Leftward Ho!

How the American left and right have both shifted left in recent years

Image Credit: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, American, (1816 – 1868), “Westward Ho!” Wikimedia Commons

Looking backwards a few decades, which way have the political winds blown across America?

There’s a trope that conservatives (Republicans, if you prefer) have shifted sharply rightward, while liberals (Democrats, if you prefer) have moved ever so gently to the left. This theme is prominent in the much-cited writings of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein and of Ezra Klein. We find these arguments unpersuasive at best because they appear to analyze polarization and partisan behavior without adequately accounting for underlying shifts in the left-right spectrum.

In fact, in recent years the drift of US policy has been vigorously leftward. Even conservatives have moved somewhat to the left, while liberals have moved sharply in that direction. Indeed, there are few if any policy areas where either end of the spectrum (either party, if you wish) has moved rightward.

The trope (conservatives moving sharply right, liberals moving slightly left) appears to be an illusion borne of a moving reference point—in this case, the leftward-shifting political center. It resembles a passenger on a 350-mile-per-hour westward-bound airplane saying, “Wow! New York City is moving eastward at 350 miles per hour!” A more precise analogy would be that it’s like a passenger on the same plane observing a 50-mile-per-hour westward-bound train below and convincing himself that the train is moving eastward, in reverse, at 300 miles per hour. When too many authors write about political polarization, they in effect describe the behavior or distribution of passengers inside the moving plane or train but neglect the fact that both vehicles are moving west (left).

(NOTE: Albert Einstein used similar metaphors to explain space-time, but we promise to stay away from time dilation and other relativistic effects in this essay.)

Leftward Trends in Economic Policy

With respect to federal fiscal policy, it seems undeniable that both major political parties have moved sharply left in recent years. Historically, the American left has argued for more federal spending and greater tolerance of deficits than has the right. In recent years, even before the pandemic, the fiscal policy trend has clearly been leftward: federal spending and deficits have grown persistently faster than GDP and are projected to continue to do so even more dramatically in the future.

An examination of patterns of each party’s periods of control of the White House and Congress shows each party increasingly willing to accept higher levels of deficit spending than did previous officeholders of the same party. Earnest efforts at fiscal consolidation are becoming less frequent, by bipartisan consent. The right has backed off of previous efforts to moderate the growth of the largest mandatory spending programs, while the left has actually become even more desirous of sweeping program expansions, at the very same time that federal spending as a share of our economy is already increasing.

This drift is especially obvious when tracking policy currents in the fastest-growing part of the federal budget: healthcare programs. For decades, there was a bipartisan consensus that health policy reform was necessary to constrain federal costs and stabilize the budget. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referenced this consensus when she asserted at President Obama’s 2010 Healthcare Summit, “Healthcare reform is entitlement reform. Our budget cannot take this upward spiral of cost. We have a moral obligation to reduce the deficit and not heap mountains of debt onto the next generations.”

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) as enacted, however, actually added to federal budget obligations for healthcare, a sizable step leftward relative to previous federal health policy norms. Conservatives thereafter took their own significant leftward step, failing to repeal the ACA or even to replace it with an alternative policy that spent nearly as much—which itself would have been a far cry from repealing the ACA outright, and even further from tacking back to the previous centrist goal of moderating the growth of federal health obligations.

In recent years, the left side of the healthcare debate has shifted still further left, deeming the ACA an insufficient expansion of federal involvement and now embracing a series of possible expansions, ranging from a new public option to “Medicare for All,” this last being a proposed permanent expansion of a magnitude without precedent in federal policy.

The policy drift with respect to the federal government’s largest program, Social Security, has also been substantially leftward. The program’s cost growth trajectory already substantially exceeds growth rates in the economy or in the program’s revenue base, and for decades it had been understood that a solvency solution would require some combination of eligibility age changes, benefit growth restraints, and additional revenues.

In the late 1990s, most bipartisan Social Security reform proposals featured a personal account component as a cushion against the austerity measures both sides knew would be required. By the first decade of the 21st century, only conservatives such as President George W. Bush still pushed for personal accounts as Democrats unified against them, and by the 2010s, even conservative efforts effectively ceased.

The political right has since taken its cues from President Trump, who has opposed any actions to correct Social Security’s unsustainable cost growth rate, while the left is actually coming forward with proposals to accelerate program cost growth still further. By any reasonable measure, the Social Security policy discussion has steered sharply left over the last two decades.

Among other areas of economic policy, discussion of trade has also shifted left. At least since World War II, economic conservatives have tended to favor free trade, whereas the left was more sympathetic to protectionist measures in deference to the preferences of American labor. Donald Trump has pushed his party base away from free trade, but this drift of the political right toward protectionism is at odds with traditional economic conservatism. Indeed, the current Republican president’s positions on these issues are quite similar to positions that were once widely popular among Democratic politicians allied with labor unions.

For example, Richard Gephardt, who served as Democratic Leader from 1989 to 2003, was a strong skeptic of open trade (and immigration) and typified the positioning of unions’ allies on the political left. This is why presidents of both parties over the decades have typically had to secure the support of political conservatives to pursue free trade agreements. Trade is yet another area of economic policy where the political currents have flowed leftward.

Leftward Trends in Social Policy

The drift leftward has if anything been more pronounced on social policy issues. In recent years, for example, there has been widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage, a position to the left of that taken even by the Obama administration at its outset. This right to marry was affirmed by the Supreme Court, with the majority opinion written by a Republican appointee. It has produced a conspicuous lack of public protest emanating from any part of the political spectrum since it was handed down. This would have been unfathomable just a couple of decades ago.

In noting these trends, we are not making normative judgments about which policies are “good” or “bad.” Indeed, our own personal views are somewhat eclectic and draw from both traditional right and left positions, perhaps more on the right with respect to economics and more on the left with respect to social change. For example, we view the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage as a welcome development, while we view the rise in deficit spending as an unwelcome one.

Not only has the behavior of political parties moved leftward, but so too has the range of ideas deemed to be within the range of each party’s mainstream—the so-called Overton window. Below we will (1) list items that we believe are within the Overton windows of the major political parties in 2020, (2) argue that each item constitutes leftward movement, and (3) note that they would not have been widely held or viewed as acceptable discourse within either major political party in, say, the late 20th century.

Let’s begin with the leftward side of the spectrum and perform a thought experiment. Below is a series of statements, each of which constitutes majority thinking on the left or at least represents a sizable and welcome minority viewpoint. We are trying to focus on ideology rather than party, but if it helps, you could reframe the question as, “Could this point of view gain a respectful hearing at, say, the 1980 or 1996 Democratic National Convention?”

This is but an abbreviated list. We could have created a list several times as long had we included more radical positions that have become dominant in subsectors of American politics, such as the left side of US academia. The list above is limited solely to positions that have achieved wide acceptance on the left side of the broader American political spectrum. The criteria for inclusion on this list are as follows: (1) Is the statement currently within the left’s Overton window? (2) Would it have been outside of the left’s Overton window in previous decades? (3) Does it therefore constitute a significant leftward shift?

Rightward Policy Shifts?

We also searched for counterexamples—rightward shifts that have recently occurred on the right that would not have been welcomed in previous decades. We found ourselves unable to produce a list of rightward shifts that parallels the above list of leftward shifts. Consider present-day conservative thinking on abortion, gun rights, tax rates, school choice, deregulation, healthcare, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, energy policy, and private enterprise. We are hard-pressed to find evidence that the right’s Overton window has shifted rightward on these issues. We can’t name popular or mainstream right-of-center viewpoints that would have been considered “too conservative” at the 1980 or 1996 Republican National Convention.

By contrast, we believe a number of mainstream stances among conservatives today are considerably to the left of what would have been acceptable in the late 20th century. Donald Trump appeared in 2016 with the LGBTQ rainbow flag, supports same-sex marriage, and has appointed publicly gay individuals to senior posts. None of this, nor the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, produced a backlash among conservatives in the manner that similar actions almost certainly would have done 20 years ago.

With respect to healthcare, elected officials on both sides of the aisle now embrace the principle that the federal government should mandate that private insurance cover those with preexisting conditions, a position that only became politically ascendant over the past decade. As previously mentioned, conservatives in Congress now take positions on federal fiscal policy and entitlement reform that are significantly to the left of those embraced 20-30 years ago. Defense spending, long a priority of conservatives, currently absorbs a substantially smaller percentage of the federal budget or of national economic output than the long-standing historical average.

The directional evolution of certain public policy debates is difficult to characterize. President Trump’s rhetoric and policies with respect to immigration have been strenuously opposed by those politically to his left. However, it is unclear whether current Republican policies with respect to immigration represent a rightward or leftward shift. Historically, higher levels of immigration were generally favored by economic conservatives, while lower levels were favored by labor unions. Accordingly, changing attitudes toward immigration on the conservative side do not represent as clear a rightward shift as the long list of positions given above represent a clear leftward shift.

We agree with other analysts that partisanship and polarization have increased. It is certainly true that the center-left Rockefeller Republicans have mostly disappeared. Similarly, pro-life Democrats and Blue Dogs are largely absent from today’s Democratic Party.

While politics have become more polarized, they have also become more pugilistic. President Trump, most notably, is known for harsh, strident rhetoric. The prevailing tone on the left has harshened as well. A combative tone, however, does not indicate the drift of ideology. Trump’s pugilistic style masks the fact that his policies on fiscal management, federal entitlement programs, trade and various social issues are all considerably to the left of his party’s historical orthodoxy. (It’s easy to forget how widely reported then-candidate Donald Trump’s deviation from strict conservatism was just four years ago.) It’s worth speculating on the degree to which the increasing combativeness and anger among certain conservatives has been exacerbated by the documentable fact that their historic policy preferences are becoming increasingly disregarded in federal policy.

Despite the survey above, extreme right-leaning and left-leaning positions certainly do exist today, expressed by various fanatics, And thanks to the modern information age, these views can receive wider circulation than they would have in earlier decades. We do not mean to dismiss these examples, many of which we personally believe warrant condemnation in the strongest terms.

There is no shortage of outrageous, isolated substantive positions that can be cited from each side. However, our substantive survey here is not intended to study the worst of the worst behavior emanating from opposite sides of the American political spectrum, but rather to measure the substantive drift of mainstream thinking within each party. And that drift has largely been going one way: leftward. The only difference is that some are moving in that direction much faster than others.

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