A Social Democracy of Fear
April 18, 2011

Over at FireDogLake, Blue Texan catches Republican consultant Mary Matalin making a startling observation:

There is no small amount of empirical data to say we’re at the end of this hundred year, European-originated social democracy welfare state experiment…there’s current data and there’s century’s long data that says we cannot sustain this trajectory.

Those ellipses elide a lot of valorization of the invisible hand that I’ve decided not to bother transcribing. You get the basic idea. Workers’ rights, corporate regulation, a putative social safety net … in Matalin’s eyes, these were all components in an experiment that has failed and left us back at square one, which is to say somewhere in that glorious laissez-faire era of robber baron supremacy.

I’m not so surprised a political consultant believes this, but I am slightly flummoxed to hear her say it aloud. After all, her job is getting Republicans elected, and those voters in the middle like their Social Security and Medicare. Though I suppose the details of the Ryan plan amounted to such a deafening declaration of intentions that there’s no need for anyone on Team Galt to try and keep up appearances anymore.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to outsource the rest of this post to the late, great Tony Judt.

If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

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