US President Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency 40 years ago today.
In my previous post, I continually referred to “so-called” liberals and conservatives. I did this because the American political spectrum has moved so far to the right in the last 40 years. What we call a liberal today is, for the most part, yesterday’s centrist or conservative; and what we call a conservative today is well to the political right, well outside the mainstream, of the politics of forty years ago.
Consider former US Republican president Richard Nixon who resigned the Presidency to avoid impeachment forty years ago today. As the political columnist Mark Shield says, “Nixon was the last liberal president.” Even conservative commentator David Gergen agrees that Nixon couldn’t be elected as a Republican today.1 Nixon contemplated a total ban on handguns, supported the earned income tax credit, gave the vote to 18 year olds, set up the EPA, opened diplomatic relationships with China, was not a staunch opponent of abortion, and lobbied for a universal health-care system. This was the Republican president of just 40 years ago. I think he would be too liberal to be nominated by today’s democratic party.
By contrast, today’s Democrats don’t generally take the lead in supporting organized labor, or the New Deal or Great Society programs. (A possible exception would be Social Security, but even here so-called liberals willingly discuss gutting the system.) Today’s so-called liberal presidents dismantle welfare and openly solicit the aid and advice of Wall Street. And they wouldn’t dare be as bold as Nixon on gun control, the environment, or health care. (This is Nixon we’re talking about.) The strong rightward lurch of the US Supreme Court has been well-documented by scholars of the court as well.2 How do we explain these changes? While it would take a book-length discussion to do justice to this topic, we can say a few things.
The modern conservative movement (movement conservatism) had its beginnings in the 1950s with the publication of the National Review, with its intellectual might largely supplied by William F. Buckley. Some of Buckley’s ideas were later adopted by the John Birch Society but Buckley, to his credit, regarded them as a fringe group.3,4 (Not surprisingly Fred Koch, father of the radical right-wing supporters Charles and David Koch, was one of its founding members.) From these beginnings on the far right, modern conservatism has become ever more radicalized to the point that its proponents now willingly threaten the world economy to get their way over small policy details. As for the left of American politics–roughly the mainstream of politics in Western Europe and Scandinavia–classical liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, or Ted Kennedy are nearly extinct (with the exception of someone like Bernie Sanders of Vermont), as are moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon. The rightward movement of American politics since the mid-1970s is self-evident to any impartial observer.
Interestingly this time period from the mid-1970s to the present corresponds almost precisely with the flattening of wages in the US, the growth of income inequality, the destruction of labor unions, mass incarceration, and numerous other measures of social and economic dysfunction. Whether correlation equals causation is another matter, but the correlation is unmistakable. But my main point is that liberal and conservative labels are not particularly useful in describing American politics today. At the moment in America, there is a centrist party that exists with Wall Street backing, and a far, far right reactionary party with its roots in the Old American South and organizations like the Birch society.
How will this all turn out? I have no idea. The radical right has an overwhelming advantage in that Americans get their news from a few media conglomerates which promote the current status quo. These majority owners of these outlets are disproportionately white, wealthy and right-wing. Even the so-called liberal media outlets like the New York Times are conservative by world standards. The NY Times supports most American military ventures, rarely discuss labor issues, and employ a number of conservative columnists. They are certainly not radical, and they would certainly never advocate for a populist revolution or anything close. In short, the right has a huge advantage in messaging.
The left has the advantage of their positions are overwhelming popular—a more equitable distribution of wealth, environmental regulations, universal access to health care, access to child-care, less influence of the super wealthy in the political process, a stronger social safety net, etc. They also have an overwhelming advantage in population numbers and demographic trends in the US. These demographic trends should make the Democratic party in the US nearly invincible in national elections, although this currently has little effect on Congressional representation. Moreover, Republicans in the US may succeed with their two basic strategies to combat the overwhelming numbers of Americans who want populist reforms: 1) suppress voting through ID laws; and 2) increase the input of the ultra-rich in campaigns. This exaggerates the political power of the very wealthy while diminishing the power of everyone else.
In that case, the US will become a country of, by, and for the wealthiest classes. Again, I don’t know how this will turn out. It might be the masses will wise up to the false messages of those who work against their economic interest. They may come to realize that gays, atheists, and immigrants are not their enemy but just scapegoats the oligarchs use to divide the rest of us. On the other hand, the techniques of political manipulation have become increasingly powerful. Perhaps the oligarchs will perfect its use to further control the rest of us, or perhaps they will dispense with us altogether as technology eliminates the need for workers. I hope this doesn’t happen but if it does, a nightmarish Orwellian future awaits us.
3. Regnery, Alfred S. (2008-02-12). Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism. Simon and Schuster. pp. 79–. ISBN 978141652288
4. Chapman, Roger (2010). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. M.E. Sharpe. p. 58.ISBN 9780765617613.