Sunday, May 06, 2018

Where change was cemented

The video above from Vox describes the point at which the US politics firmly pivoted toward the Right, and why it happened. It was moving in that direction, more or less, already, but this is where the course was fixed. It’s been all downhill from there, which probably explains why the train is picking up speed.

The central premise of the video is that George H.W. Bush's pledge to not raise taxes galvanised conservatives around something that’s still central to their politics: Low taxes and hardline positions on social issues, too. At first glance, that may seem to contradict the accepted view that Reagan was the point at which Republican politics veered sharply rightward, but I don’t see it that way. Instead, it explains how the shift was locked into motion.

The video points out that the so-called “Reagan Coalition” included both fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. At the time, I was a Republican, more or less fiscally moderate, but definitely socially liberal. But as the social conservatives began to exert more and more power over the Republican Party, I became appalled. Before Reagan’s re-election arrived, I’d left the party—or as I, like so many ex-Republicans then and since, put it, I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.

Bush the First was no Reagan conservative. He wasn’t as conservative on any issue, though he was still pretty conservative on fiscal issues and some social issues. But he also signed the Hate Crime Statistics Act, the first federal law to include gay people as an enumerated class (I was there when he did). He also signed the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which, as the video notes, was very significant civil rights legislation. I talked about that on its 25th anniversary, but since then a new regime has taken power in the USA, and it’s done as much as it could to undermine all civil rights protections, including the ADA.

Because Bush wasn’t as conservative as Reagan, his opponents within the Republican Party called him a “counterfeit conservative”. Today, he’d be called a “RINO”, an epithet derived from “Republican In Name Only”. It’s an indication of how much idealogical orthodoxy is now central to the party. Bush breaking his “no new taxes” pledge gave the new core of his party the excuse they needed to turn their backs on him. That helped elect Bill Clinton, and then a Republican Congress two years later. From Republicans' perspective, the betrayal of Bush was good for them and their power.

Over time, Republicans in Congress and the presidency alike have become increasingly rightwing, at a time when Democrats in Congress and the presidency were pretty ideologically consistent. This is surprising to some, rightwingers in particular, who have convinced themselves that Democrats are now the “radical Left”. For those who genuinely think that, as opposed to those who declare it on social media for maximum trolling effect, the explanation is that the Republican Party has shifted so far to the Right on all issues that it makes the Democrats seem much more leftist than they really are.

The important thing here, though, is that this reality hasn’t hurt Republicans nor helped Democrats. In fact, Republicans have managed to do very well, indeed, and while that was helped by gerrymandering districts and by voter their suppression efforts, their tricks don’t explain why they do so well even in areas not affected by those tricks. And, if American voters have stayed more or less centrist, and not shifted rightward, then Democrats should have been doing better than they did until recently.

The upcoming Midterm Elections in the USA could show what the feelings of American voters are. If it’s true that Americans aren’t particularly ideological, as some pundits claim, and when given a reason to vote for Democrats (even if only to vote against Republicans and/or the current occupant of the White House), then there could be a very different Congress elected than serves right now. But if that’s not the case, and the USA itself has shifted to the Right, then not even the dislike of the current occupant or his party will be enough to change Congress.

So, that election will either be playing out the trends that have been happening for more than four decades, or it will break them. The term of Bush the First was the pivot moment, the point where the rightward course of American politics was fixed, and when the Republican Party began sliding downhill, their train picking up speed. The term of the current president could be the pivot point that changes things again, derailing the Republican train. Voter turnout will decide which it is.

The 2018 elections will mark 30 years since the election of Bush the First. Sounds like a great time to cement a new direction.

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