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BOOK REVIEW: "Social Democratic America" by Lane Kenworthy

Oxford University Press
"Social Democratic America" by Lane Kenworthy
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BOOK REVIEW: Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy (Oxford University Press) 2014

Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, is an undeniably optimistic person. That fact comes through in Kenworthy’s writing style and tone in his groundbreaking new book Social Democratic America.

Yes, you read that correctly – Social Democratic America.

And the examples Prof. Kenworthy offers in this relatively quick-and-informative read (just under 200 pages) are quite voluminous and scholarly but presented in a way that the average layman can easily understand.

And what you learn is quite exciting, really. Kenworthy lays it out that while there will be bumps along the way, in the long-run, America will be a healthier, happier country, as is evidenced in many first-world nations with a history of strong social programs.

He lays out how his research and the research and findings of many others prove that the United States is on a striking trajectory towards a more, Nordic (Scandinavian)-style social-democratic future. A future where the workweek will be shorter, access to health insurance will no longer be tied to one’s employer, and – surprisingly – government will be smaller with fewer regulations on firms and individuals, as you see today in northern European countries like Sweden.

Economic liberty, he writes, will not be impeded by a big safety net.

He also makes some interesting observations on the American family vs. the Swedish family and how “relatively few Swedish children have parents who are married, yet many live with both biological parents throughout childhood.” On the other hand, in the U.S., “(m)ore Americans are cohabiting, but most cohabiting partners split up.”

As of the early 1990’s … a Swedish child born to cohabiting parents had about a 60 percent chance that her parents would still be together 15 years later. Her American counterpart had about a 20 percent chance.”

And the reasons for this include harsh working conditions and fewer educational opportunities for women, in particular. These should be improved and if achieved, you would see more stability in families, particularly on the lower rungs of society. He suggests that women delay childbirth until they are in their mid-to-late 20’s and that the government work harder to provide “year-long paid parental leave and high-quality, affordable early education.”

Yes, these are common in the “Nordic countries,” as Kenworthy puts it. And while readers here in Oklahoma and other parts of the U.S. might balk and says that we shouldn’t have to adopt all these Scandinavian notions, well, Kenworthy would agree to a point.

"We have much to learn from those nations' policies and institutions, but that doesn't mean we have to adopt all of them," writes Kenworthy.

He also drives home the point that we all want a fair, secure, free, flexible and vibrant economy and there are conditions and policies that can take us to a better, more egalitarian society.

“This America,” writes Kenworthy, “(w)ill be a society with greater security and fairness. The economy will be flexible, dynamic, innovative. Employment will be high. Liberty will be abundant. Balancing work and family will be easier.”

Kenworthy says that public-opinion data shows that while Americans give the impression that they are averse to “activist government,” Americans are actually ideologically conservative when it comes to the size and scope of government” but that we are “programmatically progressive” when it comes to the things the government actually does.

This comes through quite clearly when the author shows us that advancements in social policy since the 1970’s (when the rightward tilt in American politics began in earnest) with everything from increases in Medicaid benefits to increases in housing assistance. And that’s just a few of many other programs that he offers as examples.

Writes Kenworthy: “In the realm of public social policy, the distance between the United States today and Denmark or Sweden today is smaller than the distance between the United States a century ago and the United States today.”

Many will argue, as Kenworthy notes, that only racially and ethnically homogenous countries like Norway or Sweden can implement successful social programs. But he shows that diversity truly is a strength and that social democracy can work quite well in the United States.

For some, the findings in this book will seem like a dream. To more reactionary, regressive types, it will read like a Marxian nightmare. In actuality, Kenworthy’s buoyant findings and approach are quite even-handed and hopeful. A better day and new age are within reach. Prof. Kenworthy clearly believes that America can rise to the occasion in the coming decades and rides the waves of the world economy in a fashion that will, in the long run, benefit us all. 

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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