In Washington and in most state capitals, fierce political battles are underway challenging once broadly accepted public policies. Underlying the current sharp divisions over fundamental questions is the widening fissure between the two parties. It’s fashionable to describe this development as the result of a more or less symmetrical shift—with Democrats moving to the left while Republicans move to the right. I guess this approach is intended to make the whole thing look reasonable and any analysis of the shift appear non-partisan. But whatever the reasoning at work, the conclusion is just plain wrong. Democrats have not moved to the left, if anything they have moved to the right—but not so fast or as far as Republicans.
The “tea party” movement, for example, reflects the pressure within the GOP to conform to the positions of its most conservative members. Reinforcing this trend is the combined effect of decades of building a conservative infrastructure—an infrastructure that includes numerous well-funded think tanks, an array of advocacy organizations, and, thanks to a Supreme Court dominated by a conservative majority, wide-open fundraising for all sorts of political activities. The total effect is that our politics for a generation have been shaped by a right-sing narrative about policy and values. Progressives have found themselves overmatched and playing defense. For some, this means making reassuring noises about how they are really moderates and not dangerous liberals. In so doing they tend to acknowledge the validity of at least some of the conservative arguments—even arguments that have little basis in reality.
For a time it has almost seemed that the best advice one can offer to someone seeking to do well in D.C. can be summed up in two words: move right.
The issues in play go way beyond what might have been expected just a few years ago, even after a change in party control of statehouses and of the U.S. House of Representatives. It underpins the change of the debate about issues like Social Security and the right of the government to control, to some extent, the conditions under which citizens can buy and carry firearms.
On Social Security the fight has been transformed from past bipartisan support for increasing the incomes of the majority of senior citizens who lack sufficient savings or have lost their employment-related pensions. The question now is how much should be cut from a program that provides only an average of $1,000 month to those too old to work? We’ve also come a long way from the politics of the Reagan era. Consider the words of President Reagan at the signing of Social Security Amendments of 1983:
This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have one pledge that they will get their fair share of benefits when they retire.
On gun control the progressive forces have been waging a rear guard action for years. The debate has shifted from a disagreement about what the Second Amendment really means—e.g., is the reference to a well-regulated militia satisfied by the existence of, say, the national guard or do we all need to have our own guns without background checks? It is taken for granted now that the Constitution provides a nearly absolute right for individuals to own as many guns as they like.
The shifts on these and a host of other issues represent a significant break with several decades of a fine balance that existed between the two parties. That balance meant that both sought ways to appeal to the political center, often muting the more extreme components of their membership. Today, however, all sorts of schemes that normally would be advocated only in highly partisan gatherings are now vying to become central items on the Republican Party’s agenda. The old “normal” has been shattered. The overarching question for progressives is whether to accept this change or challenge it at every opportunity. It’s time for both liberal and moderate politicians to draw a line in the sand and find out whether or not the country can be rallied against the rightward shift. The results of the 2012 election suggest that the opportunity is there for those with the guts to seize it.