“The Danes do it better”

There’s a lot of noise in Chris Maisano’s long critique of Lane Kenworthy‘s work, but in his key claim he’s on the nose and pithy to boot, calling out Kenworthy for adopting the “Danes do it better” argument.

Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, has followed the popular “Ted Talk” strategy for academic notoriety: make a controversial claim about a well-known subject in easy-to-understand terms. Kenworthy’s particular brand, which appears to be paying off, is “America’s future is social democratic.”

The core of Maisano’s critique is that Kenworthy gets it right right on policy, wrong on politics. He has no quarter with the normative content of Kenworthy’s policy proposals, but serious doubts about their value as prophecy:

Like a good empirical social scientist, Kenworthy assumes that politics is fundamentally a rational, evidence-based pursuit and that good policy will eventually win out over bad politics. But his appeal to reason and evidence is almost touching considering how patently deranged U.S. political culture can be, particularly when it comes to questions of welfare and social spending. The rhetoric of reaction that Kenworthy dismisses as a gradually weakening obstacle to reform will not be defeated by the force of evidence-based, reasoned argumentation alone.

As a social theorist, I of course have great sympathy for Kenworthy’s entreaty to Consider the Evidence. But pleading does not make it so and evidence doesn’t make policy. Changes happen only after the issues reflected in that evidence have been prioritized over others, and translated into practice through political action.

The great majority of people, if they were to look at the evidence, might conclude that the Danes are better off than Americans. A social democratic United States, however, would require that political institutions and constituencies be organized in a way allows those opinions to be translated into policy change. This is a point that is too often missed by liberals, legal scholars, and policy wonks. Part of the problem may lie, too, in fictional depictions of politics (we might also call it the “West Wing” problem). When it comes to illustrating the politics of political change, it turns out that the Danes really do do it better.