The European Right Co-Opted Social Democracy Because It Works

The bastion of acceptable center-right opinion in Europe, The Economist magazine (or newspaper as they like to call it), ran a special report earlier this year on the success of the governing model of the Nordic nations trying to claim that the most egalitarian, feminist, social democratic nations in the world are shining examples of the wonders of conservative thinking.  If only we had these kind of conservatives in the United States.

Not surprisingly, as Joseph Schwartz noted recently in an article for Dissent magazine, The Economist report places inordinate attention on the libertarian side of Nordic life and less on the long standing tradition and success of social democracy in these countries:

The Economist never once mentions that the Nordic economic model of growth-with-equity derives from the continued existence of a powerful labor movement (union density is above 70 percent in each country, versus 11.3 percent in the United States and 17 percent in Great Britain). Nor does it tell us that the historical dominance of social democracy means that Nordic conservative parties resemble Obama-style Democrats. Even as social democratic parties move in and out of government, the “Nordic model” draws heavily upon the egalitarian values of its labor movement and social democratic parties.

The publics in these countries trust government because the social democrats built their welfare state upon a vision of comprehensive and universal social rights. All members of society receive publicly financed health care, child care, and education. The central government ensures that these goods are financed equitably and are of high quality—so the upper-middle class remains loyal to these services and gladly pays the high taxes to support them. The Nordic nations long ago recognized that means-tested programs end up being poorly funded and unsustainable because they are often opposed by those just above the poverty line. (The vicious politics of “welfare reform” in Britain and the United States depended upon only the poor being eligible for child-care support from the state.)

The Economist is clearly a free-market organ (albeit less doctrinaire than we are used to here in the U.S.)  and not in the business of defending progressive politics.  But it is still striking that much of the European right has decided to embrace and work with a hybrid model of social democracy and liberalism while their counterparts in the U.S. continue to go down a dead-end path of straight hostility and antagonism to all things public outside of the military.

Paul Ryan has tried recently to argue that his budget plans are a way to save the welfare state and ensure that vital public needs can be funded in the future.  If Ryan were, say, a moderate Swedish conservative, this might be believable.  But he’s the intellectual leader of the U.S. House Republicans and the Tea Party caucus, making it more than a little hard to put trust in his professed love for the welfare state.  American conservatives and the GOP have a majority in reach if they could find a way to drop the obvious hatred of government and their disdain for people who rely on the helping hand of the state to get by in our modern economic life, but they haven’t.

Conservatives don’t need to accept European-style social democracy.   But acceptance of the 20th century progressive accomplishments — like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, public interest regulations, national infrastructure investment, and funding for public education — might be a good place to start if they want to convince Americans that they understand their values and needs in the 21st century.