Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Leftist Tide in American Politics?

Is America turning left? The Economist wants to know:

FOR George Bush, the presidency is becoming a tragic tale of unintended consequences. In foreign policy, the man who sought to transform Iraq, the Middle East and America's reputation has indeed had revolutionary effects, though not the ones he was aiming for. Now something similar seems to be happening in domestic politics. The most conservative president in recent history, a man who sought to turn his victories of 2000 and 2004 into a Republican hegemony, may well end up driving the Western world's most impressive political machine off a cliff.
That machine has put Republicans in the White House in seven of the past ten contests. At times it has seemed as if the Democrats (oddly, given their status as the less Godly party) have had to rely on divine intervention to get elected. Watergate helped Jimmy Carter in 1976, just as the end of the cold war and Ross Perot's disruptive third-party campaign helped Bill Clinton in 1992. Better organised and more intellectually inventive than their “liberal” rivals, American conservatives have controlled the agenda even when they have lost: Mr Clinton is best remembered for balancing the budget and passing welfare reform, both conservative achievements. In a country where one in three people see themselves as conservatives (against one in five as liberals) and where the South and West have grown far more quickly than the liberal north-east, it is easy to see why Mr Bush and his strategist, Karl Rove, dreamed of banishing Democrats from power for a generation.

Now they would settle for a lot less. Having recaptured Congress last year, the Democrats are on course to retake the presidency in 2008. Only one Republican, Rudy Giuliani, looks competitive in the polls, and his campaign is less slick than those of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Voters now favour generic Democratic candidates over Republican ones by wide margins. Democrats are more trusted even on traditional conservative issues, such as national security, and they have opened up a wide gap among the young, among independents and among Latinos (see

The easy scapegoat is Mr Bush himself. During his presidency, the words Katrina, Rumsfeld, Abramoff, Guantánamo and Libby have become shorthand for incompetence, cronyism or extremism. Indeed, the failings of Mr Bush's coterie are oddly reassuring for some conservatives: once he has gone, they can regroup, as they did after his father was ousted in 1992.

Yet this President Bush is not a good scapegoat. Rather than betraying the right, he has given it virtually everything it craved, from humongous tax cuts to conservative judges. Many of the worst errors were championed by conservative constituencies. Some of the arrogance in foreign policy stems from the armchair warriors of neoconservatism; the ill-fated attempt to “save” the life of the severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo was driven by the Christian right. Even Mr Bush's apparently oxymoronic trust in “big-government conservatism” is shared in practice by most Republicans in Congress.

From this perspective, the worrying parallel for the right is not 1992 but the liberal overreach of the 1960s. By embracing leftish causes that were too extreme for the American mainstream—from unfettered abortion to affirmative action—the Democrats cast themselves into the political wilderness. Now the American people seem to be reacting to conservative over-reach by turning left. More want universal health insurance; more distrust force as a way to bring about peace; more like greenery; ever more dislike intolerance on social issues.
Read the whole thing (and also click on The Economist's supplemental analysis of trends in partisan identification).

Next year does look to be a Democratic year in terms of party dynamics. But I don't think we're heading toward a long-term realignment toward Democratic liberalism (some analysts even argue that
the GOP retains the edge toward lasting party preeminance). But the final paragraph of The Economist's piece is intriguing:

One finding that stands out in the polls is that most Americans distrust government strongly. Forty years ago they turned against a leftish elite trying to boss them around; now they have had to endure a right-wing version. In democracies political revolutions usually become obvious only in retrospect. In 1968, with America stuck in another bruising war, few liberals saw Richard Nixon's southern strategy as part of a long-term turn to the right. All that was clear then was that most Americans urgently wanted a change of direction. That is also true today.
I think the main changes people want are two: success in Iraq and economic security. Until those two issue areas improve, Democratic prospects will remain bright.

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