Yes, Scandinavian-style social democracy can work in America

There seems to be a common misconception that the Scandinavian-style social democracy seen in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland just isn’t possible in America. We’re too diverse. Our population is just too large. Or, perhaps, we need oil to somehow make it all work out.

A few months ago, Kevin D. Williamson at the National Review claimed that the social-democratic policies espoused by Bernie Sanders - who would be a mainstream center-left politician in any European country - are “national-socialism”. Apparently, calling for universal health care, ending child poverty, and an expansion of Social Security benefits makes you a racist (!?) more along the lines of Donald Trump because, obviously, diversity and multiculturalism are incompatible with progressive social programs.

There could be a shred of truth to the claim that Americans might not be as supportive of “welfare” because of the racist myths propagated by Ronald Reagan about “welfare queens” and black people. But taking a look at our own social-democratic welfare state institutions, that claim falls apart. Social Security is the largest welfare program in the US — over 59 million people received $859 billion in benefits last year. It also reduced the poverty rate among seniors by more than three-quarters, while making the income distribution more equal by providing greater income replacement to lower-income seniors than higher-income seniors. Black and Hispanic seniors are also far more likely to rely on their benefits as a primary source of income than white seniors. It’s probably one of the most social-democratic institutions we have: it’s universal, redistributive, poverty-reducing, and progressive.

And guess what — the vast majority of Americans support it, and it works quite well. And this is despite the fact that it radically redistributes income, helps poor people, and is more likely to be a main source of income for Black and Hispanic seniors, than it is for white seniors. This is also despite the fact that Social Security serves more beneficiaries than the populations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland combined. And the vast majority of Americans don’t just support it, but support expanding it. This completely undermines Williamson’s argument that social democracy only works in nations with a small and homogenous population. Does Social Security alone not benefit more than ten times the population of Denmark? Does it not have popular support among a diverse range of groups, regardless of race? Does it not redistribute income to poor people, who are more likely to be Black or Hispanic?

If Social Security is this popular, surely there is room to expand the size and scope of our welfare state. Why not expand Social Security to include more generous retirement benefits, parental leave, family benefits, and stronger unemployment benefits?

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