“Social democracy,” as an ideology, as a phenomenon, has certainly seen its more popular days. The post-Cold War-driven shift to the center, the “Third Way” as it has been called (though many things have been referred to by that moniker), has altered the concept in many ways, although the core values remain the same.
Social democracy, at its beginning, referred to a peaceful Marxist transition from capitalism to socialism via the democratic route (“reformism”). It was a broad enough concept at the beginning of the century that Lenin’s party was called the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. After the Russian Revolution, the historic socialist-communist split led to the foundation of explicitly Communist revolutionary, pro-Soviet parties, and the remaining “socialist” parties gradually drifted rightward, though the balance between the socialist and communist parties differed in various countries.
Today, we are seeing the second transition of social democracy. Social democrats in Europe have been admitting officially what they had already conceded privately—that socialism is not the end goal, that a “tamed capitalism” and a mixed economy are the goals of social democracy. Liberty, equality and solidarity remain the principles of social democracy, but the movement’s concept of and approach to pragmatism and reality has been altered substantially.
As with any other ideology, the effect and reality of social democracy in government is correlated to the environment in which the individual party finds itself. The general trend towards moderation (though not without disputes) in SD parties has continued, but moderation is a relative term depending on the country (with SD parties in Scandinavia, for instance, still defending their traditional welfare state).
Classical liberals may want to claim for themselves the mantle of historic pragmatism. But liberalism has its not-so-proud moments, its regressive alliances over the years, not to mention its (classical) refusal to admit the value of public goods above and beyond the basic provision of markets.
Social democracy differs from liberalism in more than one way. Whereas liberalism is individualism at its pinnacle, adopting the principle of “individual gains” and “rationality” and accrediting it as the natural order of things, social democracy is idealistic, change-oriented and yet simultaneously pragmatic. Social democracy recognizes the need for substantial public goods and the maintenance of the collective, the commons, in ways other than simply the sustenance of clearly visible economic gains via the market. Social democrats believe that health care, quality education, employment, a quality environment, and other public goods are crucial to the survival of the market, and are positive not just as mechanisms for increasing productivity, but in creating a society that can support all of its citizens and maintain its long-term legitimacy.
This implies the most vital thread of social democracy: social democracy can be a way of living, not just a political ideology. Liberalism fails as a way of living: a belief that the individual gain will always be the major consideration is self-fulfilling. Pragmatic social democracy believes that the individual gain and the collective gain are oftentimes competing principles, which must be reconciled as best as possible, but that we must always strive towards an ideal, where we can see equality of outcomes produced across society.None of what I write here is new, of course, but hopefully it puts my opinions into context.