America's Social Democratic Future: The Arc of Policy Is Long but Bends toward Justice

By Kenworthy, Lane | Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014 | Go to article overview

America's Social Democratic Future: The Arc of Policy Is Long but Bends toward Justice


Kenworthy, Lane, Foreign Affairs


Since March 2010, when U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, the aca has been at the center of American politics. Tea Party activists and their allies in the Republican Party have tried to stymie the law at nearly every turn. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted more than 40 times in favor of repealing or defunding it, and last October the House allowed a partial shutdown of the federal government in an attempt to block or delay the law. The controversy surrounding the aca shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

Obamacare, as the law is commonly known, is the most significant reform of the U.S. health-care system in half a century. It aims to increase the share of Americans who have health insurance, improve the quality of health insurance plans, and slow the growth of health-care spending. But the fight over the law is about more than just health-care policy, and the bitterness of the conflict is driven by more than just partisan polarization. Obamacare has become the central battleground in an ongoing war between liberals and conservatives over the size and scope of the U.S. government, a fight whose origins stretch back to the Great Depression and the New Deal.

Opponents of President Franklin Roosevelt's innovations were silenced when the New Deal's reforms were locked in during the Truman and Eisenhower years, and the U.S. welfare state took another leap forward under Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society agenda expanded public help for the poor and created the government-administered health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid. But the following decades saw few major additions and some notable setbacks, including the failure of President Bill Clinton's health-care reform effort in 1994.

The passage of Obamacare has caused such controversy in part because it seems to signal a new stage of government activism, leading some conservatives to oppose it as a decisive and possibly inexorable turn to the left. "Precisely because the Affordable Care Act is the realization of a half-century long liberal dream," the conservative commentator Peter Wehner wrote recently in The Weekly Standard, "if it fails, it will be a crushing blow not just to Barack Obama but to American liberalism itself. Why? Because Obamacare is in many ways the avatar, the archetype, of modem liberalism. That's true in terms of its coercive elements, its soaring confidence in technocratic solutions, its ambition to centralize decisionmaking, and its belief that government knows best."

Such apocalyptic arguments vastly overstate Obamacare's practical significance. But they also obscure the more interesting reality, which is that the aca represents another step on a long, slow, but steady journey away from the classical liberal capitalist state and toward a peculiarly American version of social democracy. Unlike in, say, northern Europe, where social democracy has been enacted deliberately and comprehensively over the years by ideologically self-aware political movements, in the United States, a more modest and patchy social safety net has been pieced together by pragmatic politicians and technocrats tackling individual problems. Powerful forces will continue to fight those efforts, and the resulting social insurance policies will emerge more gradually and be less universal, less efficient, and less effective than they would otherwise have been. But the opponents are fighting a losing battle and can only slow down and distort the final outcome rather than stop it. Thanks to a combination of popular demand, technocratic supply, and gradually increasing national wealth, social democracy is the future of the United States.

NORDIC MODELS

Social democracy originated in the early twentieth century as a strategy to improve capitalism rather than replace it. Today, people generally associate it with European social democratic political parties and the policies they have put in place, especially those in the Nordic countries, such as Denmark and Sweden. …

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