When asked what he means by "democratic socialism," presidential candidate Bernie Sanders typically points to the Nordic countries. In Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, education is provided for free, social insurance is unimaginably generous, and times are good. We should follow their example, he says.
This chafed some critics, such as National Review's Kevin Williamson. He pointed out that the Nordics are overwhelmingly white, concluding that attempts to push such policies in a multi-ethnic country were essentially racist. After Sanders told Ezra Klein he was against open borders, Williamson passive-aggressively suggested that Sanders was just a wee bit Nazi-esque.
Williamson's analysis of Nordic history and politics is nearly as risible as his hamfisted attempt to paint Republicans as the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. However, he does inadvertently point to a more serious question: What is the Nordic example actually meant to prove?
Put simply, it is a proof-of-concept for policy, not a political blueprint. Each of these nations is quite small, with a vastly different social and historical context than that of the United States. Any implementation of Nordic policy here will be reached by a vastly different route — one rooted in American politics and institutions.
So what do the Nordics demonstrate? That social democratic policy can work. Government provision of health insurance, education, and paid leave has been a big success for those countries. It has not been a drag on their economic growth, especially if one examines output per hour worked.
Perhaps most notably (because the U.S. does very poorly in this regard), it is fairly trivial for a wealthy nation to essentially abolish poverty. Simply arrange your distributive institutions in such a way that every person gets enough income to get them over the poverty line. Wages are a big part of that, of course, but government steps in where market income falls short.
Children are a major focus, because they go to school instead of working, require tons of money to raise, and typically arrive when workers are at the point of lowest earning power in the life cycle. Add in a sufficiently generous old-age pension, unemployment and disability insurance, and hey presto, poverty mostly gone. It sounds too easy to be true, but it actually works great.
That is subject to some caveats. The Nordics' governance is of a much higher quality than that of the United States, and so they do a lot of direct government provision of services we probably couldn't manage. In Norway, for example, municipalities operate a lot of free daycare institutions, something that would likely be disastrous in many U.S. cities. That militates towards more cash handouts (stone simple, administratively) instead of services.
This brings us to the politics. Conservatives often point to Nordic "homogeneity" as the reason for their success. Of course, Williamson is right that the Nordics are overwhelmingly white (though his attempt to racialize their policy success, and thus tar progressives as racist, is garbled nonsense). The question is what to make of this point.
It is surely true that it's easier to institute broad welfare state policies in an ethnically homogeneous nation. A large minority population that will disproportionately benefit from new aid means racism will be a large hurdle to overcome. And indeed, efforts to expand American social insurance have repeatedly run aground on racist political attacks.
However, that says nothing whatsoever about the effectiveness of the policies once they are implemented. Social Security decreased elderly poverty handily once it made it through the racism gauntlet, and is now hugely popular.
Furthermore, the U.S. has more experience than just about any other rich nation at accommodating a large minority population. We have managed multiple, sustained efforts at raising up ex-slaves, oppressed minorities, and unauthorized immigrants. Those efforts were universally halfhearted, insufficient, or abandoned outright, but given the scale of the problems, it's significantly more than the likes of France or Sweden has ever done (not to mention Israel).
Indeed, regional instability, legacy colonial populations, and plummeting birthrates have combined to increase immigration across Europe, and the result has not been pretty. Nativist and even outright fascist parties are resurgent in many countries, relying on hatred of immigrants (and economic problems, to be sure) for their success.
America is far behind most of Europe in providing for its citizenry, but there has been much progress over time, from Social Security to ObamaCare. Bernie Sanders suggests we can get the rest of the way there, through the same multi-ethnic political coalition that supported most of the pioneering policies of the American safety net. If he's right, it would be not only a great benefit to America's poor, but a good example for low-birthrate European nations struggling with de-homogenization. It turns out the Nordics may have as much to learn from the U.S. as the reverse.