David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his fourth piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.
For years, one of the central critiques aimed at the U.S. two-party system has been that the Republicans and the Democrats are essentially the same party: centrist, elite-led, corporate-backed, and uninspired. As political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page showed in a 2014 study published in Perspectives on Politics, there was something to that theory.
The Republicans and Democrats were never exactly the same party, of course, but they have shared in similar practices and pathologies that concentrate power in the hands of the few and support an exclusionary political system backed by a commitment market orthodoxy. In the mid-20th century, it was Conservatives—such as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater—who raised a similar critique, though in this case the right was complaining that Republicans were too liberal, that conservatism was non-existent, and that the post-war New Deal consensus made even President Eisenhower something like a de facto Democrat. The 1970s and 1980s resolved that issue with growing partisan polarization that included not only identity-based divergences but policy divergences, too.
Even if the parties were not the same, Gilens and Page took a look at nearly 1,800 national policy matters from the Reagan administration to the second Bush administration (1981-2002), and their analysis showed a consistent pattern of elites getting the policies they preferred, often at the expense of non-elites. Those 20+ years were mostly led by Republican presidents, except for 8 years under Democrat Bill Clinton, but Democrats in the House and Senate matter, too – including then-Senator Joe Biden.
Now, as the left wing of the Democratic Party grows in influence—driven by leaders including Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, among others—and President Trump’s Republicans lean into conservative extremism, a wide policy gulf between the parties has emerged.
But do any of these developments mean that social democracy is on the agenda for the 2020 election? A look at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s platform yields some encouraging progressive policies, though also some deeply discouraging ones from the vantage point of the left (for instance, opposition to police defunding, opposition to Medicare for all, support for fracking, and an aversion to universalism). Nonetheless, some of Biden’s policies, if enacted, could shift the structural distribution of opportunity, resources, and even power. Whether or not elements of Biden’s agenda are social democratic—though nothing will stop Republicans from calling it socialist or communist—his platform includes proposals in the social democratic tradition.
Biden opposes universal, single payer Medicare for all. In March, he said it was too expensive. Instead, he prefers a public option in the mold of Medicare while preserving the Affordable Care Act (which Trump and the Republicans want to and have tried desperately to repeal). He has also pledged to lower prescription drug costs and invest in elder care. These policies reflect a blend of market and government forces, though they remain centered on the market. In April, support for a single payer medical system rose to nearly 70 percent, boosted in part by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2015, Biden proposed providing two years of debt-free college training (or similar) for community colleges or their equivalents. That policy proposal is back in 2020 as part of the Democrat’s efforts to support affordable education for Americans. Once more, the Biden is shying away from universalism—a staple of many socialist and social democratic programs—in that plan, and also with his proposal for free tuition to public colleges and universities for those with household incomes under $125,000. Biden’s education plan is rooted firmly in the middle-class discourse, appealing to those who wish to pursue college and university but also vocational post-secondary paths, somewhat reminiscent of the American post-war commitment to building Middle America. Biden also supports universal pre-school for children aged 3 and 4 and the forgiveness or reduction of student debt (some conditions apply).
In early October, I wrote about what declining union membership means for the 2020 election. Biden is offering a pro-union agenda that may have a chance, if the Democrats can gain enough leverage in Congress, to make lasting changes to buttress worker rights in the United States. Biden supports legislation that would further support collective bargaining rights and unionization pushes, such as the PRO Act. He also opposes right to work laws and has gone as far as promising to “repeal the Taft-Hartley provisions that allow states to impose ‘right to work’ laws.” Again, these measures depend on the Democrats gaining and using leverage in Congress, including, perhaps, doing away with the filibuster. Biden also supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current, meagre $7.25 (although most states have rates above the current federal rate, though below $15).
The Green New Deal is the ambitious benchmark to the climate action the United States ought to pursue. Biden opposes it (sort of) and supports fracking, which limits the appeal of his plan for those who take the climate agenda seriously. But, as CBS reported in early October, “over the last few months the Biden campaign made a deliberate effort to consult with more progressive factions of the party through the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, a committee which included climate and environmental justice activists like the Sunrise Movement — a group instrumental in the design of the Green New Deal.” Biden’s environmental plan includes roughly $2 trillion in green infrastructure spending and emissions reductions through retooling the automotive sector and aggressively developing clean energy sources in pursuit of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Still, Biden’s support for fracking (a possible concession to, fracking-heavy, swing-state Pennsylvania), undermines his plan since it is a significant contributor to emissions.
Concerns about Social Security solvency are common, though as some economists suggest, entirely unnecessary. For years, entitlement programs have been criticized for being both underfunded and insufficient. For millions, the latter is no doubt true. Social Security is one of the few universal programs in the United States. Biden’s plan calls for raising the special minimum benefit for low-earners—to 125 percent of the poverty line federally. It also proposes a boost to long-living recipients of up to 5 percent from age 78 to 82. The plan is paired with a payroll tax increase for high-earners.
Beyond the payroll tax jump, Biden is calling for raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent and the top individual rate to just under 40 percent. He continues to assert that no one who makes less than $400,000 a year will see their taxes rise, setting the bar for being a high-earner quite high indeed, given that the vast majority of taxpayers earn less than that. Nonetheless, Biden’s plan will raise taxes—though not broadly, or broadly enough—and roll back Trump’s corporate tax cuts. The Biden plan also includes a series of tax credits aimed at supporting lower and middle earners paying for health insurance, child care, elder care, and home ownership.
Platforms matter, but whether they really matter depends on whether the candidate wins, pursues their promised agenda, and gets it passed. Joe Biden’s platform includes somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.4 trillion in new spending commitments for the next decade or so. It also includes plans to transform infrastructure, energy, education, and labor, among other areas of social, political, and economic life. But much of the agenda is contingent on Biden having sufficient support in Congress among both Democrats and Republicans, and sticking to his plan in the event of his election. Whether ambitious, social democratic (or adjacent) policies are pursued by a Biden administration does not just depend on Democratic leverage in the House and Senate. It also depends on the left wing of the party, activists, and others who want to see more progressive, ambitious party in words and deeds—and who will need to work to keep a Democratic administration honest.
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