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Social democracy

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The red rose is coming after you. Run!
It's not democratic socialism, it's
Social democracy
Basic concepts
Political parties
Adjacent ideologies
People who don't think much of it
The dismal science
Icon economics.svg
Economic Systems

  $  Market Economy
  €  Mixed Economy
  ☭ Socialist Economy

Major Concepts
Those damn socialist Scandinavians keep outperforming everyone in everything.
—Rick Eichhorn[1]
[...] If we have the opportunity to describe what democratic socialism means...
You have countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, which have had social democratic governments.
In those countries, healthcare is a right for all people;
tuition is free; in those countries, governments are working for the middle class, rather than the billionaire class.
Bernie Sanders, incorrectly associating democratic socialism with social democracy

Social democracy is a centre-left (left-wing) political ideology which advocates for state intervention in order to fulfill social, financial and political security, justice and equality of opportunity for people and actively reorder society in a way that is conducive to such developments. Such changes should be achieved by a legitimated and free democracy. It is common but not unique to Europe, where social democrats regularly feature as one of the major parties and have governed (or at least participated in governments) in many states, most notably in Northern Europe (up to being nicknamed the "Nordic model", which is effectively a blend of social liberalism and social democracy). Social democrats typically regard government intervention as a force for good, regulating markets and engaging in redistributive efforts for the benefit of disadvantaged groups and consumers in order to establish a more equitable society. The ideologies' economic model is that of John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern macroeconomics.

Somewhat confusingly, social democracy is not the same thing as democratic socialism, nearly identical names notwithstanding. Modern social democrats believe in maintaining a strongly, regulated market economy with a welfare state — democratic socialists do not (liberal socialists are the only nominally "socialists" who do), as they seek to abolish those goodies.

Social democratic approach to change[edit]

Social democrats belong firmly in the progressive camp and 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 equal distribution of wealth. Since the end of World War II, European social democrats have generally abandoned the goal of building an alternative economic system to capitalism and moved towards platforms that affirm market-based economic orders and private entrepreneurship, yet still seek to implement welfare and state intervention designed to improve the long-term outlook for underprivileged groups.

The original split between traditional socialists and social democrats occurred 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 parties, even though many of these still label themselves "socialist". Therefore, this definition is inapplicable.

In a European context many modern social democrats may hold similar positions to less extreme conservative opponents, as a result of both types of parties converging around the center of the political spectrum.[citation needed] Key elements of the welfare state remain popular with the major parties as well as the general populace.

Rich media magnates may be perceived to have used their control over large sections of news outlets to make policies that tax rich people less popular, also have used their lobbying power to lower the taxes their community pays. In recent years, overall spending on welfare policies has been slightly reduced by both center-right and center-left governments in a bid to decrease government deficits (without increasing taxes on rich people) and enhance economic competitiveness.

A brief history[edit]

Divergence from socialism[edit]

Originally, social democrats were democratic socialists before the First World War. The split occurred in the late 1910s and the early 1920s; in Russia, the mensheviks (moderate revolutionaries that dethroned the Czar Nicholas II in February of 1917) were overthrown by the bolsheviks (communist revolutionaries) in October of 1917, leading to a civil war and elimination of any dissent, later culminating in Stalinism. In Germany, the newly founded Communist Party (German: Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) staged a coup d'état against the recently established democracy (the Weimar RepublicWikipedia) governed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (German: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, SPD), an infamous historical event known as the Spartacist uprisingWikipedia. The forces of the first President of Germany, Friedrich EbertWikipedia, defeated the mob of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, which led to the historical association among socialists of social democracy with fascism (a conspiracy theory known as ""social fascism"Wikipedia, founded by Stalin).

Not all socialists believed in this, many (such as Leon Trotsky) denouncing the bolsheviks and their late mutation, Stalinism, claiming that social democrats are allies in the fight against fascism, even if they disagree ideologically to a certain extent. As a side-note, American historian Theodore DraperWikipedia argues that the accusation of "social fascism" by the far-left facilitated the rise and consolidation of nazism in Germany, 1933.


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, though practically all of these gains in America went to the wealthy. 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 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. Economic growth, employment numbers, and inflation tend to either be comparable to the US or greater depending on the economic climate, while the Northern European countries are ranked extremely high in terms of economic competitiveness. While average personal income in Western Europe is somewhat lower (especially after taxes, though in nominal terms the Nordic countries actually outstrip the US by a far bit), this is offset by more leisure time and typically higher provisions of public goods such as education and health care.[2] These free-at-the-point-of-use programs mean that factoring them in, disposable income in Northern Europe can often exceed that of the US.

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. Human development and happiness are also indexes on which the Nordic counties perform considerably better.


See the main article on this topic: European sovereign debt crisis

In 2006, The Economist asserted that the Nordic Model, with what it deemed "grave defects", would break down, predicting that a new centre-right government in Sweden would dismantle the welfare state.[3] This would not occur. Two years later, the economies of both the United Kingdom (where The Economist is based) and its even less-regulated counterpart, the United States, crumbled into the worst recession since the 1930s. Sweden's total tax rate remains at near 50%, and every Scandinavian nation has emerged with comparatively lower debt levels and unemployment rates than both the US and UK. The Economist has since, if begrudgingly, called the Scandinavian nations "probably the best-governed in the world."

Look at the fine print[edit]

The stereotype that the Nordic model is a bureaucratic, Soviet-style mess borders on the willfully ignorant. In addition to exceptionally high union membership, there is a deep commitment to adapting with the times. To combat outsourcing and wage dumping as associated with globalization, Scandinavia is committed to free trade,[4] trading corporate taxesWikipedia for VATWikipedias.[5] This regulatory environment is known as flexicurity, wherein ease of hiring and firing workers is offset with skills upkeep towards ensuring that they won't go into poverty while unemployed.[6]


As can be see in the table below, the union membership for social democratic ("Nordic model", marked in red) countries is far higher than for other countries (in order to not break the page, an arbitrary selection of countries from the data set was chosen). The same applies to the Human Development Index (HDI) scores, ranging from 0 (worst) to 1 (best), and the World Happiness Report scores, ranging from 0 (worst) to 10 (best). In general, social democracy is a strong defender of worker rights and social justice, while anglo-conservative countries (marked in blue) perform worse in that aspect.

Country Union membership
[%] (2015/2016)[7]
Happiness score
Primary health
care coverage
[%] (2015)[10]
Social spending
per capita
[$] (2015)[11]
Iceland Iceland 90.4 0.938 7.494 99.7 6,589.20
Denmark Denmark 67.2 0.930 7.600 100 12,895.20
Sweden Sweden 67.0 0.937 7.343 100 11,664.20
Finland Finland 64.6 0.925 7.769 100 11,514.60
Belgium Belgium 54.2 0.919 6.923 99 11,917.40
Norway Norway 52.5 0.954 7.554 100 14,711.20
Italy Italy 34.4 0.883 6.223 100 9,456.90
Canada Canada 28.4 0.922 7.278 100 7,456.20
Ireland Ireland 24.4 0.942 7.021 100 9,397.80
United Kingdom United Kingdom 23.5 0.920 7.054 100 8,292.30
Greece Greece 18.6 0.872 5.287 86 6,027.60
New Zealand New Zealand 17.9 0.921 7.307 100 6,612.50
Japan Japan 17.3 0.915 5.886 100 8,214.10
Netherlands Netherlands 17.3 0.933 7.488 99.9 8,069.10
Germany Germany 17.0 0.939 6.985 100 10,598.70
Portugal Portugal 16.3 0.850 5.693 100 6,418.80
Switzerland Switzerland 15.7 0.946 7.480 100 8,649.90
Australia Australia 14.5 0.938 7.228 100 8,328.10
Spain Spain 13.9 0.893 6.354 99.9 7,832.10
Poland Poland 12.1 0.872 6.182 91 4,292.70[note 1]
United States United States 10.3 0.920 6.892 90.9 9,734.40
Table of Correlates
Union membership
[%] (2015/2016)
Happiness score
Primary health
care coverage
[%] (2015)
Social spending
per capita
[$] (2015)
Union membership [%] (2015/2016) +0.354 +0.491 +0.291 +0.499
HDI (2019) +0.846 +0.468 +0.577
Happiness score (2019) +0.533 +0.521
Primary health care coverage [%] (2015) +0.376

In the United States[edit]

Social democracy in the United States has been associated with the left-wing of the Democratic Party and the right-wing of the Democratic Socialists of America. The latter organization had both social democratic and Marxist wings. The Democratic Party's left-wing, during the post-World War II era, was typified by organized labour 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 Shachtman, who is sometimes also cited as an intellectual father of neoconservatism. The 1912 election was particularly memorable as a (possible) high watermark of leftist ideology on the national stage, as it pitted an outright socialist (Eugene V. Debs) and a candidate of the Progressive Party (Teddy Roosevelt) as well as a self-described "progressive" for the Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) against an incumbent Republican (Howard Taft) who got clobbered and placed third.

A small Social Democratic Party[12] actually exists in the US, but most Americans have no idea. What they do know is the existence and resurgence of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who recently helped candidates win local and state elections in Virginia towards the end of 2017.

For decades, the only self-described "Socialist" on the national political stage was Vermont Senator and 2016/2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Although some parts of the internet had a near-religious conviction that Bernie would eventually win the candidacy, this did not happen and Hillary Clinton won the candidacy, briefly throwing parts of the internet into mass hysteria. Still, there are some who argue that if Bernie would have been the Democratic candidate the second great WTF? moment of 2016 would have been avoided.

As of the 2018 midterm election, due to the work of grassroots organizations such as the Justice Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America, and Bernie's Our Revolution, a few new social democratic figures have cropped up in the American mainstream. Possibly the most well-known of the entire group is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), who initially gained fame for successfully primarying House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley from the left. Also included in this group are newcomers and incumbent House Democrats such as Ro Khanna (CA-17), Raul Grijalva (AZ-3), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Ilhan Omar (MN-5), Ayanna Pressley (MA-7), and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13).

A lecture by American sociologist, feminist writer, LGBT rights activist and author of "Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too" (2016) George Lakey about how the United States can achieve social democratic goals.

Faux criticism and misinformation[edit]

Considering that many European countries are perfect case studies to use in support of social democracy, it's pretty difficult to argue against implementing the system in the United States and elsewhere, but that hasn't stopped opponents of social and economic justice from trying.

Much of the "criticism" against social democracy hails from conservatives, who, being the intellectually dishonest and vapid hacks they are, cannot be bothered to do much research into social democracy and thus regurgitate very low information attacks (so-called "arguments") against a system which works very well in so many countries based on the evidence we have.

Some of these "criticisms" include:

  • "Venezuela!!!", "Cuba!!!", "Soviet Union!!!" (none of which are or were social democratic)
  • They don't have minimum wages!!! (see below for explanation)
  • They're free-market economies!!!
  • They're capitalist countries with big welfare states!!!
  • They are homogenous countries, we have too many blacks and mexicans here!!!

None of these fallacious attacks actually explain why social democracy is a bad system which should not or cannot be implemented in the United States, rather, many of them just describe aspects of social democracy. If someone is making these arguments, just agree and then ask why we shouldn't pursue that system. Either they won't be able to respond or they'll contradict themselves and call those countries or reforms socialist or use a reductio ad Venezuelum fallacy.

Is it true that Nordic countries do not have a minimum wage?[edit]

Although it is true that the Nordic countries don't have a minimum wage established by law, their trade unions are strong enough to negotiate salaries with their respective employers. Instead of a state entity demanding a fixed value that has to be changed regularly via legislation (that may or may not include political ambitions and electoral scheming), it is not altered by factors such as inflation rates and per capita purchasing power (PPP). Workers and employers thus have a better and direct influence on their working and financial conditions than what a parliament has, engaging in constructive dialogue and exchanges.

Actual criticism[edit]

While there is actual criticism against social democracy, much of it is skepticism of whether or not the Nordic countries which implement social democracy would actually be better off without it.

Good trends before social democracy[edit]

One of these points of skepticism is the fact that the Nordic Countries, in particular, have shown pretty good social outcomes and low levels of income inequality before adopting social democracy and the "Nordic Model". In 1960, tax revenues amounted to 25 percent of GDP in Denmark, 28 percent in Finland, 29 percent in Sweden and 32 percent in Norway. This can be compared with rates of 27 percent of GDP in the UK and 34 percent in Germany at the same time.[13] From 1960 to 2005, the Nordic countries have fallen in their life expectancy rankings.[14]. In fact, Iceland, despite having a smaller government,[note 2] has better social outcomes in many areas than the other Nordic countries. In 2011, life expectancy in Iceland was 82.4 years, compared with 81.8 in Sweden, 81.3 in Norway, 80.5 in Finland and 79.8 in Denmark.[15] Iceland beat all of them in child mortality rates in 1960, 2005, and 2013.[16]

These countries have also shown interesting trends in their egalitarian income distribution. In 1920, well before the existence of any welfare state, Sweden had the most equal income distribution out of the US, Canada, France and the Netherlands. The income share of the Swedish top decile drops sharply over the first eighty years of the twentieth century. Most of the decrease takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.[17]

In Denmark, the Gini coefficient of taxable income moved considerably towards higher levels of equality during the last three decades of the 19th century as well as in the first half of the 20th century. Most of the shift towards higher equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes.[18] In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden the income shares of the top 10% and largely for the top 1% dropped a lot between 1900 and 1970. It continued to fall a bit during the 1980s but has since increased to 1970 levels.[19]

Income and wealth inequality[edit]

The Nordic countries generally rank among the lowest countries in terms of the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality. However, Slovenia beats Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden; the Czech Republic beats Finland and Sweden; Slovakia, Belgium, and Austria beat Sweden. These countries, specifically Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, don't have welfare states or taxes anywhere near similar to what the Nordic countries have, and the Czech Republic even has a flat tax.[20] However, the income per capita is also much lower in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia than in Scandinavia, something which the IEA report omits, nor does it look at other flat tax countries that don't fit this pattern, such as Russia, suggesting at least a degree of cherry picking.

In terms of wealth inequality, Italy and the United Kingdom have lower levels than Finland, and Sweden has worse inequality than Canada, Germany, and the United States. As of 2009, 30% of Swedish households had net zero or negative assets. Around 20% had asset levels that corresponded to around one month’s salary for a normal household.[21]

Prominent social democratic parties in various countries[edit]

Many of the following social democratic parties are part of political internationals such as the Socialist InternationalWikipedia (SI) (which is not socialist but social democratic) or the Progressive AllianceWikipedia (PA).

Logo of the Socialist InternationalWikipedia (SI); the hand holding a rose is commonly associated with social democracy.
Logo of the Progressive AllianceWikipedia (PA).
Country Acronym Party
Australia Australia ALP ALP logo 2017.svg Australian Labor Party
Austria Austria SPÖ Logo SPÖ.svg Social Democratic Party of AustriaWikipedia
(German: Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs)
Belgium Belgium (Wallonia) PS Socialist Party (Belgium) logo.svg Socialist PartyWikipedia
(French: Parti Socialiste)
Belgium Belgium (Flanders) sp.a Socialistische Partij Anders (logo).png Socialist Party DifferentlyWikipedia
(Flemish-Dutch: Socialistische Partij Anders)
Canada Canada NDP / NPD NDP-NPD-Canada.svg New Democratic Party
(French: Nouveau Parti démocratique)
Croatia Croatia SDP Socijaldemokratska Partija Hrvatske Logo.svg Social Democratic Party of CroatiaWikipedia
(Serbo-Croatian: Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske)
Czechia Czechia SDP CSSD Teillogo.svg Czech Social Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Czech: Česká strana sociálně demokratická)
Denmark Denmark A The Social Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Danish: Socialdemokratiet)
Finland Finland SDP Social Democratic Party of FinlandWikipedia
(Finnish: Suomen sosialidemokraattinen puolue)
France France PS Socialist PartyWikipedia
(French: Parti Socialiste)
Germany Germany SPD Logo SPD 2019.svg.png Social Democratic Party of Germany
(German: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands)
Ireland Ireland Labour Labour PartyWikipedia
(Irish: Páirtí an Lucht Oibre)
Israel Israel HaAvoda HaAvoda Logo.svg Israeli Labour PartyWikipedia
(Hebrew: מִפְלֶגֶת הָעֲבוֹדָה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית)
Israel Israel Meretz MeretzWikipedia
(Hebrew: מֶרֶצ)
Italy Italy PD Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Italian: Partito Democratico)
Japan Japan Shamin-tō Social Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Japanese: 社会民主党)
Lithuania Lithuania LSDP Social Democratic Party of LithuaniaWikipedia
(Lithuanian: Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija)
Netherlands Netherlands PvdA Logo PvdA.svg Labour PartyWikipedia
(Dutch: Partij van de Arbeid)
New Zealand New Zealand Labour New Zealand Labour PartyWikipedia
(Māori: Rōpū Reipa o Aotearoa)
Norway Norway A / Ap Norwegian Labour PartyWikipedia
(Bokmål-Norwegian: Arbeiderpartiet)
Portugal Portugal PS Socialist PartyWikipedia
(Portuguese: Partido Socialista)
Slovenia Slovenia SD Socialni demokrati Logo.svg Social DemocratsWikipedia
(Slovene: Socialni demokrati)
South Korea South Korea JP Jeongeuidang logo.svg Justice Party
(Korean: 정의당)
Spain Spain PSOE Logotipo del PSOE.svg Spanish Socialist Workers' PartyWikipedia
(Castilian-Spanish: Partido Socialista Obrero Español)
Sweden Sweden S / SAP S v1.svg Swedish Social Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Swedish: Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti)
Switzerland Switzerland SP / PS Logo der Sozialdemokratischen Partei der Schweiz 2009, single.svg Social Democratic Party of SwitzerlandWikipedia
(German: Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz,
French: Parti Socialiste, Italian: Partito Socialista Svizzero)
Turkey Turkey CHP Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi Logo.svg Republican People's PartyWikipedia
(Turkish: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi)
Turkey Turkey HDP Peoples' Democratic PartyWikipedia
(Turkish: Halkların Demokratik Partisi)
United Kingdom United Kingdom Labour 40px Labour Party
United Kingdom United Kingdom (Scotland) SNP Scottish National Party Logo.svg Scottish National Party
(Scottish Gaelic: Pàrtaidh Nàiseanta na h-Alba)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Number is from 2010
  2. The average tax revenue as a percentage of GDP from 2003 to 2013 in Iceland was 36%. This is contrasted with 42% in Finland, 43% in Norway, 44% in Sweden and 47% in Denmark.