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Bureaucratic Tyranny With Democratic Characteristics | Focus

Europe's increasing attractiveness as a model for reformers in the United States, while justified, is cause for an evaluation of political tradeoffs.

American citizens are increasingly familiar with the virtues of Western and Northern European social democracy. As inequality and cartoonishly bad governance dominate our cable news viewing, social media feeds, and public discourse, the European model has emerged as an enticing political alternative. In his presidential campaigns, Senator Bernie Sanders frequently made use of comparisons between the American healthcare system and a broad—if occasionally misleading—conception of those in European countries. A film by the documentarian Michael Moore, impishly titled “Where to Invade Next,” about social policy successes in other countries that he claims the United States should adopt, heavily features Northern and Western European social democracies. The policy goals of American progressives—who often confusingly describe themselves as “democratic socialists”—would make the American state look structurally similar to Denmark or Sweden if realized.

And it’s hard to take issue with the European example. Broad and robust welfare policies that ensure citizens don’t fall into poverty, strong unions that make workplaces more democratic, and substantive policy commitments to egalitarianism are attractive features. Although it’s easy to view European societies as utopic—mistakenly, because no society is or can be—it’s certainly true that the countries of Northern and Western Europe are handling some challenges of modernity a good deal better than the US. To be sure, however, European social democracies are facing their own challenges in the forms of migration, the rise of far right political parties, and disagreements over the European Union. These three are crucial to understand, but all play some role in an amorphous fourth that gets somewhat less attention from political observers: what I playfully call “bureaucratic tyranny with democratic characteristics.”

It’s a twist on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” snarky and hyperbolic, perhaps even to the point of being woefully inaccurate (for what it’s worth, so is the Chinese self-descriptor). After all, by any reasonable metric of democratic health, Northern and Western European countries score better than the United States. But in the hyperbole, something nonetheless rings true. Following Alexis de Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the problem of “soft despotism,” or Francis Fukuyama’s conception of liberal democracy at the end of history, critics of the European model, particularly from the right, view European social democracies as technocratic, managerial societies without vigor or energy. But even on the left, where participatory democracy is a key prong of the socialist or social democratic agenda, technocracy—rule by unelected experts—is a source of concern.

An evaluation of the politics of European social democracy, in light of the model’s increasing popularity as well as the criticism leveled against it, is worthwhile. First, however, some groundwork is necessary. The countries under review here are those in Scandinavia—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland—as well as Germany and the Netherlands. All of these countries possess some form of what is known as a parliamentary “proportional representation” electoral system. Whereas in the United States political parties run single candidates in legislative districts, who are elected by a plurality of the vote, in proportional representation systems citizens vote for lists of candidates under a party name, either nationally or in some mixed system.

Crucially, the United States’ “first-past-the-post” plurality system shapes politics such that only two parties can feasibly compete for power. In proportional representation systems, it is possible for a wide variety of parties to emerge and contend for power. In the aftermath of an election, the party which wins the largest vote share, rarely a majority, is then tasked with forming a coalition between parties. The head of government, usually the leader of that largest party, is placed in power by the new coalition, rather than separately elected like our president.

There are two key implications that follow from the differences in electoral systems, which help to explain both the comparatively generous policies of European social democracies and their tendency towards managerialism. The first is that proportional representation allows for parties to form around narrower identities than in the United States, because there are theoretically more options. As workers across late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe fought for enfranchisement, they formed parties explicitly around their identities as workers.

When full enfranchisement eventually did arrive, workers were well-organized and prepared to capture large seat shares in new proportional representation systems, even if they didn’t have a majority. Even absent institutional power, their mobilization frequently forced conservative elites to make concessions to their demands. The welfare state, fair working conditions, and pro-union policies were all products of explicitly working-class political parties and their mobilizations. Thus proportional representation helps to explain the comparative generosity of Europe’s “social market economies,” although of course it is one factor among many.

But it also helps to explain why Europeans tend to elect managers while Americans tend to elect personalities. Ordinary citizens have some input as to who the leader of their party will be, and indirectly have influence as they choose between different parties, but party organizations exercise far more internal control over which candidates are placed on party lists and who leads them. Parties are looking for competent management of large state apparatuses and intra-party confidence in potential leaders, while in the United States elections are to a far greater extent a popularity contest, if one that is often anti-majoritarian.

In addition to elected leadership, European social democracies require highly professionalized bureaucracies to manage their robust welfare systems, which take up a much larger share of each country’s GDP as compared to the United States. The bureaucrats, of course, are unelected, and arguably for good reason. The administrators who implement complex social welfare policy need to have enormous capabilities in accounting, demography, computer science, and narrow expertise in the policy area for which they are principally responsible. In short, they must possess qualities which do not easily win elections, and hence such figures are removed from the political realm, only accountable to the body politic indirectly by way of the party or parties in power. If the collective choice of a political community is a broad and generous welfare state, there seems to be an unavoidable tradeoff in which direct accountability over those who wield power is reduced.

Crucially, the countries of Northern and Western Europe seem to have reached a kind of political-economic-bureaucratic equilibrium, in which the largest parties on both sides of the political spectrum possess no mandate and no desire to alter the system in any ambitious manner. Market capitalism, regulated but by all definitions “free,” and a comprehensive welfare state have constituted a difficult model to beat.

Take, for example, the upcoming German elections, which will take place later this month. Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany’s main center right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is retiring from her position as Chancellor (the title for Germany’s head of government) after sixteen long years at the helm. Olaf Scholz, the leader of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party—which has actually governed in a “grand coalition” with the CDU for the past eight years—is running on a platform of continuity with Merkel’s leadership.

In the Netherlands, the right-liberal party and its leader Mark Rutte are almost certain to lead the government for a fourth term in power. There is an interesting dynamic at work in which center-right parties have largely embraced the broad social welfare policies that dominate European states, while mainstream center-left parties have been reluctant to engage in any ambitious expansion.

Max Weber, the twentieth century social theorist, laid out a concept of “rationalization,” in which a political community’s bureaucracy becomes increasingly impersonal and professional, as well as a concept of “charismatic authority,” or leadership on the basis of extraordinary personal characteristics. European social democracy interestingly seems to be an example of the highest realization of the first, and the significant decline of the second.

It’s worth noting that—broadly speaking—citizens of Western and Northern European countries seem to be pleased with these arrangements. Convergence between mainstream right and left parties continues to be a viable path for both to acquire political power. There is almost a sense that the parties are post-ideological, although the basis of the equilibrium is fundamentally a moral judgement that no citizen deserves to fall into poverty and all are entitled to fair political representation.

That said, the equilibrium looks to be in peril, although nowhere close yet to the peril of American liberal democracy. While Germany’s Social Democratic Party, running on a platform of continuity with Ms. Merkel, leads German polls, it does so with the lowest plurality of any winning German political party in recent history. Across Northern and Western Europe, mainstream parties continue to see their share of the vote decline, even as they continue to win elections. Membership in political parties also continues to decline, suggesting a decrease in citizens’ oversight and interest with respect to the selection of party leaders. In every single country mentioned at the outset of this article, far-right populist parties constitute the second or third largest parliamentary blocs. Increasingly, the post-election process of coalition formation takes several months, preventing new governments from enacting the policy agendas that they promised voters in elections. The Netherlands has yet to form a coalition months after its elections took place in March, and whatever the outcome of the German elections, a similar lengthy period almost certainly awaits.

Yes, these European countries usually operate quite a bit smoother than the United States, but that is dependent on this broad consensus about the value of a robust welfare state. As long as that consensus exists, that complex and less-than-accountable bureaucracy is both necessary and non-threatening. In some countries now political consensus and ease of governing seems to be waning. In states which rely so heavily on consensus and bureaucratic delegation, there may be some considerable challenges ahead in adapting to shifting democratic demands.

Ultimately, European social democracy is still more democratic, more generous, and more smoothly functioning than liberal democracy in the United States; it’s almost preposterous to argue otherwise. Yet it’s apparent that in order to achieve more democracy along crucial dimensions, the social democratic model concedes some of its democratic aspects to the realm of technocracy and managerialism. The system is unlikely to collapse, but growing dissatisfaction is something reformers in the United States who look to the European model should chew on. In this author’s view, movement in the direction of the European model is desirable, despite the tradeoffs, but as with all things political, understanding and managing those tradeoffs, rather than ignoring them, is of critical importance.

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Further Reading

  • Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.
  • "The End of History?" by Francis Fukuyama, in The National Interest.
  • "Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy," by Peter Mair in New Left Review.
  • The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its Routinization," by Max Weber.
  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber.


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