Commentary | The Promise of Progress: The Rise of American Social Democracy

Commentary | The Promise of Progress: The Rise of American Social Democracy

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Cameron Vaské

- Founder, Chief Editor, & Policy Analyst,
The International Scholar
- Foreign Policy, Transatlantic & European Affairs, Macroeconomics, American Politics, Democracy, and Governance

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D.C. — In just three days, the United States will hold its midterm elections, and the voter turnout is likely to set a record. Also striking is the number of progressive candidates on the Democratic ballot. An entirely new generation of left-wing American politicians has emerged in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, and many will take office early next year with significant consequences for the future of American politics and policy.

The Progressive Wing
Invariably, the new progressives, like any political cohort, will take slightly different stances on different issues. Nonetheless, the progressives wing of the Democrats champion a number of collective policy priorities, such as addressing income inequality, the influence of money in politics, making college more affordable, strengthening social security, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice.

Building from Bernie Sanders’ populist appeal, various liberal and progressive organizations have established themselves as major influences within the left-wing. Our Revolution and The People for Bernie draw their origins and political leaning directly from the charismatic Vermont Senator, while organizations like MoveOn and Democracy for America, though still more liberal, have adopted his populist rhetoric.

Although Bernie Sanders describes himself a democratic socialist, his policies — and importantly, those of his soon-to-be fellow Congressmen and women — are often more social democratic in nature. Though the two appear synonymous from a more moderate political viewpoint, they differ significantly.

Democratic socialists believe capitalism to be fatally flawed, and thus advocate for state control the economy while retaining a democratic government. Although social democrats also view capitalism as a flawed system, they do not support state control of the economy. Rather, they advocate for strong social security, welfare, and other programs that serve to counter the flaws of capitalism and provide for the working classes.

By pursuing a more ‘elitist,’ technocratic politics and abandoning their ardent support for the working classes, the Democrats lost their organic connection to the people. The rise of the progressives is a return to the norm.

It is this difference which distinguishes much of the new progressive wing from their counterparts in the emergent third party The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and therefore, worth the distinction. Nonetheless, many of the new progressives taking the stage in these midterm elections have been endorsed by the DSA. One such candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has risen to the fore as a young leader of the progressive movement.

Running for New York’s 14th District in the Bronx and Queens, Ocasio-Cortez has all but guaranteed herself a seat in the House. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty-Eight — arguably the most trusted source for polling and elections forecasting in the United States — gives her a greater than 99% chance of winning the election.

While this is, in large part, due to the decidedly left-leaning constituency in her district, the margin by which she leads shows the strong appeal that social democratic and socialist politics have earned — particularly among urbanites. 

Following Bill Clinton’s election in the United States, Democratic politics took a more moneyed, technocratic approach. Focusing on the changing world landscape brought on by globalization, Democrats began to focus on international trade, foreign policy, and social identity than on economic welfare, domestic policy, and social security. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair’s Third Way Labour Party shifted its priorities in much the same way. 

By pursuing a more ‘elitist,’ technocratic politics and abandoning their ardent support for the working classes, the Democrats and Labour both lost their organic connection to the people. Politics became a game of choosing between the wealthy on the left or the right. In the United States, we witnessed the backlash play out in the Jacksonian Revolt that elected Donald Trump. In the United Kingdom, the people voted for Brexit.

Much of the progressive platform’s proposed solutions are indeed achievable — provided they have enough support to enact clear-cut policies.

In reality, the rise of the progressives is a return to the norm; the progressives have simply returned to Democratic roots, demanding progressive tax reform, an end to big money in politics, and fighting to address the massive income inequality that has grown out of a decade of automation and mismanaged globalization.

What the new progressives lack, however, is experience. Many will be serving their first or second terms in office, and much of the blueprint for their policy platforms remains undrawn. They understand what must be done, but have yet to definitively address how they will do it.

The issues the progressives are tackling are immense, to be sure, but they are far from impossible to solve. Much of the progressive platform’s proposed solutions are indeed achievable — provided they have enough support to enact clear-cut policies.

Given enough support, reviving the Glass Steagall act regulating Wall Street, establishing basic gun control laws, and expanding Medicare to cover all Americans would be simple enough. Providing a federal jobs guarantee, enshrining housing as a human right, reforming the immigration, prison, and campaign finance systems will prove more of a challenge.

The Democrats are now a mixed bag of Clinton and Obama era technocrats and 21st century social democrats. In the right proportion and with enough unity, they can combine technocratic knowhow with progressive popular support that might create sustainable policy solutions and regain the faith of the working class. 

They may also show themselves to be combative and ineffectual if they are unable to overcome their political divides and work together to govern. Both the liberals and the progressives in the Democratic Party will need to avoid encouraging outright populism and mob-mentality to gain the support they need to govern effectively with one another.

The Enduring Revolution
The lingering question remains: what does the rise of the progressives mean for the United States? In the short term, the measure of their impact will depend on the result of November’s elections. If a significant number of progressives enter Congress — particularly if the Democrats win the House — then the Democratic Party’s policy platform will likely either shift slightly farther left to accommodate them, or split between the liberals and the progressives.

The rise of the social democrats may also have a significant impact on the course of the 2020 presidential race. As a political cohort that has re-prioritized the working class, a future progressive Democratic presidential nominee may prove effective at drawing many of the disillusioned working class and midland voters that Trump won in 2016.

In Congress, however, their emergence will likely create ever more complex internal divisions in the Democratic Party, as liberals and moderates will not fully endorse a progressive agenda, and the progressives will see the liberals as remnants of the elitist left-wing politics that helped create many of today’s societal ills and economic woes.

As a political cohort that has re-prioritized the working class, a future progressive Democratic presidential nominee may prove effective at drawing many of the disillusioned working class and midland voters.

However, it isn’t inconceivable that, like the right-wing insurgents of the Republican Party, the progressives will affect a party-wide conversion to a Social Democratic platform. In this event, where will the liberals, moderates, centrists, and old conservatives be found? What is clear is that the American two-party system isn’t big enough for both the Progressives and the Liberals, much less the vast array of existing  political cohorts, parties, and would-be parties in the United States.

Our Revolution supporters are fond of the slogan, “Campaigns end. Revolutions endure.” This is true often enough, yet the basis for a revolution is the defeat of an old group and the victory of a new one. While this is appropriate for a political slogan, what the United States really needs is a political renaissance — a rebirth of politics. America’s political divisions will not be solved through political conquest, but through political diversity.

What the United States really needs is a political renaissance — a rebirth of politics. America’s political divisions will not be solved through political conquest, but through political diversity.

In a multi-party America — and more importantly, a multi-party Congress — politics and policymaking would become much more about issues than politics for politics’ sake. Without a complete majority in Congress, parties would no longer be able to block or force through legislation and representatives wound not be as pressured to toe a political line with which they disagreed. It would also free the Republicans and Democrats from disunity by allowing factions like the progressives to create their own parties. In short, revolutions may endure, but a renaissance endures for all.

For now, the fledgeling progressive wing will be closely observed. The results of November 6th’s elections will serve as a barometer for Americans’ progressive political appetite. If they are successful at the ballot, their victory will serve as a promise of progress to a new breed of American social democrats, establishing a greater presence in the Democratic party, and perhaps paving the way to a progressive presidential bid in 2020.  One thing is for certain: the Revolution is here to stay.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Photo credit:

  1. Photo credit to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Campaign, Facebook
    https://tinyurl.com/y8q4m97f

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