Projecting The Future Of The Left and Right

Matthew Yglesias and James Joyner come to general agreement on one point in an exchange between the two. Yglesias concedes that the center-right will dominate in the future:

I would go stronger than that, actually, and posit that American politics in the future will mostly be dominated by a center-right political coalition just as it always has. This is just how things work. A political coalition grounded in the social mores of the ethno-sectarian majority and the ideas of the business class has overwhelming intrinsic advantages against contrary movements grounded in the complaints of minority groups and the economic claims of the lower orders. It’s a little bit hard to even know what a permanent progressive governing majority would mean, and harder to know how you would sustain it. When you think about how different countries wind up where they are, it’s never because the political left secures some kind of decisive victory over the political right. Instead, things the left puts in place during moments of victory manage to secure mainstream acceptance and survive periods of center-right electoral victory. That’s the National Health Service under Thatcher, Social Security under Eisenhower, the Civil Rights Act under Nixon, or Medicare under Reagan. The dominant position of the Democratic Party for much of the 20th Century was achieved through the strange method of the Democratic Party containing a lot of very very very very conservative politicians. The actual periods of major progressive legislation were brief—but they had lasting impact.

If we succeed in achieving major progressive reforms in 2009 and 2010, we’re going to create a situation in which the existence of a workable national health care system deprives the Democrats of a winning electoral issue. A certain number of voters who have conservative views on some other topics but who liked progressive ideas on health care will vote for more Republicans. If progressives succeed in increasing economic mobility and decreasing inequality, that will probably increase the number of middle- and upper-class Hispanics who decide they want tax cuts. The goal, however, is to achieve the goal of a more just society, not to win a bunch of elections.

Yglesias is responding to an earlier post in which Joyner looked at changing views among the young and concluded:

…the country’s social mores will have evolved in four or eight years.  Further, American politics will naturally evolve along with the American public, just as it always has.  Presumably, the Republican Party will eventually do so as well — just as it always has.

We’ll always have a strong “conservative” movement.  It’s just that Ronald Reagan and Alex P. Keaton wouldn’t quite recognize it.

In response to Yglesias, Joyner now writes:

But, yes, to the extent that middle-of-the-road Americans are demanding just a little more government involvement in health care, that issue will go away until such time as a groundswell builds up for another surge.

Similarly, the Andrew Sullivans of the world may give the GOP another look down the road once, inevitably, gay marriage becomes normalized.

For “progressives” to win, they need to constantly come up with ways to change the status quo that a plurality of voters want.  More importantly, they have to do it without creating a cultural backlash. “Conservatives,” by contrast, can win either by appealing to the extant culture or charging that the “progressives” are moving too fast.

Both of these writers are making assumptions about the direction their respective party will move in, and most likely are seeing their party move in the direction they would prefer. Both the policies of political parties and the meaning of political labels change over time and their predictions may or may not come about.

The recent success of the Democratic Party has come about due to common ground between two groups which are both labeled liberal which I discussed here. Some of us are primarily concerned with civil liberties issues, opposing the social issues of the religious right, and opposition to the Iraq war. Yglesias is looking more at progressive, big-government economic policies. Both groups now share a considerable amount of common ground, but this is primarily due to which issues have dominated recently.

Joyner leans much more libertarian than the current Republican mainstream and envisions a Republican Party which could be a more acceptable choice in the future. It is possible that in the future we will have a Democratic Party which is seeking big government programs beyond what I believe is necessary, especially if the current health care crisis is resolved. Hypothetically we could also have a Republican Party controlled by people who accept gay marriage along with rejecting the rest of the baggage of the religious right, which shows stronger support for civil liberties, and which realizes that the Iraq war along with the current approach to the “war on terror” is a tremendous error.  Under these hypothetical situation it is very possible I could wind up supporting such a center-right party and voting Republican.

The problem with this hypothetical situation is that we do not know which direction either party will move in. While some have claimed there was no difference between Obama and Clinton, I saw the primary race as a battle over two different directions for the Democratic Party. There is no guarantee it will turn out this way, but I saw the victory for Obama, aided by independents and social liberals who have not always voted Democratic, as helping to move the Democratic Party more towards the form of liberalism I prefer.

At present there are few signs that the Republican Party will turn out the way Joyner suggests. During the Bush years, rather than preserving the status quo, we have seen the Republicans move further to the right on social issues. Traditionally the Republicans would pander to the religious right for votes and attempt to ignore them as much as possible in office. George W. Bush never read that memo (which possibly was mixed in with that intelligence briefing with warnings of a terrorist attack).

Abortion is one issue which demonstrates that it is not necessarily true that conservatives act primarily to preserve the status quo, accepting both the changes under liberal governments and respecting what a plurality want. If this was really the case, abortion would have been taken off the table following Row v. Wade, but instead conservatives remain aggressive in opposing abortion rights along with supporting increased restrictions on contraception.

If conservatives accepted the status quo we might also expect them to accept established science. Instead many conservatives push for the teaching of evolution in the schools even though evolution has become well established as the foundation of modern biology. Similarly many oppose scientific fings which contradict their religious beliefs in other areas such as in cosmology and geology. Conservatives certainly do not support the status quo on climate science as represented by the scientific consensus.

With these trends in the conservative movement it is difficult to determine which direction the Republican Party will move over the long run. Perhaps they need to run Sarah Palin in 2012 and suffer a blow out to convince them to change their direction. Changes in both beliefs and voting patterns among the young might force the Republican Party to change more along the lines which Joyner suggests, but the disdain shown by young voters for the GOP could become permanent. The views of the young will only influence the Republican Party if they actually get involved in the party.

At present many Republicans believe they lost because they weren’t conservative enough. If this philosophy continues to hold, which may or may not be the case, the Republicans will increasingly become a regional party of the deep south and Mormon belt. They risk going the way of the Whigs if they do not modernize their views. While third parties have had little success in the past, considering both the changes in politics in the internet era and the differences in types of people now voting Democratic, I also would not be surprised if ultimately the Democrats divide into two factions to restore a two party system should the Republicans continue drive out everyone outside of the extreme rightwing.


  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I would say that the Republicans have more in common with the predicament of the Federalists than of the Whigs. The Federalists were primarily a regional party, based in the commercial and urban strongholds of New England and the urban areas of the mid-Atlantic. Southern Federalists did exist as individuals, but the platform that the Federalists advocated was one which was deeply rooted in the urban, capitalist economics of New England while the majority of the country remained rural and agricultural. Thus the Federalists were representing specific parochial interests against the national mainstream. Currently, the Republican Party is relying on a base whose concerns are entirely parochial and out of touch with the mainstream of American thought.

    The Whigs were broken because of lack of unifying philosophy on core issues within their own ranks. They began as a party opposed to Andrew Jackson’s re-election, composed of disgruntled States Rights ideologues who opposed Jackson’s then-unprecedented exercise of presidential powers and disgruntled Nationalists who opposed Jackson’s privatization of the Bank of the United States.  Though they did slowly become the ‘Nationalist party’, this was largely by default. There was always a knot of States Rights advocates who prevented party unity — indeed both of the Whigs elected President were strong Nationalists who died in office and whose pro-States Rights Vice-Presidents ended up allied to the Democrats.

    The political litmus tests of the day were States Rights and Slavery, and the Whigs were badly divided on both issues. So they could not win elections consistently, and frequently opposed themselves. The Republican Party replaced them because they were united as a Nationalist, anti-Slavery party.

    The Republicans of today, with the exception of some dissidents being harshly treated by their fellows, are incredibly unified on the litmus test issues. They are simply unified against the mainstream of national thought.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    The Republicans might share more similarities with the Federalists than the Whigs, but it is the Whigs who are most cited on the general idea of a political party disappearing. You don’t hear people talking about a party going the way of the Federalists.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Point taken, the Whigs do have the bad rep these days. Though, ironically, it is the Democrats with their broadly patched together coalition of liberals, moderates, ‘New Democrats’ who aren’t really either, and outright Blue Dog conservatives who most mirror the self-destructive patchwork that went into the Whig party. And Bush was the Democratic Party’s Andrew Jackson. I’m curious to see whether a real unifying philosophy can come out of the Obama presidency. Four years or eight, that would be a presidential legacy.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is difficult to determine if a unifying philosophy will come out of Obama’s time in office. He ultimately won with the support of a variety of groups which were unified based upon a  handful of the major issues of today along with opposition to what Bush has done.

    Opposition to Bush will not continue to be a unifying issue, and many of the other issues are likely to be different eight years from now. It is possible that Obama will transform the Democratic Party (partially due to the influence of the new voters he brought in). It is also possible that the Democratic Party will continue to be much as it was before Obama after Obama leaves office.

    It is almost impossible to predict what will be the major issues in eight years (assuming Obama serves two terms). Looking back at the start of 2001 when Bush first took office we did not know that major issues affecting the elections would turn out to be Iraq, terrorism, and questions of Republican competence post-Katrina.  Many things can happen in the next eight years which could again change partisan divides.

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I agree on predictions for the future. I am simply describing present party conditions as I see them. A lot could change in the next four to eight years. A lot of that depends on unforeseen events, but a lot of it also depends on President Obama and the current Democratic leadership on the one side and how the Republican party power vacuum is filled on the other.

1 Trackbacks

Leave a comment