I intended, when I first started this blog, to open with a broad overview of where US politics has been going in recent decades and where it might be headed. I didn’t get to do that because other more immediate issues kept on coming up: first Syria, then the government shutdown/debt limit crisis. Things have calmed down enough to open a window for that overview, so here goes.
The United States has moved to the right over the past 30-40 years, and it isn’t easy to foresee a significant reversal of that trend in the near future. I need to be clear, though: when I say that the United States has moved to the right, I don’t mean that the American people have moved to the right. As I pointed out in my post of 11/8, public opinion studies have consistently demonstrated that a majority of Americans lean left of center: they generally want an active government to combat the various ills of capitalism, like progressive taxation, a strong social safety net, vigorous protection of the environment, and an active government role in promoting stable economic growth.
The country’s apparent move to the right reflects the fact that the effective structure of political power has moved to the right. Political power in Washington (and in most of our statehouses) is solidly arrayed against progressive change. There is no prospect for anything like the waves of groundbreaking legislation (civil rights, Medicare, environmental and consumer protection, etc) that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, some of it signed into law by a Republican president. And yet, so much needs very badly to be done: Most urgent is the need to reinvigorate an economy still sputtering with millions of long-term unemployed. We also need to safeguard and advance financial reform, if only to ensure against another economy-crippling financial crisis. And, while climate change is not an immediate threat, the need to address it is immediate. Of course, I could go on.
I see three main explanations for the country’s shift to the right in recent decades: the radicalization of the Republican Party,* the decline in the economic and political power of organized labor, and the increasing importance of money in politics.
Republican Radicalism—I’ve already said a lot about this, so I don’t need to add much. The Republicans’ willingness to systematically abuse the Senate’s anti-majoritarian rules and to employ extortion and sabotage as routine weapons of political combat makes significant progressive legislation practically impossible. Republican radicalism also tends to shift the terms of debate on public policy issues to the right. When one of our two major parties consistently advances extreme ideological positions, it legitimates them. The range of seriously considered policy alternatives expands in one direction and contracts in the other. Thus, the center has moved right. For example, Republicans’ demands for further drastic spending cuts during a serious, prolonged economic slump make no sense; they’re driven by radical ideology. The economy needs just the opposite. Yet, the policy debate hasn’t been about whether to increase or decrease spending, but how much to decrease it.
Organized Labor–Since the New Deal, the American labor movement, for all its shortcomings, has been the most important consistent source of support for progressive policy change in the U.S. There has been nothing to replace labor as an organized representative of mid to lower income groups in our society, capable of mobilizing a grass roots whose interests lie naturally with the left. Labor’s declining political clout reflects its reduced role in the economy, as manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the harder-to-organize service sector has become predominant. Labor’s political eclipse is also a result as well as a cause of the increasing strength of the right, which has fought government protections for unions and their right to organize.
Money in Politics–The power of money is pervasive in American politics. For most members of Congress, their single most time-consuming activity–far more time-consuming than learning about policy issues, or attending committee hearings or actually legislating–is fundraising. That fact reflects the ever-increasing cost of getting and staying elected. The average Congressional campaign now costs many times what it did in the 1970s, even after adjusting for inflation. Spending hours a day fundraising means, basically, spending a lot of time with rich people. Rich people, by and large, tend to be conservative. Even the relatively enlightened rich people who give money to Democrats are usually fairly centrist in their economic policy preferences, not to mention protective of their own special interests. (There are a lot of Democrats on Wall Street, but I haven’t heard any of them calling for stiffer financial regulation.) Our politicians’ heavy dependence on moneyed interests naturally skews the political agenda to the right.
What are the prospects for change? Realistically, not very good, certainly not in the foreseeable future. The decline of organized labor is a secular trend that could perhaps be restrained by favorable legislation, but that’s not a likely prospect. Thoroughgoing campaign finance reform could also make a big difference in American politics, but that, too, has little chance of enactment.
That leaves the Republicans. The Republican Party of today is unsustainable. Not only is it ideologically out of touch with the majority of the population, but its base, disproportionately composed of elderly white people, is literally dying out. Eventually, the party must change. I don’t know just how that will happen, and “eventually“ can be quite a long time. But it will happen. It will happen most likely only after the party suffers a succession of crushing election defeats.
Accordingly, the single most effective thing that progressives can do to alter American politics for the better is to help speed up the inevitable–to do what we can to ensure that the Republicans become a hopelessly dwindling minority at all levels of government. That is not to say that we should extend uncritical support to Democrats–sometimes you really do need to say that the lesser of two evils isn’t lesser enough. But a Democratic Party that is effectively open to the left will require a Republican Party that isn’t anchored tenaciously to the far right.
* Michael Tomasky, in the current (12/5) New York Review of Books, effectively summarizes my post of 10/9: “It is still a category error to call practically anyone in the GOP a moderate, as some press reports do. You can count the truly moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill on one hand.” In my post, I counted six, which would require two hands, but I did explicitly set a low bar for defining “moderate.”