America’s Coming Social Democracy?

Almost all of the world’s developed countries consider themselves, and are, social democracies: mixed economies with very large governments performing a wide array of welfare and social insurance functions, and removing large chunks of wealth and commodity distribution from the market. The United States is something different. Or is it? Whatever it has been in the past, the US in the future will have to choose whether, and how much, it will be a social democracy.

Once upon a time, according to mythology at least, America had little downward mobility. On the contrary, before the Civil War you could start out splitting rails, light out for the Western Territory, make a success of yourself on the frontier, and wind up as President – if you were named Abraham Lincoln. In the generation after World War II, you could secure a blue-collar unionized manufacturing job or climb to the top of a white collar bureaucracy that offered job security, relatively high salaries, and long, stable career ladders.

This was always half myth. Setting out for the Western Territory was expensive. Covered wagons were not cheap. Even in the first post-WWII generation, only a minority of Americans – a largely white, male minority – found well-paying stable jobs at large, unionized, capital-intensive manufacturing companies like GM, GE, or AT&T.

But if this story was half myth, it was also half true, particularly in the years after WWII. Largely independent of education or family, those Americans who did value stability and security could grasp it in the form of jobs with “a future.” Even for those not so lucky, economic risks were usually fairly low: the unemployment rate for married men during the 1960’s averaged 2.7%, and finding a new job was a relatively simple matter. It was during this era – roughly from 1948 to 1973 – that sociologists found that a majority of Americans had come to define themselves not as working class, but as middle class.