Sweeping change should not come as a surprise given the traumas the world has confronted since 2016. The rise of right-wing authoritarian parties, and especially of Donald Trump, brought on a crisis of democracy. Political systems had barely absorbed that shock when the covid-19 outbreak required sudden, large-scale government action to combat the coronavirus’s spread and prevent economic collapse.
By placing a premium on competent public administration and traditional forms of expertise, the pandemic undermined upstart ultranationalist parties before they had a chance to consolidate their gains. Voters faced with life-or-death questions have been reluctant to entrust their fate to demagogues more skilled at stoking resentments than solving problems.
But the far-right surge also worked in tandem with the pandemic’s challenges to bring to a close the era of austerity and unconstrained globalized capitalism. The way opened for a new wave of government activism.
Unprecedented, redistributive government spending across the wealthy countries prevented the pandemic downturn from becoming another Great Depression. At the same time, the seething social resentments that right-wing populists brought to the fore forced even the complacent to recognize the dislocations and injustices bred by rising inequality over the last half-century.
This shift toward interventionism has been reinforced by a climate crisis whose dangers are increasingly obvious to large majorities across the democratic world.
All this has led to a resurgence of social democracy’s core idea: that market economies can thrive only when governments underwrite them with strong systems of social insurance, new paths to opportunity for those cast aside by capitalism’s “creative destruction,” and updated rules to advance social goods that include family life, education, public health — and the planet itself.
This explains why there is more unity among Democrats than skeptics expected around Biden’s big investment program. Its emphasis on shared social needs reflects how broad the new consensus is. It encompasses pro-capitalist moderates such as Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) no less than democratic socialists such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
There is also an ethical dimension here that was brought home to me in a conversation this month with Olaf Scholz. He is Germany’s finance minister in retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government and the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for the top job in elections scheduled for September.
The Social Democrats have been running third in the polls, behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Greens, but some polls suggest Scholz may be closing the gap. His party hopes that a sufficiently strong second-place finish could allow him to cobble together a government with the Greens and either the Free Democrats, a liberal, pro-market party, or the Left party.
The rise of the far right in Germany, and his own party’s struggles, have led Scholz to think hard about the difficulties of creating “a common political project for someone who is working on the streets of New York cleaning it, and the other one working in the law firm, and the other one working at the theater, and those who are working and servicing at the hospital.”
He sees progressives as needing to respond to two large problems — one economic, the other social and personal.
Globalization, and particularly the rise of the Asian economies, have put a stress on wages by bringing billions of additional workers into competition with citizens of wealthy countries. Economic policies in developed countries, he says, must give their workers confidence in a future that will still afford them “good and safe jobs with good incomes.”
His other focus is on “dignity,” “giving people the feeling of respect and acknowledgment” and creating a society in which “we are not looking down on each other.”
Drawing explicitly on the American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s critique of meritocracy, and implicitly channeling Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) emphasis on “the dignity of work,” Scholz sees dignity and respect as key both to making racially and ethnically diverse societies work, and to responding to the social distempers that have drawn voters to the far right.
If Scholz sounds a lot like Joe Biden, that’s no accident. The political winds are on the side of the social and economic reformers. But the new change agents will have to make their policies work. That’s one of the responsibilities Biden is carrying — not just for the United States but also for those hoping to follow the same path elsewhere.