As I head into the Winter Meeting of the (sigh, deep breath) “network of conservative groups affiliated with Charles Koch, that they would prefer people stop calling ‘the Koch Network’,” perhaps it is good to pause and look at how the two parties have changed in the past decade . . . because they have indeed changed.
Is American Politics Really Realigning towards the Left Wing?
The headline of Eric Levitz’s essay in New York Magazine, “The Left-Wing Realignment of American Politics Has Already Begun,” is both more accurate and less accurate than it appears.
The crux of Levitz’s argument is that not only has the Democratic party moved to the left, to the point where the centrists of this primary are running on positions that would have been extremely progressive twelve years ago, but also that the 2020 edition of the Republican party is to the left of where it used to be:
But a broader swath of the GOP is warming to small-bore, family-based social welfare policies, including refundable child tax credits for working parents and modest forms of paid family leave. Kevin McCarthy’s climate bill may be a mere stunt, but the House Minority Leader is not alone in signaling a heretical interest in (nonmilitary) industrial policy; Republican senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have made similar noises in recent months, with the Florida senator issuing a report on the harms of neoliberal “financialization” that actually cited the work of socialist economists. In other words, while Republicans remain happy to do the bidding of libertarian billionaires when it suits their political interests, they appear more willing to opportunistically flout the Koch Network’s preferences than they were during the Obama years.
Republicans like Rubio and the others are trying to apply their pro-family principles to economics, and it is indeed going in some surprising directions, as Levitz observes. But even if they’re ending up in a similar place, they’re taking a different route to get there.
(As noted yesterday, people really don’t pay close attention to what the Koch network actually wants to do. They really want a deal on Dreamers, supported a bill that passed giving legal status to thousands of undocumented farm workers, they want to bring troops home from Afghanistan and to have a lighter U.S. military footprint abroad, and they helped push through criminal-justice reform last year.)
Ways the Republicans Are Drifting to the Left
Levitz primarily focuses on economic policy and climate change, but there are definitely some other clear examples of the Republican party shifting to the left. The number of Republicans who oppose gay marriage continues to drop, and in the eyes of most GOP lawmakers, the Obergefell case resolved the issue for the foreseeable future. Republicans are much more supportive of legalizing marijuana and other drugs than they used to be, and much more wary about the costs and benefits of the war on drugs. GOP governors were some of the first adopters of criminal-justice reforms. (I suspect there’s an “only Nixon could go to China” effect; nobody was going to accuse Rick Perry or Chris Christie of being soft on crime.)
The GOP under Trump is more populist, at least in its rhetoric. Perhaps the most significant change, particularly from the Tea Party era to the Trump one, was the dramatic illustration that Republican opposition to deficit spending and rapidly increasing debt was a mile wide and an inch deep. A lot of Republicans, both in the grassroots and in office, said they opposed runaway spending . . . but they weren’t really willing to do much about it. And under Trump, Republican complaints about trillion-per-year deficits are practically muted.
But those of us who still think giant runaway debts are going to create problems down the road, as interest payments become a bigger and bigger portion of the federal government, have to confront a painful truth: Many Americans don’t care. They can’t see the problem. They can’t touch it. At some point, the numbers become so big, they become difficult to imagine.
Many Americans can understand (and may have experienced) owing money to a credit card company or the bank for an unpaid mortgage or car payments, or student loans, or even some tough guy named Vinny knocking at their door over that loan they took when their gambling got out of hand. But they cannot get their heads around the fact that as of Wednesday, the American government owes $23,205,218,318,274 dollars and one penny. That is $23 trillion. Our government takes in roughly $3 trillion in tax revenue for a year. If everyone in America agreed tomorrow to have the U.S. government stop all new spending, and we never spent any money on anything, and we somehow collected all the same level of taxes from volunteer IRS agents, and we somehow made up for all of the federal workers who would not be paying income taxes . . . it would still take us nearly eight years to pay off all that we currently owe.
Spending hawks argued with the rest of the country until they are blue in the face, urging them to solve or at least begin to address the problem. No matter what they say or do, Americans refuse to see as a problem — or at least they refused to vote as if they saw it as a problem. The Republicans didn’t reverse their position on the debt so much as drop it. The electorate had made it painfully clear that there wasn’t any political upside — whatever cuts were proposed were always going to be painted as cruel and heartless by their opponents, and the Democrats were always going to argue the country could afford anything it wanted and pay for it by taxing “the rich.”
Ways Republicans Are Drifting to the Right
But to make the argument that “the GOP is moving to the left” is to look only at a select group of issues. On several fronts, Republicans are more rightward than they were in the past. There are very few pro-gun-control Republicans anymore, and very few outspoken pro-choice Republicans. “The Republican Majority for Choice” shut its doors, its leaders proclaiming that they were leaving the GOP. The old moderate Republicans became Democrats — Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chafee.
The first aim of the Trump administration was a sweeping tax cut, and it is hard to imagine a Republican congressman signing onto any future budget deal that included tax increases.
The Trump administration may be a mixed bag on deregulation that leaves some conservatives disappointed, but it’s not like the Republicans have fundamentally changed their beliefs about the harm of red tape or the efficiency of the federal bureaucracy. The perceived leniency in criminal-justice reform proposals are a reflection that the past tough-on-crime policies worked so well that they’re probably outdated and no longer needed. The GOP is still, by and large, the party of cops. Trump has made the party’s rhetoric more enthusiastic about “infrastructure” in the most general sense, but this is largely an updated version of the longstanding bipartisan tradition of spending taxpayer money to build big stuff in their districts. Remember Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Representative Bud Schuster of Pennsylvania?
The Ways the Democrats Have Drifted — Or Sprinted — to the Left
By most measures, Democrats have taken at least one big step to the left — both during and since the Obama administration. There is no Democratic Leadership Council anymore, pushing for a more centrist approach. There are very few pro-gun Democrats; back in 2010, North Carolina Democratic representative Heath Shuler and Dan Boren, a former representative from Indiana, spoke at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. Dan Lipinski is, functionally, the last pro-life Democrat in Congress.
Bernie Sanders was not taken seriously by many Democrats, and certainly not seen as a potential presidential nominee, during the Clinton, Bush, or early Obama eras. For most of the past generation, Democrats vehemently denied being socialists, they didn’t embrace the label. The Green New Deal would not have been proposed in any previous presidency.
(Theory: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to such a prominent role in Democratic politics partially reflects the lack of a figure such as Barack Obama or either of the Clintons atop the party and defining its identity and terms of debate. Think about it: From 1992, the Democrats have nominated Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton’s running mate in Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton. That’s an entire generation of Democrats who have had, for most of their lives, Bill, Hillary, or Barack setting the course for the party.)
A Few Ways Democrats Have Somewhat Drifted to the Right
But if you look hard, you can find some idiosyncrasies. As many of us noted throughout Trump’s rise, he has never been a consistent, down-the-line conservative, and was a big donor to Democrats for many years. This means on any given day, Trump can propose an idea that is not conservative by any means — but many Democrats so consistently loathe Trump that they oppose whatever he’s proposing. A CBS poll in 2018 found 78 percent of Republicans supported federal aids to farmers being affected by tariffs, while only 39 percent did. (Motivated reasoning around Trump is so powerful, he can get Democrats to oppose new federal entitlement programs and he can get Republicans to support them.)
While it probably reflects a reflexive opposition to whatever Trump is doing at the moment, more Democrats say they support free trade now. Similarly, Democrats’ hawkishness on Putin is indisputably a variant of anti-Trump-ism, but it will probably be a long while before Democrats respond to calls for a tougher stand on Russia by scoffing: “The ’80s called, they want their foreign policy back.” If you simply looked at the issues of aid to farmers, approach to Russia, and free trade, you might think the Democrats were the conservative party.