For decades, scholars and commentators have differentiated the US from Europe by pointing to the relative weakness of the American social welfare state. European social democracies-particularly the Nordic ones-have erected broad and deep social insurance systems to buffer the effects of the capitalist marketplace, and as consequence virtually all citizens have access to housing, health care, and transfer payments that alleviate the effects of unemployment/underemployment. In combination, these policies have made Northern European societies among the most comfortable and egalitarian in human history. In contrast, conventional wisdom holds that America's patchwork welfare state, which only grudgingly redistributes income to the least wealthy, is miserly in comparison, more wedded to free market individualism than social solidarity. In Social Democratic America, the eminent scholar Lane Kenworthy has crafted the most definitive rejoinder yet to champions of American exceptionalism. He shows that in fact, the US is well along the path toward becoming a social democratic society.
Certainly, it has moved in fits and starts, and our nation's peculiar federal structure has generated a number of cumbersome solutions for delivering social insurance. But over time it has delivered, and for every step backward, policymakers have crafted and passed policies that have moved the nation two steps forward toward social democracy. Built in bits and pieces, the modern US welfare state, while still less encompassing than European counterparts, is not only massive but expanding its reach. The evidence, which has accumulated over three quarters of a century, is now overwhelming: Social Security, national unemployment insurance, AFDC (later replaced by TANF), Medicare and Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and-most recently-the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). What's more, almost every conservative effort to undo these programs has failed ignominiously. Along with tracing the evolution of the American social welfare state, Kenworthy stresses throughout that America is bending ever further toward a social democratic path. This is a difficult argument to make for two reasons.
First, Americans are deeply invested in the idea of American exceptionalism, Second, Republican policy successes in the 1980s and 2000s reinforced the notion that America is at base a center-right nation, inhospitable to European-style social insurance schemes. The combination of Obama's first-term legislative successes and his recent re-election has caused observers to think twice about these arguments, but Kenworthy shows that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Drawing from his unparalleled knowledge of social policy in the advanced industrial world, he shows how the US has been (and continues to be) progressing slowly but steadily toward a clear endpoint: genuine social democracy. Social Democratic America will attract a great deal of criticism, but even the most incorrigible doubters will have to take stock of his powerful and well-substantiated thesis.