We tend to forget that everything good about America was done by liberals, and conservatives have done diddly squat
Two Ideologies And A Funeral
by David Michael Green/Regressiveantidote.com
Social scientists aren’t generally blessed with the ability that those in the physical sciences have to manufacture artificial conditions allowing hypothesis testing.
In a worst case scenario, a physicist could be required to scrounge up tens of millions of dollars to build a particle accelerator, or a Hubble telescope. A social scientist, on the other hand, might need to launch a war to measure its properties, or starve people to study the psychology of famine. Oops - er, no can do. Try getting a grant for that!
Sometimes, though, you just get lucky. And when it comes to judging the central political debate of our time, we are lucky (as social scientists, that is, which means that we’ve been very unlucky, of late, as citizens).
America has conducted a natural experiment in ideology over the previous century, and we are now in a position to evaluate its results. From the 1930s through the 1970s, this country adopted essentially liberal policies (American liberal, to be sure, but still liberal). From the 1980s to the present, America charted a largely conservative course. There were huge exceptions to both tendencies, of course, but the overall trajectory of national politics during these eras cannot seriously be denied.
Now we are in a position to ask the simple empirical question: Which was better?
The answer, equally simple, strikes me as manifestly clear. Unfortunately, though, because liberals lost their conviction and their courage during the conservative era and therefore remain still to this day unwilling to even speak in ideological terms, let alone to name and indict conservatism’s failings in just those terms, few Americans are aware of this experiment and its results.
That can and must change. It is important to defeat each of regressive conservatism’s individual failed policies head-on, before they cause further damage, but it is more important to destroy the whole monster once and for all, bringing the shame and approbation down on its head that it so richly deserves, such that it might never return to haunt us again.
Assuming that people can be persuaded by facts and reason (a very large and unwarranted assumption in many cases, as I believe Al Gore’s new book is about to argue, and as I have found all too often from personal experience), this should be as easy as catching Dick Cheney in a lie - in other words, a total cakewalk. The case is overwhelming.
Consider, to begin with, economic conditions. The achievement of liberalism during its ascendant period was no less than the vast expansion - one might even say the very creation - of the American middle class. Americans owned homes in quantities that would have been inconceivable prior to this time. They sent their children (and themselves) to college in numbers vastly greater than ever before. They had better access to healthcare, and so they lived better, and they lived longer. And they also lived more humane lives than they had in the past, without having to work every hour of every week, with time for families, with access to cultural resources that enriched their lives, and with even a few bucks left remaining to throw the kids in the station wagon and take a vacation here and there.
It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that this was all the product of liberal policies, as opposed to other factors which were occurring simultaneously. But it would be equally erroneous to suggest that such policies were irrelevant. They were not. Social Security allowed seniors to retire in dignity where many had not previously been able to. The GI Bill sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to college, the first generation in their families ever to do so. Medicare and Medicaid brought crucial healthcare services to seniors and the less fortunate. Minimum wage and overtime laws protected workers from exploitation. Labor organizing laws allowed for decent wages and benefits. Environmental legislation protected the air we breathe and the water we drink from unhealthy if not lethal levels of pollution.
We could go on and on from there, but the point is made. The positive impact programs like these, and many others, have made in the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans is incalculable. Of course, conservatives bitterly opposed almost all of them, all down the line. And, in many cases, they even continue to do so today. Some among the regressive right, for instance, have still not gotten over the ‘socialistic’ assault of Social Security, and can’t wait to dismantle this and every other similar program, so that more people suffer while Wall Street grows yet fatter.
If anybody needs a taste of what that world might look like, just consider the last quarter century. In the era of Reagan, Gingrich, the Bushes and, yes, Clinton, we’ve had our very own experiment in conservative economics. Are you liking it so far?
Your answer probably depends on the size of your wallet. Remarkably, GDP growth during this period has been rather robust, while the middle class has more or less stood still. The hourly wage of the median worker rose only nine percent from 1979 to 2005. Median family income growth rose just 6 percent from 1979 to 1995 and the median family’s income actually fell by 2.9 percent from 2000 to 2004. Most of the middle class feels like it is just getting by, and increasingly - as employers jettison healthcare and pension benefits, and as even white collar jobs are now being exported overseas - like they are slipping. Not surprisingly, Americans are today also drowning under staggering amounts of personal debt, estimated in 2004 at an average of $19,000 per US household, not including home mortgage debt.
How can we explain that GDP has been rising at a solid clip, but the middle class is stagnant? Where is all that money going? Well, for the richest Americans, these have been the best of times. Before the liberal period of the last century, the wealthiest ten percent of Americans were hauling in nearly fifty percent of national income. During the liberal era that ratio was cut down to about one-third. Now it is back up near half again, giving America a level of income inequality comparable to Third World countries (how do you like them bananas, Republicans?), not industrialized ones. Consider what’s happened to executive pay and you can see why. In 1982, CEOs made 42 times more in salary than their average worker. In 2001, that had become 525 times the (very) mean worker salary. So that a CEO now makes in a long afternoon what his employees make in an entire year.
If you think that’s messed up, you’ll love what the right has done to the federal government’s finances. Remember when conservatives used to win elections by railing at “tax-and-spend liberals”? Well, it turns out that they’re borrow-and-spend-even-more conservatives. That most revered deity of the right, Saint Ron, used his magic powers of voodoo economics to quadruple the national debt when he came to office. Meanwhile, George W. Bush has shown that he can out-Reagan Reagan. He took an all-time record surplus and turned it into an all-time record deficit. Today, the national debt stands at an astonishing nine trillion dollars. That’s more than $60,000 a piece for every taxpayer in America, plus an additional $2,000 or so more thrown on the pile per year, plus mounting, compounding interest on all this. In 2006, the federal government spent over $400 billion paying off interest on the debt alone, compared to $61 billion for education, or $56 billion for transportation. Some conservative achievement, eh?
Moreover, America, which was an industrial giant during the liberal era, is today running record-breaking trade deficits as well, as we buy from everyone else and they take a pass on whatever it is we’re selling these days. The figure just jumped another 8.2 percent last year, for a total of $860 billion per year, or 6.5 percent of our total economy, which is also a record. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but for sure conservative trade policies and tax breaks for corporations that export American jobs contributed mightily.
Believe it or not, though, the difference between liberals and conservatives is even more striking on the social dimension of ideology than the economic one, despite the fiscal carnage detailed in the preceding paragraphs. Remember how people like Trent Lott pitched in while liberals bled in the streets to end a hundred years of Jim Crow? What’s that you say? You don’t? My gosh, how soon they forget! Surely you remember all those conservatives lining the ramparts through the difficult battles for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, no?
Yeah, well, me neither. That’s because they weren’t there. Nor were they at home watching TV either (unless it was All In The Family, as they cheered on Archie). No, they weren’t helping, and they weren’t passively ignoring these battles. Indeed, they were precisely the problem. They were the other side. It was conservatives who fought equality every step of the way, and who still do, although sometimes less overtly than before. Remember Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy using race issues to peel off disaffected racist whites from the Democratic Party? Remember how Ronald Reagan - in one of the most disgusting episodes of American politics ever - launched his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi, famous home to the murder of three civil rights workers during the 1960s? Remember how George H. W. Bush used the Willie Horton ad to win the presidency? Remember how his son’s party disenfranchised black voters en masse in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004?
Remember how conservatives couldn’t abide the simple statement of sexual equality found in the Equal Rights Amendment, and had it killed? Remember how these supposed paragons of small government have fought to keep control over women’s bodies? Or how they fight to keep discrimination or hate crime laws from applying to gays? Or how they used gay marriage as a campaign issue purely to score political points?
These are the people who are leaving legions of Americans to suffer with potentially curable diseases because their obsessions with all things sexual even extends to stem cells. These are the people who think inoculating teenage girls against cervical cancer will promote promiscuity, and thus would rather have the cancers. (Makes sense, doesn’t it? Remember when you were a teen and thinking about having sex, but decided not to on account of your fear of cervical cancer?) These are the people who see no reason why the cops shouldn’t be allowed to break down your door and arrest you for sleeping with the wrong kind of consenting adult. These are the people who think the United States government should be in the business of legislating medical treatment in personal family tragedies like Terri Schiavo’s. These are the folks who rail against Ahmadinejad’s theocracy there while simultaneously trying to impose Falwell’s here.
Quite a record, eh? Ah, but we’re not done yet. You can also thank conservatives for our lovely criminal (in)justice system, complete with the international shame of the death penalty. Did you know that for the half century prior to the 1970s, America’s incarceration total remained fairly flat at about 330,000 people nationally? Can’t have that! In the conservative era, that figure has increased six-fold. That makes your country the proud owner of the highest incarceration rate in the world, ladies and gentlemen. Higher than Russia. Higher than South Africa. And about five to eight times higher than comparable industrialized democracies in Europe and elsewhere, even though we don’t have the highest crime rate among those countries. It also makes something else, too - namely, a boatload of money for the private owners of our new prison-industrial complex. At least we can feel good that these prisoners are off the streets where they’d be harming us. Until, that is, we realize that more than sixty percent of them are behind bars for nonviolent offenses. Watch what happens when that no longer satiates the corporate prison interests sufficiently. All they have to do is get their fully-owned conservative legislators to outlaw listening to hip-hop or putting sugar in tea, and have them build more privately-managed jails. Then they can incarcerate another million people. More fun and profits with criminal justice!
And if you like that, you’ll dig conservative foreign policy successes! What’s not to like about war? Vietnam, anybody? (Yes, Johnson was a liberal, but his Vietnam policy was absolutely not.) Iraq? While liberals have built international organizations and regimes to control arms proliferation, jail human rights violators, address hunger and prevent environmental degradation, conservatives have had a slightly different agenda. Today, it can be seen on full display in Iraq, where the neoconservatives of the Project for a New American Century have turned America into a hated country worldwide, forever tainted by their aggression, torture and lies. Where our own intelligence agencies tell us that we’ve created an entire new generation of jihadists who will be attacking us in the future. Where the lives of over 3000 Americans and probably close to a million Iraqi civilians have been extinguished for transparently fraudulent purposes. Where already half a trillion dollars has been spent, and likely two trillion will be blown before it is over. Where we’ve turned Iraq into a civil war zone, and potentially could condemn the entire Middle-East to the same fate, on the scale of a world war. Where we could potentially create a worldwide economic depression if the flow of oil is further interrupted by this war. And where American security has been dramatically decreased by tying up all our land forces in a worse_than_useless war of choice, leaving them unavailable should a real emergency occur (abroad or at home - like Greensburg, Kansas just found out this week).
No wonder, with such resounding success, that these same neoconservatives want to pour more soldiers and more money into Iraq, and then go after the big prize, Iran. With, um, your kids doing the fighting and dying, of course, not theirs. (But please don’t mention that last part to anyone in the media. It’s a bit too much cognitive dissonance when you’re busy basking in the warm glow of the very same folks in Washington you’re supposed to be watchdogging.)
You might be thinking by now that conservatives really have an abysmal track record on every issue imaginable, but we’re actually just getting started here. So far we’ve only been talking about recent history. It actually goes much, much deeper. Wanna guess which side our good friends from the right were on during the American Revolution? (Hint: they were called Tories back then too.) Wanna guess how they felt about the abolitionists trying to end slavery in the nineteenth century? How about women’s suffrage a hundred years ago? How about the civil rights or environmental movements? Social Security? Medicare? All opposed by conservatives of their time, and many still today.
Not for nothing did someone once say that “Conservatives are the worshipers of dead radicals”. So true. Everything that progressives got right in their day, conservatives got wrong, only to figure out later. Americans would do well, to choose just a single example, to remember how the right treated Martin Luther King in his day. I can promise you they weren’t clamoring to make national holidays in his honor back then.
If this historical criticism seems unfair, it is only because regressives would like very much for you to forget just how consistently they’ve been on the wrong side of history, lest you should apply those lessons to contemporary debates. Who do you want to trust? The folks who brought you the American Revolution, or those who supported George III? The people who ended slavery or those who wanted to keep it? Those who tried to give women the vote, or those who fought against equality? And as you’re thinking today about the devastation headed our way from global warming, who should we listen to - the people who created environmental protections in America, or those who fought for dirty air, dirty water and increased corporate profits? Tough call, eh?
Still not convinced? It was no less than William F. Buckley himself, easily the most significant conservative non-official of the last half-century, who defined conservatism as the willingness to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”. Personally, I can’t believe he was candid enough to admit to that, though I guess he figured the rest of us wouldn’t be reading his little magazine. But, hey, how does that strike you as a rallying cry? Racial equality? Stop! Sexual equality? Stop! Nuclear disarmament? Stop! Environmental protection? Stop! Social Security and Medicare? Stop, and Stop again! It’s all good, people (especially if, like William F., you’re a nice rich white man living quite well, thank you very much, on your lovely Connecticut estate). Who needs change when you have martinis and good help to fetch them?
I don’t carry a brief for American liberalism. My own politics run closer to European style social democracy, which I think is about the best political and economic system humans have yet to invent, balancing personal freedoms with social responsibility at home and abroad. But it is ludicrous that anyone should believe that conservatism (which has today morphed into the even nastier strain of regressivism) has been more successful than liberalism in American history, or even that it has been successful at all.
We, as a society, have choices to make. We can avoid unnecessary wars, or not. We can have a 40_hour work week, or not. We can have Brown vs. the Board, or not. We can have the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts or not. We can have equal pay for women, or not. We can have reproductive freedom, or not. We can have the Voting Rights Act, or not. We can have nuclear nonproliferation, or not. We can make hate crimes illegal, or not. And on, and on, and on. These are simple, straightforward choices, and even the rather-less-than-progressive American public is strongly in favor of the liberal position on these issues, almost right down the line.
Really, I’m sorry, but it is nothing short of fall-outta-your-chair ridiculous that conservatism isn’t just laughed off the horizon as the political equivalent of Moonieism (to which it actually bears a whole bunch of real world connections, starting with ownership of that Gestapo house organ, The Washington Times). And why hasn’t it been? I see a number of reasons.
First, who would you pick in a street fight, the guy with a knife and the willingness to use it, or the guy with a stack of briefing papers who is pondering the philosophical morality of self-defense? Robert Frost once said, “A liberal man is too broad_minded to take his own side in a quarrel”, and I often think he was right. Conservative positions fit nicely on (inane) bumper-stickers, liberal ones take sixty-five paragraphs to explain the seventeen policy options, each with twelves nuances and thirty caveats. While Jimmy Carter was out there trying to explain the long term value of a human rights based foreign policy, Ronald Reagan was talking about kicking some ass, goddamit. While Mike Dukakis was droning on reading from piles of government commission reports, Lee Atwater was pummeling him with a single picture of a scary black man. As John Kerry parsed the intricacies of his anti-terrorism voting record, Karl Rove scared Americans silly, then offered them protection. See what I mean?
Second, conservative ideas tend to win among the poorly informed, and Americans are very badly informed. To pick just the most egregious example, consider the 69 percent of us who thought in 2003 that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. A dumbed-down public is a conservative marketing chief’s wet dream, and in general, conservatives have been masterful at playing a lousy hand through effective marketing, while liberals have blown election after election in which the public agreed with them on issues, but remarkably inept candidates couldn’t have found a message if they’d been locked overnight in a post office.
We also live, third, in a moment of declining American power, which creates a latent uneasiness that benefits conservatism’s me-first message, its worship of a happier faux past (not to mention faux pas), and its insecurity-soothing projected muscularity.
Conservatives have also profited from liberalism’s failures. The once broad and cohesive New Deal coalition has splintered in recent decades into a hundred specific advocacy groups, with little strategic coordination between them. And, more importantly, liberals simply lost the courage of their convictions. When Reagan started throwing punches, they threw (in the) towels, and tried to turn themselves into little Republiclones.
Finally, in a sense, liberalism is a victim of its own successes. It achieved much of what it might have been expected to achieve, especially in the American context of a highly individualistic political culture. The main exceptions to that, of course, are national healthcare (which is probably now finally just about viable, only sixty years after Truman first proposed it), and global warming (which also may be ripe for action with the right leadership). Of course, there is lots else which could and should be done. But much of the appeal of liberalism at this point is negative. As in, “Hi there, we’re the nice people who won’t lie you into disastrous wars, bankrupt the country, export your job, or cause catastrophic environmental destruction”.
What is crucial at the moment is that individual issues - the debt, the war, global warming, Katrina, etc. - not be treated as individual issues, but rather as the planks of an ideological platform that must be promptly escorted to its own funeral. In 1988, I watched Michael Dukakis get hammered across an entire campaign for being a “liberal”, only to stand by in silence until literally the last day, when he appeared in San Francisco and gingerly admitted to it. (By the way, Mike, what the hell were you doing there on the last day of a campaign you were about to lose? Trolling for the votes of San Francisco’s seventeen registered Republicans?)
What Dukakis should have been saying all along is “If providing a decent retirement for our seniors makes me a liberal, then damn right, I’m a liberal. If keeping America out of foolish and harmful wars makes me a liberal, then damn right, I’m a liberal. If protecting the environment makes me a liberal, then damn right, I’m a liberal. If being fiscally responsible and not handing our children their parents’ massive debt makes me a liberal, then damn right, I’m a liberal.” And so on.
To a very large extent, politics is a war of framing. At this moment in time, liberals are nearly drowning in ammunition. But they lack the conviction to fight, and they lack the strategic sense to put that ammunition into a coherent frame. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been masterful at selling a framing based on absurd anecdotes and wholesale falsehoods. Today, far too many Americans believe that corporate actors are good and the public sector is bad. That public servants are ‘bureaucrats’ and regulation of industry is ‘red tape’. That, in Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase, “government is not the solution, government is the problem” (except the military, of course, where waste and fraud couldn’t possibly exist because it’s not really government…). It is a measure of how good the salesmanship has been, and how credulous the customer, that you could convince citizens in a democracy that the government they chose was the problem. All while being that very government.
Progressives must seize this moment of maximal opportunity to reframe and thus bury conservative ideology. It is worse than the ideology of stasis. It is worse than the historic opponent of liberty and equality. It is worse than the international aggressor or the guardian of those whose actions are toxic to the public interest. Today’s regressive conservatives are predatory kleptocrats who have turned America into a disaster on every front, precisely because they never came to power for any other purpose than to pillage.
Americans will see that if we help them to do so. They already see the pieces, and more of those will be exposed with every Henry Waxman subpoena and every self-serving (and self-preserving) memoir from former administration officials.
We just need to do what conservatives have done so successfully these last decades, and have done in the complete absence of the truth that makes our task so much easier than theirs.
We need to package this frame, do it boldly and confidently, and repeat it relentlessly, as if we were George W. Bush endlessly chanting the word “terrorism”.
(David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York . He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles ( mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net)