Social Democracy Comes to America

Why the US is the new Europe, and what it means for the left

By Nicolas Colin| Cofounder & Director, The Family | Author of Hedge

A monument to Hjalmar Branting, the first Social Democratic prime minister of Sweden.

According to Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, there’s one main political difference between Western Europe and the US: in the latter the political landscape is divided in two while in the former it is divided in four.

In any Western European democracy you’ll typically find four main political forces.

The illiberal right, otherwise known as Toryism. Tories bear an aristocratic ethos and stand for reversing democratic progress back to a feudal order. Their idea is that society is divided between the feudal lords, who should get ever richer and more powerful, and everyone else, who are protected militarily-speaking but are otherwise at the lords’ service. Prussia’s Junkers, who played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power, were the ultimate example of European Toryism.

The liberal right is what Hartz dubs “Whiggery”. Unlike Tories, Whigs typically stand for the free market and competition. And unlike Tories, who favor inherited wealth, they think that everyone should have a shot at getting wealthy and joining the bourgeoisie. Whigs support democratic progress because it underpins their views about economic opportunities.

The liberal left, which you can call liberal democrats, would include the UK’s early-20th-century Liberal leader David Lloyd George as well as the Radical Party in France. These were strong believers in democracy, but they also thought that common people should have more than a shot at becoming wealthy. For them, a welfare state should cover citizens against critical risks while also being a form of redistribution.

The illiberal left is otherwise known as socialism. Like their fellow liberal left-wingers, they defend the common man. But they don’t believe in democracy, which they see as yet another way for the bourgeoisie to exploit the working class. Hence they lack respect for the democratic process and prefer pursuing their goals through other means, such as labor unions.

The trait common to both Tories and socialists is that they distrust democracy. This is why they have long been marginalized in the US, given the country’s strong liberal tradition. Since the US was born as a democracy, there was never much room for such illiberal forces. And so US politics was dominated by Whigs (who governed as Republicans from Lincoln to Hoover), then the liberal left (from FDR to LBJ), then Whigs again, this time in their neoliberal version (from Reagan’s election in 1980 to Trump’s victory in 2016).

The closest the US ever had to Toryism was the isolationist, anti-free trade wing of the Republican Party, personified in the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Robert A. Taft. This group was discredited by its opposition to World War II and was subsequently almost entirely wiped out of the political map.

Likewise, the US never had many socialists because (white male) workers long had the right to vote and saw democracy rather than revolution as the proper way to defend their interests. The American working class first supported the Whigs (for the sake of busting trusts), then the Democrats (from the New Deal onward), then the Whigs again (because the GOP learned to attract white working class voters).

As such, social democracy today is an essentially European phenomenon. It was built to reach a compromise between the liberal left (‘democracy’) and the socialists (‘social’), which was necessary if the left ever wanted to win a majority and govern. In the US, the liberal left could secure a majority of its own without having to fight against both the Whigs on their right flank and the socialists on their left flank, which it did many times from 1932 onwards.

But that was all in the past, when Hartz’s “liberal tradition” was still strong. With Trump, the Tories are making a spectacular comeback in US politics. The end of the estate tax, the end of free trade, subsidizing dying industries to preserve their owners’ birthright, disenfranchising voters, weakening unions: it’s all part of the Tory playbook.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that we are also seeing American socialists emerging at exactly the same time (first Bernie Sanders and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez alongside a raft of other new faces). They truly are socialists, as they fight for the many AND they see democracy in the US as a weapon turned against the working class.

To be fair, in the rampant gerrymandering / post-Citizens United / post-Merrick Garland context, they have a pretty evident point to make. After all, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote in both 2000 and 2016, yet the White House was occupied by George W. Bush and Donald Trump. (To learn more about the rise of illiberal politics in the US, you should have a look at the related works by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (notably their book Winner-Take-All Politics) and Lawrence Lessig (Republic, Lost).)

And so all of a sudden the US has become more European. Americans no longer have two political forces, they have four. And two of them, the Tories and the socialists, distrust democracy as we know it and will seek to advance their agenda by other means.

An immediate consequence is that if the American left is to govern again, they’ll have to work out a European-style social democratic compromise — ideally one that is aligned with the new paradigm of the digital economy!


Luckily, I’ve just written a book that provides material for getting to this unprecedented compromise in this new era in which many in the US will begin seeing themselves as social democrats. If you’re interested in more, you should buy my book and start working on imagining a new Safety Net for our Entrepreneurial Age.

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