|It doesn't stop at the water's edge:|
|Random strands and actors|
Social democracy is the idea that the state needs to provide security and equality for its people and should actively reorder society in a way that is conducive to such developments, but that such changes should be brought about gradually, legitimated by a democratically-elected majority. It is native to Europe, where social democrats regularly feature as one of the major parties and have led (or at least participated in) governments in most states at some point in time, most notably in Scandinavia. Social democrats typically regard government intervention as a force for good, constraining markets and engaging in redistributive efforts for the benefit of the lower classes in order to establish a more equitable society.
Somewhat confusingly, social democracy is not the same thing as democratic socialism, nearly-identical names notwithstanding. Social democrats believe in maintaining the capitalist system - democratic socialists do not.
Social democratic approach to change
While social democrats belong firmly in the progressive camp, they reject the need to change society by means of revolution and class warfare. Instead, they affirm the need of obtaining a mandate within the confines of existing democratic structures and, once in power, focus on implementing policies designed to bring about reform of a country's society and economy towards a more equitable distribution of wealth. Since the end of World War II, European social democrats have generally moved towards platforms that affirm market-based economic orders and private entrepreneurship, but sought to implement welfare and redistribution policies designed to improve the long-term outlook for underprivileged groups.
The original split between traditional socialists and social democrats occurred way back at the end of the 19th century, when the latter emerged as a new branch of socialists who originally shared their vision of a radically different post-capitalist society, but didn't want to participate in outright revolutions that Marxist orthodoxy considered necessary to bring such change about. Instead, they opted to form political parties that acknowledged the existing order for the time being and tried to attain power through elections. Nowadays, this definition would cover all of the mainstream democratic left, even though many of these parties still label themselves "socialist."
These days, many social democrats are largely indistinguishable from their conservative opponents, as a result of both types of parties converging around the center of the political spectrum. Key elements of the welfare state remain popular with the major parties as well as the general populace, but in recent years, overall spending on such policies has been reduced by both center-right and center-left governments in a bid to decrease government deficits and enhance "economic competitiveness."
There is still some debate over how well these policies worked. Social democratic thought and governance has had a lot of influence on post-war Western Europe; the respective parties used to dominate the political landscape in Scandinavia and introduced the modern European welfare state model in numerous other countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. While economic growth was robust up to the 1970s, the much more market liberal United States performed better in recent decades. Nowadays, only Norway, which has a great deal of oil, has a higher (PPP) GDP per capita than that of the USA. This discrepancy is mostly due to significantly shorter working hours in European countries, while worker productivity (GDP per hour worked) in the US and in advanced European countries is at similar levels. While average personal income in Western Europe is lower (especially after taxes), this is offset by more leisure time and typically higher provisions of public goods such as education and health care.
In social matters (for example, social mobility) however, the Scandinavian countries tend to outstrip the USA by a good margin. In terms of the Gini coefficient, which measures the equality of income distribution, the United States does very poorly (even worse than Russia) and is handily beaten by the European states.
In 2006, The Economist predicted the Nordic Model (with its "grave defects") to break down, especially in Sweden where a new centre-right government would apparently seek in nuking the welfare state. The result? Two years later, the economies of both The Economist's home country and its ultra-neoliberal counterpart crumbled into the worst recession since the 1930s, Sweden's total tax rate remains near 50%, and every Scandinavian nation (excluding poor deregulated Iceland) has emerged with comparatively lower debt levels and unemployment rates than both the US and UK. Talk about a buzzkill.
In the US
Social democracy in the United States has been associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the United States Socialist Party. The latter party had both social democratic and Marxist wings. The Democratic Party's left wing, during the post-World War II era, was typified by organized labor and writers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who viewed social democracy as the "vital center" of politics in opposition to both far-left communism and far-right laissez-faire capitalism. Other groups, like the Social Democrats USA, and the related Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, were formed by former Trotskyists who had swung hard right on foreign policy and advocated a strong anti-Soviet Union stance, but remained economically leftist; this group's main ideological influence was Trotskyist theorist Max Schactman, who is sometimes also cited as an intellectual father of neoconservatism.