We are told incessantly by the media pundits that the GOP has moved sharply to the right. Supposedly, the Republican Party establishment is under assault from the Tea Party in a largely successful attempt to shift the Party’s center of gravity to starboard. No mention is made of the Democratic Party’s severe lurch to the left over the last half century. It is similarly unremarked how the cultural and political fulcrum of the nation as a whole has migrated to port during this time. No, the only political motion that concerns the moguls of the mass media and the pundits of the political press is the supposed rapid rush to the right of the Republican Party.
I have news for you. The Democratic Party has moved much further to the left than the Republican Party has moved to the right.
This is not an assertion that is easily quantified. But let us try. First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by left and right. If we take as the fundamental criterion the amount by which the government dominates the society, then on the extreme left we have totalitarianism, with authoritarianism to its right; whereas on the extreme right we have anarchy, with mass democracy abutting it on the left. In the center we have a constitutional, representative, federalist system such as in the United States. Of course it is a bit more complicated than that. But hopefully, we can agree that moves from the center to the left would certainly entail: more rather than less government taxation, spending and regulation; government restrictions on individual liberties, restraints on business, and limitations on property rights and freedom of association; and generally, a constriction of the individual rights found in the Bill of Rights in pursuit of more group equality, uniformity and social order.
On the other hand, a move from the center to the right would constitute essentially the reverse of the trends just outlined – in particular, the curtailment of government’s ability to interfere with the individual’s life, property or business; manifested by lower taxes, less government spending and regulation, etc.
Since 1900, the US has had two, perhaps three decades during which the country has moved to the right: the 20s, the 80s and arguably the 50s. In all other periods, the movement has been decidedly in the other direction – especially in the 10s, 30s, 60s, 70s and since the turn of the millennium. But what of the political parties themselves?
In the 1920s, the members and supporters of the Republican Party were generally a conservative bunch. In fact, I doubt that they contemplated their positions explicitly in the terms outlined above. More simply, they likely saw themselves as the inheritors (after a century and a half) of the traditions and mores established by the Founders – only updated to a more modern period. Thus they took seriously the sanctity of property and that business should be largely left alone by government (the Sherman Antitrust Act not withstanding). Republicans in that era subscribed to the idea that the government should limit its involvement in the people’s affairs and businesses. They had a healthy respect for federalism. Moreover, they strongly believed that charity was a matter best left to individuals and private associations, and that it was completely out of the purview of government. However, it is fair to say that the GOP commitment to liberty was not without blemish as the Party had a less than benign attitude toward the role of women and minorities in society. And its members certainly participated in and promoted crony capitalism. But overall, on the scale laid out earlier, the GOP occupied a rather conservative location on the right.
At the same time, the Democratic Party had already become infected with the progressive virus imported from Europe. The dramatic change in the Democratic Party (over the decades spanning the turn of the 20th century) is reflected in the distance between Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (between whom there were only Republican presidents). Cleveland was quite conservative and in many ways little different from the Republican presidents who surrounded him. But Wilson was super liberal. For example, under his watch, America adopted the direct election of senators, established the Federal Income Tax and gave birth to the Federal Reserve Bank. All of this – and more of its ilk – occurred exactly a century ago as the Democratic Party veered sharply to the left. Moreover, not only were its initial steps to the left rather substantial, but it has never retreated back to the center. The only presidential candidate it nominated in the last hundred years who was not well to the left of center was John W. Davis (in 1924). Moreover, during those hundred years, the Democratic Party has experienced four hard leaps to the left – under Wilson, FDR, LBJ and now Obama. One could argue that small corrections occurred in between (e.g., Davis after Wilson, Truman after FDR, Humphrey after LBJ). But since the nomination of George McGovern, the Democratic Party has fled to the far left end of the political spectrum and there it has remained for 40 years. Until the arrival of Obama – a southpaw, mentally and physically – under whom it has plunged even further to the left.
The following ideas – which are unmistakably hard left on our scale – are now mainstream in the Democratic Party:
- The Federal Government may spend any amount of money to address any issue it considers necessary to promote (what it perceives to be) the welfare of the American people. Debt and deficits are immaterial!
- The Federal Government may impose any regulatory burden on American business it deems necessary in order to protect the people or the environment – cost, economic viability and limitation on freedom be damned.
- The Federal Government may mandate the playing of favorites in hiring, firing, promotions, admissions, licensing and associations in order to further the goal of “diversity” – thereby in effect legally sanctioning immoral discrimination.
- The Federal Government may confiscate the people’s wealth, property and business in order to redistribute resources more “fairly” among the population.
- The American experience is rife with persecution, racism, sexism and colonialism especially in the treatment of women, minorities, gays and third world peoples; the nation has no moral claim to any exceptional status and its WASP heritage is a stain rather than a badge of honor.
These radical left positions are now the staple of the rank, file and leadership of the Democratic Party. They are hard left by any measure. It took a century to get there. But that is where the Democratic Party is, and largely has been for 40 years. It has dragged the country as a whole in that direction, although not as far as the Party has travelled. And it considers its positions to be the new normal, the new center. As far as it is concerned, the radical left positions expressed in the New York Times are dead center, whereas the mildly right ideas espoused on Fox News are far off in the right stratosphere.
Now what has happened to the Republican Party since its heyday in the roaring twenties? In some sense it was a spectator from the onset of the Depression until the arrival of the Eisenhower administration. During that time, it lost a great deal of confidence in its conservative ideals – so much so that Ike and the Republican Congress (in the 1950s) made little attempt to roll back FDR’s New Deal. In fact, the GOP was infected with some of the same progressive ideas that now dominated the Democratic Party. Johnson’s Great Society and the McGovernite capture of the Democratic Party did frighten the electorate, and so the Republicans had a near lock on the presidency for over 20 years (albeit not on the Congress). And, like the country, the GOP did swing back to the right during the 1980s. But it tossed aside that conservative correction with the arrival of the Bushes and again drifted slowly left from 1988 to 2010.
Once again, the Dems (in the person of Barack Obama) scared the hell out of the people – however, not nearly the percentage that they managed to frighten under Jimmy Carter. Since 2010 and the rise of the Tea Party, the GOP (and the nation, to some extent) has been pulled back to port. That the pullback has not been as widespread as it was in 1980 is attested to by the re-election of Obama. In any event, the GOP today is more to the right than it was in 2008. But I venture, it is roughly where it was under Reagan and nowhere near as conservative as it was under Coolidge.
Recently, I had a conversation with a university colleague whom I consider to be thoughtfully and moderately left of center. I proposed to him that we put numbers on my political scale: -10 = extreme left; 0 = center; +10 = extreme right. I asked him to locate the New York Times and Fox News on the scale. He assigned the Times a ‘-3’ and Fox News a ‘+9’. When I indicated to him that my assessment gave the NYT ‘-9’ and Fox ‘+3’, he was absolutely flabbergasted. Motivated by a desire to maintain our friendship, he muted his reaction; but I could tell that he thought I was totally off my rocker. Now my colleague is not a flaming leftist. I see him as perhaps ‘-2.5’ in the spectrum. But he probably sees himself as ‘0’, or perhaps even positive. He is typical of the dramatic shift in the country (and of course in the Democratic Parity), and so finds my assignments completely absurd.
The country has elected, and re-elected the most extreme leftist president in our history. Let me offer just one piece of evidence to support that claim. Wilson, FDR and LBJ were hard left presidents. Yet, I have absolutely no doubt that each was a patriot, who believed in American Exceptionalism and that America was a force for good in the world. Sadly, they also believed that America could do better by adopting their progressive ideas. By contrast, Obama is not a patriot, does not subscribe to American Exceptionalism (as he stated explicitly), has given no evidence that he believes America has been a force for good in the world and has expressed the desire to fundamentally transform the nation. By the latter, he doesn’t mean switching America’s favorite food from burgers to gruyere cheese. He means overthrowing the belief that individual liberty is the prime purpose of the societal structure and replacing it by a statist, collectivist system. The Democratic Party is one hundred percent behind him. The Democratic Party has moved five steps to the left for every step to the right taken by the Republican Party. That this is not completely obvious to all Americans is testimony to the subtle brainwashing the American people have endured and to which they have capitulated over the last 50 years.
This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative