Social Democratic Moment, Working Class Optional?
That's Not Going To Work
EJ Dionne argues in a recent Post column that social democracy is back. I am not so sure. His basic argument is that neoliberal economics has been discredited by the pandemic crisis and the consequent need for large scale government activism. Combined with other recent failures of the neoliberal paradigm the result is:
a resurgence of social democracy’s core idea: that market economies can thrive only when governments underwrite them with strong systems of social insurance, new paths to opportunity for those cast aside by capitalism’s “creative destruction,” and updated rules to advance social goods that include family life, education, public health — and the planet itself.
He goes on to cite the relative unity of the Democrats around social democratic-ish legislation and the words of German Social Democratic finance minister Olaf Scholz about progressives' "common political project".
Leaving aside how seriously one should take the pronouncements of Scholz, whose party has been on a steadily declining trajectory, I would describe all this as necessary but not sufficient conditions for a truly social democratic moment. This includes Dionne’s point about the discrediting of neoliberal economics. The more difficult task here is replacing neoliberal economics with a different economic model and that will take considerable effort and time.
For example, even with generous assumptions about what Democrats are actually able to pass in the current Congress, it is safe to say that even that will not achieve the transformation of the American political economy that is necessary to provide a good life for American citizens across region, race and class. That is a longer-term project that will require more reforms, more successful elections and broader majorities than the Democrats currently command.
To put a finer point on it, if the Democrats lose control of Congress in 2022, their ability to accomplish big or even medium size things after that date drops toward zero. This is not a recipe for a transformative period in American society; transformations need some time and a period of true political dominance to succeed.
This brings up something Dionne does not mention at all--working class support. I find it implausible that Democrats can retain and exert power long enough for such a "social democratic moment" when their working class support is so shaky. The 2020 election is just the latest evidence of that shaky support. And that election was, in turn, consistent with a deep trend that has greatly undermined the center-left.
As I have previously noted, a realignment to the left has seemed to be in the offing even since the Great Recession and it hasn't happened. That potential realignment has been in stall mode.
This is because the stalled realignment has been driven by the shift of working class voters out of left parties and the increasing reliance of such parties on highly-educated voters. That has created the stall situation where the left, even when it wins elections, is continually undermined by the bleeding of working class voters. The result is unstable governance that has fallen far short of realignment.
The proximate reason for the bleeding has been laid out in rich descriptive detail in a various papers by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues, available on the World Inequality Database website. They finger the emergence of a new "sociocultural" axis of political conflict that has been embraced by right and left parties alike and that has drawn working class voters out of the left and into right and right populist parties
Those working class defections have crippled the left for many years now. I am not convinced that, even with effects of the pandemic, we are now in a fundamentally different situation. That will take an accommodation of the left to working class values and concerns that reduces sociocultural conflict and brings enough working class voters back to the left that a dominant electoral coalition can actually be sustained.
Then and only then are we likely to see a true social democratic moment.