David Moscrop, Ph.D., is an academic and a columnist for The Washington Post and Maclean's Magazine where he provides analysis and commentary on United States and Canadian politics. His first book, Too Dumb for Democracy? was published in 2019. This is his first piece as a #FESFellow2020 in a series for the FES DC addressing the 2020 elections and their potential consequences.
Will Americans embrace social democracy during the 2020 elections—or ever?
The 2020 election in the United States is a critical juncture. National institutions have been compromised by years of democratic crises, most recently yielding the election of Donald Trump and further erosions of core democratic norms including forbearance, tolerance for the opposing side, commitment to free and fair elections, and respect for the media. In its 2019 Democracy Index rankings, the Economist Intelligence Unit designated the U.S. as a “flawed democracy,” assigning the country a 7.14/10 on “Functioning of government.”
Beyond democratic norms and function, state violence against Black Americans, other racialized individuals, and protesters is rampant. Economic inequality remains a concern, with the U.S. leading the G7 in income inequality while the wealth gap between top and bottom earners grows alongside a persistent chasm between white and Black households. Based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the U.S. is one of the least equal countries of the 37 states that belong to that body. Based on the Gini coefficient, which measures income distribution, the U.S. ranks fourth last in equality, behind Chile, Mexico, and Turkey.
Something must be done, and for millions who advocate progressive policies, that something is to be found in the social democratic or democratic socialist traditions. But will Americans embrace social democracy or democratic socialism during the 2020 elections—or ever?
Sorting out whether Americans will embrace progressive left candidates and their policy agenda first depends upon identifying what social democratic and democratic socialism mean. Each of these terms appears in U.S. political discourse, more broadly and frequently of late beyond the halls of academia and meetings of leftist organizations, often used interchangeably and often conflated (for instance, the question of whether Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist or a social democrat is an open one), but they aren’t the same thing. Contemporary political life is such that no ideology or political program exists in a pristine, uncomplicated state, and few politicians or policy agendas will be purely capitalist, socialist, or social democratic. Still, there are fundamental divergences between these systems that ought to be understood to make sense of what people want, what they’re likely to get, and, above all, the range of organizational possibilities that come with different values, institutions, and outcomes.
At its core, as a rough and ready comparison, the difference between the two can be summarized in how each approaches the ownership of productive capacity: social democrats tend to advocate for a robust welfare state but with limited public ownership and within the framework of a broadly familiar capitalism economic system. Democratic socialists prefer to use existing democratic politics to shift private ownership to public hands. But the two tend to collapse into one in popular political discourse, even though there are conceptual differences between them.
As Michael McCarthy, a professor of sociology at Marquette University argues in Jacobin, “Democratic socialism…should involve public ownership over the vast majority of the productive assets of society, the elimination of the fact that workers are forced into the labor market to work for those who privately own those productive assets, and stronger democratic institutions not just within the state but within workplaces and communities as well.”
By and large, a survey of policy proposals from the left in the United States—from Medicare for all to higher corporate and wealth taxes—suggests social democratic offerings are more common on the left at the moment than democratic socialist ones. But are either viable in the 2020 election?
Popular opinion towards forms of socialism is evolving in the United States. Conceptions of socialism are moving away from an association with the Soviet Union to being seen, as E.J. Dionne Jr. and William A. Galston argue, “in light of the achievements of social democratic governments in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.”
The numbers back up Dionne and Galston’s argument, with support tending towards the social democratic understanding of socialism. As Gallup reports, between 1942 and 2019 support for “some form of socialism” rose 18 points from 25 percent to 43 percent. However, support for the free market remains high with a majority preferring market solutions on most measures including “technological innovation,” “distribution of wealth,” and even “healthcare,” based off 2019 data (though “environmental protection” and “protecting consumers’ privacy online” get firm support for state direction). Again here, in the polling data (and beyond it), we tend to see the word “socialism” used as shorthand for social democracy, perhaps with the implication of some modest public ownership.
A 2019 Pew poll makes the important point that many Americans share positive views of both socialism and capitalism, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to have warm feelings about each system at 38 percent compared to 10 percent. These results support the idea that Americans tend to think of socialism in these instances in social democratic terms in which public intervention in economic life to offer insurance and support programs co-exists within a capitalist framework.
The same poll breaks down support for socialism—at 42 percent in the summer of 2019—showing that women (46 percent) are more likely than men (38 percent) to support it, along with higher approval rates among Black (65 percent) and Hispanic (52 percent) folks. Once more, age matters, with 50 percent of young Americans aged 18-29 giving socialism a nod compared to progressively lower numbers declining to as low as 34 percent with the 65+ crowd. However, the data suggests, once more, that conceptions of “socialism” in the United States tend to be of the social democratic variety.
Returning to Dionne and Galston, the evolving American conception of “socialism”—falling somewhere between social democratic and democratic socialism, though closer to the former—is such that “In the post-war period, Americans viewed socialism through the prism of Soviet communism. Today, they view it through the prism of the welfare state, the system that Western democracies developed to make market economies more broadly acceptable and to blunt the appeal of communism, which had powerful support throughout Europe in the post-war decades. The Soviet Union threatened liberty. Norway, Sweden and Denmark do not.”
Digging further into support for socialism – again, broadly understood as more government intervention in economic life – a February 2020 poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist showed lower support for socialism when compared to capitalism, but a stark divide between Democrats and Republicans. Only 7 percent of Republicans had a favorable impression of socialism compared to 50 percent of democrats and 23 percent of independents. Age also matters, with younger Americans more likely than their older counterparts to support socialism, although without a strict and consistent definition of “socialism,” it could be that some respondents are imagining a Soviet-style model, especially when you consider that 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All.
On aggregate, polling data suggests that Americans are warming to socialism, especially women and also younger and racialized individuals. Accordingly, candidates and policies in the socialist mold may be poised to do better in 2020 than they have in decades. With leftist standard bearers such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush on the rise, the tide may be turning. The socialist/social democratic left is further supported by a growing popular intellectual infrastructure including publications like Current Affairs and Jacobin and the surging popularity of the Democratic Socialists of America organization, which has surpassed 45,000 dues-paying members.
But is that enough for another breakthrough for some form of socialism in America in 2020? That depends, once more, on what one means by socialism. Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and author of Social Democratic Capitalism argues there’s a chance for social democracy in 2020, though not so much for democratic socialism.
“Definitely no for democratic socialism,” says Kenworthy. “On social democracy it’s more complex…I think there is a little bit of increased support among Americans for some types of public insurance programs, such as universal healthcare, maybe adding more government-funded childcare or paid parental leave or a child allowance, or expanding social security.”
Kenworthy points out that public opinion, however, only goes so far in advancing the agenda on the left. “Generally the way this has worked in the United States is that enactment and expansion of most of these public insurance programs is not really driven by changes in public opinion, but by circumstances—when a left coalition is in power and has a chance to expand or enact them. Then once these programs are put in place, and usually they work pretty well, then people get used to them and grow to like them. Then you end up with lots of support for them in public opinion surveys.”
Elite and civil society support for social programming will be key, however. As Kenworthy notes, “Sanders, Warren, and progressive elements of Biden show that some segments of Americans are open to social democracy.” Moreover, he says “there is a shift towards greater embrace of candidates standing for high office who are supporting a big extension of public insurance programs,” and thus 2020 “…could be like the 1932 or 1964 elections but not because there’s been a surge of support for social democracy among Americans.”
"Generally the way this has worked in the United States is that enactment and expansion of most of these public insurance programs is not really driven by changes in public opinion, but by circumstances—when a left coalition is in power and has a chance to expand or enact them. Then once these programs are put in place, and usually they work pretty well, then people get used to them and grow to like them. Then you end up with lots of support for them in public opinion surveys.”
As Kenworthy puts it, whether 2020 is the year for social democracy depends on a whether it’s a year of confluence. “We may end up with this conjunction of Democrats inclined to enact things and in a position to do it—which distinguishes 2020 from 1992 or 2008.”
Support for some sort of socialist change exists, as do opportunities for reform. If the Democrats capitalize on their current support and are pulled left by a mix of popular and civil society pressure alongside the growing clout of the social democratic/democratic socialist caucus, the 2020 election may indeed generate the enactment or expansion of public programs in the United States of America.