I’ve long thought that American politics – and economics – went sideways in the 1970s and we’ve never recovered. The ghost of Richard Nixon continues to haunt American politics. Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s pardon of him left liberals feeling he’d avoided justly deserved punishment, while conservatives were never convinced his misdeeds were all that serious in the first place. The Clinton impeachment of the 90s was little more than conservatives avenging Nixon on Democrats. The invasion of Iraq was an attempt to refight (and win!) the Vietnam war, to restore the military and to show liberals once and for all the supporters of war were right. Amidst the ruins of the Bush administrations, conservatives were neither chastised nor educated; the ascendant tea party was nothing more than an attempt to redeem conservatism itself. Faced with disaster in every direction, unable to admit the problem lies not in their stars but themselves, conservatives doubled down on their ideology and have engaged in an idelogical terror that would make Stalin or Chairman Mao proud.
The left – burdened by a connection to reality – has proven unable to deal with the right’s lunacy and tantrums for the same reason a parent can’t control a child’s tantrum. Pushed bey0nd reason by the ever-unfolding disasters of the Bush presidency, and then the shock of losing to Barack Obama in 2008, conservatives collectively lost their minds and have spent years having a public fit. And so the whole political system has ground to a painful halt.
Could it have been avoided?
Gary Hart argues, that yes, it could have:
But beginning dramatically in the 1970s things changed. Things being: globalization and foreign competition; the decline of the manufacturing base; petroleum-producing nations controlling the price of oil; and the unsustainable costs of cold war military engagements and deployments.
The OPEC oil embargoes of 1974 and 1979 contributed to the combination of stagnation and inflation and to the flattening of household incomes for the first time since the beginning of World War II. Meanwhile, the numbers of people qualifying for assistance under New Deal and Great Society programs increased, as did the overall costs of operating those programs, especially in the area of health care.
The Democratic Party during this period had the opportunity to develop a new economic platform but failed to do so. Having no constructive response to a tide of economic and social revolutions, it clung to the defense of its historic social agenda, which required taxation of working class and middle income people to finance that agenda at a time when their own economic security was endangered.
The Democratic Party has not only been the party of hope, the party of compassion and inclusiveness, it has also been the party of innovation. By failing to innovate some 30 years ago, it has permitted itself to lapse into the defensive, if not also reactionary, posture that now plagues it. A well-motivated Democratic president now struggles to move the nation forward against a conservative tide that emerged in the policy vacuum created by Democratic failure to adapt and in a political climate where many people, especially young people, do not know the basic principles of the current Democratic Party or what it stands for.
Hart’s basic political argument echoes Paul Krugman’s economic argument about the 1970s. Policy makers were caught flat footed in the 70s, failed to respond adequately to changing conditions and so unwittingly fed the very attitudes and opinions that undermined the policies that could have helped. A contemporary example is the 2009 stimulus – it was the right idea but too small and badly structured. It worked to halt the collapse but wasn’t large enough to start economic growth; the outcome was the worst of all worlds – poor economy and the failure of voters to believe that stimulus spending could help the economy. Krugman is fonding of pointing out that our experience since the Great Recession began in 2007 has proven that classical Keynesian economics work.
Faced with a revanchist and radical right that is prepared to undo a century of policy, Democrats have found themselves fighting to preserve policies and programs long through sacrasanct.
Nixon’s Southern Strategy has born its poisonous fruits and delivered an ascendant, reactionary conservative movement and party that is willing to do or say everything and anything to advance its partisan agenda. Faced with the worst economic crisis in 70 years, Republicans have deliberately adopted a policy of obstructing every policy attempt to amerliorate the suffering. Dems, by contrast, have consistently tried to reason with unreasonable people and water down their own proposals to chase the chimera of Republican votes that will never materialize.
The Democratic response of triangulation and centrism, essentially splitting the difference between reactionary liberalism and increasingly virulent conservatism, cost the party its identity.
It’s a shrewd insight. Watching the party ineptly oppose Bush’s radicalism was a perfect example – there was no core identity, no concept of what it meant to be a Democrat.
In pointing out the failures of Democrats, however, Hart hasn’t ignored the rise of the radical right:
The extreme position essentially says that half the country does not deserve representation. My friend and former colleague, Senator Jack Danforth, echoed by former Senator Chuck Hagel, recently said this was not the philosophy of the Republican party to which he belonged.
Largely by internal assault the Republican party purged (including by retirement) moderate Senators of a previous era, such as Percy, Mathias, Case, Javits, and Specter more recently, and are now purging traditional conservatives. (There is a long history of ideological purges, but only in totalitarian states.) Efforts to identify Democrats defeated by more liberal primary opponents yield only Senator Lieberman.
Name-calling is cheap. Calling President Obama a “socialist” may make radio talkers feel clever and powerful, but that does not make it so. No question, advocacy of same gender marriage is “liberal” in the traditional sense of tolerant and inclusive. But Norman Thomas never made it close to the White House and never will.[snip]
So where is the evidence for the presence of extreme left ideology, the counterpart of the rightward lurch of the current Republican party? A Ph.D. in political science is not required to know that the center of political gravity has shifted substantially to the right in recent years and therefore that the stalemate and gridlock in government is not the result of diametrically opposed political extremes. Yet that is the way it is still portrayed in the political media. If anything, liberal and progressive forces outside of government are dismayed at the perceived willingness of the President and Congressional Democrats to compromise away hard-won social victories during the New Deal and Great Society eras.
As Hart describes it, then, we have two, connected stories – the first is the story of liberals and liberalism missing the opportunities offered by the 1970s and the second is the story of the rise of the radical right. These two stories intertwine in a connected feedback loop. Missing an opportunity in the 70s created the opening for the rise of the radical right. The rise of the right, in turn, makes it more difficult to effectively meet today’s challenges, meaning more missed opportunities. And so the cycle continues.
And somewhere the ghost of Richard Nixon is stroking his chin and nodding in approval.