America’s Shift to the Right
May 29, 2013 1 Comment
One often hears conservative critics of President Obama objecting to his ‘radical’ agenda and the dangerous direction he is taking America. I have always been puzzled by this view. I find nothing in Obama’s policies that seems radical or that takes America in a direction Republicans themselves did not want to go at an earlier time.
The problem with these charges is that they fail to take into account the acute shift to the right in American politics over the past few decades. At one time the Republican Party contained liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, just as the Democratic Party does today. Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon represented the moderate Republican camp in their time.
After the Johnson presidency Democrats began to rebrand themselves in the 1970s as a more centrist party in hopes of picking up more of the conservative vote. They largely abandoned their earlier alliance with labour groups, for example, in hopes of gaining greater support from the business community. As they did so, Republicans moved further to the right to distinguish themselves from the Democrats.
The net result has been referred to as “the ratchet effect” in American politics. As Republicans moved further to the right, the Democrats shifted to hold the new “middle” ground. In the next election cycle when the Republicans moved further to the right to appeal to their conservative base, the Democrats also moved further to the right to hold the newly vacated “centre.”
After more that four decades of this ratcheting to the right, President Obama is being called a radical, liberal socialist for promoting policies that are actually somewhat to the right of those followed by the last truly moderate Republican presidents, Eisenhower and Nixon.
Does this seem far-fetched? Consider the following:
During his two terms as president, Eisenhower continued the pre-war New Deal programs of the Truman era, expanded Social Security to cover an additional 10 million workers, created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, launched a massive stimulus program targeting infrastructure (the Interstate Highway System), desegregated the military, initiated the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and signed them into law, maintained high taxation rates, and cut the defense budget by 27 percent.
President Nixon supported affirmative action and instituted the Clean Air Act. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate safe working conditions. He expanded social Security benefits.
He introduced a minimum tax on the wealthy and championed a guaranteed minimum income for the poor. He even proposed a health reform plan that would require employers to buy health insurance for all their employees and proposed subsidized payments for those who could not afford it. His health reform program failed due to Democratic opposition; today the Republicans would defeat it.
If President Obama’s initiatives mirror those of the moderate Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, where does the Republican Party stand today? As some respected political pundits have put it, using an analogy to football,
While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.
Is this an unrealistic assessment? Consider this: Barry Goldwater was the great conservative opponent of the moderate Republicans in the 1960s. In 1964 he defeated both moderates and liberals such as Nelson Rockefeller to win his party’s presidential nomination. It was the first time in decades that the nomination had gone to a staunch conservative rather than a moderate establishment candidate. But Goldwater’s views were seen as far too extreme for the times and he was defeated in a landslide, losing to Lyndon B. Johnson.
By the 1990s the political landscape had shifted far to the right and Barry Goldwater was now judged to be so moderate in his views that other Republicans ostracized him. As The Arizona Republic reported at the time,
In 1996, Barry Goldwater sat in his Paradise Valley home with Bob Dole and joked about his strange new standing as a GOP outsider. ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Dole, who was then facing criticisms from hard-line conservatives in the presidential campaign. ”Can you imagine that?”
Bob Dole was himself the Republican nominee in the 1996 presidential election. He still considers himself to be a conservative in the traditional sense. This past weekend Chris Wallace interviewed the 89 year old Dole for the FOX News network and asked him,
Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could you make it in today’s Republican Party?
And Dole firmly replied,
I doubt it. … Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it.
There is something very strange going on when former Republican Presidents and conservative Republican Presidential candidates find themselves much too moderate for the Republican Party of today. I will have more to say on this in my next post.