the government provides extensive public supports.  Sixteen months of family leave per child, to be taken by parents any time during the child’s first eight years.  Guaranteed healthcare.  Publicly-funded daycare and eldercare.

In Booth’s telling, Sweden’s welfare state is a deliberate choice to facilitate a sort of radical individualism.  Swedes agree to pay high taxes in order to obtain public goods that facilitate freedom.  By paying into the welfare state, Swedes purchase a freedom that ensures they will not be otherwise obligated to others, nor resigned to rely on anyone else in turn.

This may be a jarring sentiment to American ears.  In the United States, conservatives are too often allowed to claim the mantle of freedom as the absence of government intervention.  Big government is cast as an oppressor, the free market as a liberator.

This argument hasn’t always reigned supreme in the United States though.  In his famed 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “necessitous men are not free men,” recognizing that the American ideal of freedom requires basic security and standards of living.  Without proactive government intervention, the distribution of real freedom in America is wildly unequal: the rich and financially secure enjoy far more freedom than those barely making it.

The Swedish case for the welfare state is echoed in some of the arguments made in favor of a basic income today.  A guaranteed income for all would free people to pursue higher-order ideals than mere survival.  With basic needs met, more of our lives could be focused on passions and intellectual pursuits than simply grinding away at work in order to pay for food, shelter, and healthcare.

The radical autonomy of the Swedish welfare state is in some tension with the communitarian strain of liberalism in the United States associated with Michael Sandel and other political philosophers.  Communitarians emphasize not just individual rights and freedom, but obligations and duties individuals owe to their local communities, ranging from families to neighborhoods to nations.  For communitarians, freedom is not the ultimate goal so much as a richer and more interdependent fabric of community life and collective good.

Swedes, on the other hand, aim to free individuals of the trappings of obligation.  If the government fails to provide childcare, this condemns parents to step in to fill the void.  Same for eldercare—without government-sponsored nursing homes, children may be forced to care for aging parents.  That curbs freedom, it’s thought.

Booth spends much of his tour across the Nordics poking holes in the myth of Scandinavian utopia.  He finds the Norwegians to be anti-social loners; the Finns hooked on anti-psychotics; the Icelanders to be reckless finance Vikings weirdly obsessed with elves; the Swedes lulled into conformity by their welfare states.  All of the Nordics are struggling to reconcile their traditional heterogeneity with an influx of multicultural immigration, and grappling with the effect on public support for the welfare state.  He finds curiosities and disturbances in each distinct culture, but also finds much to admire.

But ultimately, Booth endorses the Scandinavian reliance on government institutions to improve individual autonomy: “To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be, and be able to make the appropriate changes if you are not.  This cannot be a perception, a slogan like the American Dream . . . .  In Scandinavia it is a reality.  These are the real lands of opportunity.  There is far greater social mobility in the Nordic countries than in the United States or Britain and, for all the collectivism and state interference in the lives of the people who live here, there is far greater freedom to be the person you want to be, and do the things you want to do, up here in the north.”  Indeed, Booth has outright backed Bernie Sanders and his bid to bring elements of Scandinavian social democracy to the United States.

As Booth demonstrates, the Scandinavians are by no means super-humans, nor are their societies perfect utopias.  But they do happen to be humans who have done exceptionally fine jobs of crafting fair and just societies to a degree that exceeds most everyone else.  When societies band together to take care of basic needs and pool collective risks, people are left with more room to explore their humanity, and greater ability to actuate their freedom.

Those of us in the United States would be wise to realize that big government is not the inherent enemy of freedom.  Indeed, it may often be its enabler.