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Social Democracy

Social democracy is a system of political thought and action that calls upon the government to provide certain social and economic rights or entitlements necessary to the well-being of all members of the community. Social democratic parties promote it in constitutional democracies throughout the world, but especially in Europe, where the social democracy movement was born.

Social democratic political parties try to mobilize political support for positive state and government actions. They aim to provide such social and economic rights as equal opportunities for basic education, adequate health care, acceptable housing, productive employment in the workforce, fair payment for workers, and guaranteed pension plans for people retired from the workforce.

Social democrats claim that their commitment to social and economic rights in addition to traditional liberal ideas about political and private rights is an advanced or more fully developed model of democracy in comparison with the liberal model. While the traditional liberal model of democracy only emphasizes individual liberty, the social democratic model, according to its proponents, stresses both liberal and egalitarian ideals.

Several constitutional democracies in Europe—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for example—and elsewhere include significant social democratic parties, which campaign to promote egalitarian policies in the government. India is a prominent representative and constitutional democracy with a very strong commitment to the ideals of social democracy. The preamble to the 1950 constitution of India says the political system is ‘‘a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’’ and providing certain egalitarian social and economic rights is proclaimed to be a responsibility of the state to its people.

By contrast with some of the constitutional democracies in Europe, the United States of America has not had a strong social democracy movement. There has never been a major political party in the United States that has styled itself as social democratic. The Democratic Party has been more accepting than its Republican rival of ideas associated with social democracy or welfare-state liberalism. However, both major political parties in the United States have maintained their primary commitments to the liberal model of democracy, and have avoided identification with full-blown social democracy. The parties tend to justify their legislatively enacted programs of social and economic entitlements as government action in response to the wishes of constituents, not as constitutionally mandated rights.

Critics of social democracy in the United States and elsewhere stress that a very strongly empowered state and government is required to carry out the social democracy program of social and economic rights. The critics claim that positive state action to provide egalitarian social programs requires extensive redistribution of wealth and excessive government regulation of the society and economy. Thus, advocates of individual rights associated with the traditional liberal model of democracy claim that their principles of liberty would be minimized or even sacrificed if the egalitarian ideals of social democracy were to be maximized through excessive control of society by the government.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)