Ezra Knowlittle's Perspective
I’ve argued previously that there is no realistic American political future in which one party achieves a majority and then muscles through a lasting policy agenda based on a pristine wish-list of its activists. Today, even a major victory for one party would be followed by Newton’s third law, politics-style (see 2004/2006, 2008/2010, 2012/2014, 2016/2018). To paraphrase World War Two Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the winning side could expect to run wild for about six months, and thereafter the tide would turn…and the harder the push, the harder the push-back.
Rather, the only path that takes us forward involves achieving some degree of understanding, not between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum, which is unlikely (and like the man with his head in the icebox and feet in the oven who says on average he feels fine, somewhat nonsensical), but among people in the broad swath of the middle.
To find that path, it’s critical to start by trying to understand both liberal and conservative perspectives on their own terms, rather than just through the prism of being a Democrat (which I am) or a Republican.
That’s why I asked for feedback from Ezra Knowlittle.
Ezra is a friend with a long career in Republican politics who preferred a pseudonymous label (I offered VSR, standing for “very smart Republican,” but she/he opted for Ezra), and who offered me two provocative and related thoughts on the recent piece about the evidence for a major rightward move by Republicans.
The first, and the one we’ll look at today, is that there’s another way to think about that evidence. From a conservative’s standpoint, the story is not about them becoming more conservative in their politics, it’s about America becoming more liberal in its policies. To sum it up in Ezra’s words:
“Over the course of my lifetime, our country has shifted significantly to the left, and this shift is reflected in government policy. There may be areas in which government is more conservative than it was 50 years ago, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Progressives eventually win everything they seek; they just get impatient because it sometimes takes a little time…the secret that all conservatives of a certain age share [is that] they’re fighting strictly a rear guard action against inevitable progressive victories in every facet of life, government and culture.”
This is a critical point — and not one that felt intuitive from the standpoint of my Democratic brain. So let’s unpack it, looking quickly at those three categories of life, government, and culture.
If we define the first category, “life,” as encompassing the role of government in key aspects of our lives – policy has indeed generally moved in a liberal direction in the last half century (note: not “Democratic” per se: most policies including on environment, guns, health care, etc. have seen a shift in party support in the last fifty years as liberals coalesced into the Democratic party and conservatives into Republicans).
Taking just one area – the environment – as an example, there’s little question: there is far greater legal protection and environmental regulation over the last 50 years. From the creation of the EPA in 1970, to the Clean Air Act that same year and subsequent 1990 amendments (both under Republican presidents by the way), the Clean Water Act of 1972, CAFE standards for cars in 1975, to any number of other state and federal environmental regulations, the trajectory is clear. And looking down a list of major policy areas, the pattern is more or less the same. On education, from the creation of a separate Department of Education in 1979 through today there has been a 117% increase in funding per student and overall acceptance of an aggressive role for government in trying to improve educational standards and delivery. Similarly, health care has seen the creation of the ACA, including Medicaid expansion in most states, while 15 years ago Medicare added Part D coverage for prescription drugs. Food stamps, housing programs, and Head Start are all with us as legacies of the War on Poverty. Yes, there are areas that are definitely much more of a mixed bag, but in the big picture the trend is decidedly liberal.
In the “government” category, which we can take to mean its size, the picture is a tad fuzzier, but generally consistent. Despite ebbs and flows, the level of taxation in America actually hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years or so. In 1965, taxes collected by federal, state and municipal governments amounted to 24.7 percent of the nation’s output. In 2010, they amounted to 24.8 percent. And at the same time, for all the conservative talk (or even Bill Clinton’s) of shrinking government, its size is actually greater over the last 50 years – around 18% of GDP then, around 21% now.
And what about the underlying culture? Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Marriage equality is the law of the land and is supported by 62% of the public, a 27 point increase over 15 years. There is evidence that the rate of progress in gender roles and equality has slowed in the last twenty years, but it has clearly been substantial over the last fifty, and the recent focus on the #MeToo movement and election of a record number of women to the U.S. House are signs of a re-invigoration. Racial equality and treatment of minority groups has seen too many ups and downs to recount, but in just the last ten years the number of Americans who say “the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” has risen from 43% to 61%. And it’s hard to argue that we could have elected Barack Obama fifty years ago.
So, point taken Ezra. And it suggests three things. One is that the paradox of Republican politicians shifting to the right and still being electorally successful is only more stark against this backdrop — though it may be that there’s a theory of political relativity that explains that its the country that’s moving as much as the Republican party. Two is that progressives should keep this trajectory in mind, as well as the conservative perspective on it: when setbacks occur, Democrats are masters of the circular firing squad (and with some justification) but the long view counsels a bit more patience.
And three is that progressives should think harder about what the last fifty years might look like from a conservative perspective, because it suggests that there’s a more effective approach for bridging the American political divide and advancing the progressive agenda, an issue we will turn to next week.