Conservatives: Not Completely Delusional

by Jim Manzi

Ezra Klein makes the argument in writing that I have heard many progressives and moderates make in conversation: That Republican politicians have continuously moved to the right over the past 20 or so years, and Democrats have expanded their range of promoted policies to the right to occupy the policy space abandoned by the increasingly extreme Republicans. As Klein put it: “President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.” Andrew Sullivan supports this view, and has called Ross Douthat “delusional” for not agreeing with him. You might disagree with Douthat on a given issue, or even on most issues, but when you start calling somebody that level-headed “delusional,” you might want to slow down and consider your own premises for a minute.

Pinning down the Republican or the conservative position (or the Democratic or the liberal position) at a given point in time is elusive, and requires defining terms. Whose opinions count – only elected officials, or also pundits and intellectuals? How about judges and regulators appointed by one party or the other? Inevitably, opinions conflict – do we consider only the most senior officials, or the weight of opinions within some group? How do we weight governors versus members of Congress? And what constitutes the statement of position – party platforms, what is written for publication, what is said, or actual binding votes? Further, over the course of history, those out of power have been known to advocate, and even vote for, policies that they know have no chance of becoming law, and that they would not vote for if they were actually in power. How do we account for that to find the “real” conservative position?

In contrast to that kind of a snipe hunt, it seems to me that by most objective measures the center of gravity of domestic public policy in the United States has moved substantially to the left since the late 1990s. 

Consider the standard two pillars of conservative domestic policy: economics and social issues. First, economic policy:

  • In the five years from 1997 to 2001, total federal, state, and local government spending averaged 29 percent of GDP. Over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, it averaged 35 percent. 
  • In the five years from 1997 to 2001, the federal government published 333 major new regulations. Over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, it published 424. (A “major regulation” is defined roughly as a final rule that was estimated to create a minimum of $100 million of economic costs.) Note that these are new rules, so that cumulatively the federal government has promulgated more than 1,000 major new regulations over the past 15 years. This means a minimum of $100 billion of increased regulatory costs, and very likely much more, since most rules will be well above the minimum. 
  • According to the global rankings of the Economic Freedom Network, the United States had a substantially less free economy in 2010 than it did in 1995.

This doesn’t mean that all this increased spending and regulation is bad. It also doesn’t mean it is all the result of changes in policy – at least at an abstract level, there are other hypothetical explanations, such as “our Medicare policy didn’t shift, but the implications of an aging population within our existing framework caused expenditures to rise,” or “our policy for the financial services industry didn’t change, but the implications of our existing laws required further regulatory clarification,” or whatever. (Though in each of these two cases, there were significant changes in policy). But it does mean that either the policies changed, or else the effect of existing policies has changed. One way or the other, the government represents substantially more of the economy, and the economy is substantially more regulated, today than it was in the late 1990s.

Second, look at social issues. There aren’t really the kind of summary indexes for these topics that there are for economic issues, but the change in lifestyle policies since the late 1990s, on balance, strikes me as an even more dramatic shift to the left. Consider a few obvious examples:

  • In 1996, same-sex marriage was about a 25 percent position. In that year, the United States Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, and the filing of joint tax returns. Same-sex marriage is now about a 50 percent position, and twelve states now permit same-sex marriage. Something like ten more are likely to vote on it with reasonable prospects for passage by the end of next year.
  • In 1996, marijuana legalization was also about a 25 percent position, and today it is also about a 50 percent position. Eighteen states have now legalized “medical marijuana,” and two of these have gone ahead and made it official by legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
  • Policy change plus technological change has materially deregulated sexual content in mass media today as compared to 1996. Broadcast television has been steadily increasing sexual content since at least 1998. In the past several years, this change appears to have accelerated noticeably. Of course, this has been partially in response to the growth of less-regulated cable television, as well as the Internet as a media technology. In 1996, mass media consumption via the Internet was negligible, while today the Internet on computers plus video on computers and mobile platforms collectively represent about 25 percent as much media consumption as TV. It is estimated that something like one-third of all web pages are pornography, with very little regulation of content beyond child pornography. So, the mix of media consumption has shifted toward less regulated media (and these have not subsequently been regulated for content in the way that braodcast media are), and within-medium sexual content has been rising (and standards are likely to be further relaxed) for the incumbent dominant medium of broadcast TV.

In 2013, we live in a society with substantially more of the economy controlled and regulated by the government, and with substantially more permissive lifestyle regulations, than we did in the late 1990s. There is no need to resort to psychodrama to describe the state of mind of the traditional political Right in America. The reason that they feel like they’re losing is simple: They’re losing.