Democrats often quip that Ronald Reagan would not survive in today’s Republican party, and some even claim that Richard Nixon was the United States’ last liberal president. And many of today’s Republicans would enter a state of shock if they looked into some of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s views (I particularly like this one).
There is some truth to the above claims — although assertions of this sort are often made for rhetorical effect — and they do underline a very serious, systemic problem in American politics; namely, there has been a massive rightward shift, and that today there is no real Left among political elites.
Several years ago Walter Ellis, in a column for The Telegraph, wrote:
There is no Left left in America. There is only the moderate Right, which is most Democrats, and the merged Religious/Financial Right, which is most Republicans.
There are of course those who claim to be “progressive” to scavenge as many votes as possible, and sure, there are a select few who truly fight for “left” principles, but the American political scene has, as a whole, shifted greatly to the right.
This is troubling for many reasons, like the fact that it further narrows the range of acceptable opinion, making political elites ideologically uniform, even if they do their best put on a show of difference.
These facts should be terrifying to honest individuals on all sides of the political spectrum.
While the Republicans are becoming more and more reactionary — thus more and more dangerous — the Democrats are being dragged to the right as well, if at a slower pace.
In a recent column in the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell calls this phenomenon “the GOP’s shifting goal posts.”
She uses the fact that several of the presidential hopefuls on the Democratic ticket were once proud Republicans — Chafee, Webb, and, gasp, Hilary Clinton.
Why the transition? Here’s Rampell:
The candidates themselves didn’t get more liberal; the conservative party these moderates once identified with got radically more conservative…
In other words, it’s wrong to say these Democratic presidential hopefuls left the Republican Party. The Republican Party left them.
I think that, in essence, she is correct (although I would prefer to use the term ‘reactionary’ over ‘conservative’) and many respected commentators agree with her analysis.
Conservative scholar Norman Ornstein, for example, offers a damning critique of the Republican party in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences:
The Republican Party has become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. Securing the common good in the face of these developments will require structural changes but also an informed and strategically focused citizenry.
But it is so easy to focus on the utterly transparent extremism of the GOP that we often forget that this political shift is terrible for the honest left, as well.
I throw Sanders and Warren in the latter category, with some reservations, but by the left I generally mean people who care about issues such as income inequality, money in politics, the all-too-powerful military-industrial complex, endless war, our crumbling infrastructure and social programs — in short, a significant portion of the general population.
The GOP’s “shifting goal posts” is not an isolated event taking place within one party; it is a broad shift in American political discourse.
As this shift progresses, the political system becomes more and more like Noam Chomsky’s description:
In the US, there is basically one party — the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population.
Or, using the phrase of John Dewey, politics is becoming “the shadow cast by big business over society.” And, as long as this is the case, “the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” In other words, who is in power is becoming irrelevant, as their views on major issues are eerily similar.
This is terrible for the left, and terrible for the population.
It’s also terrible for genuine conservatives who are watching their ideals be distorted by reactionaries and war-hawks like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. It’s terrible for those who want international law to be respected and upheld, it’s terrible for those who are in favor of civil liberties, and it’s terrible for the working class (i.e. the majority of the population).
In the context of the buildup to the 2016 elections, you have to try really hard to miss the reality of this rightward shift.
Take the case of Bernie Sanders: Almost invariably, when he is mentioned in the mainstream media, he is presented as a kind of radical, someone who is just trying to “provoke” or change the conversation.
This is nonsense. As Bill Moyers and Michael Winship observe in a recent article:
…if Senator Sanders is a crackpot, so are the majority of Americans. The ideas and policies he espouses have far more public support than the journalist habitués of Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue would have you believe…Far from being an outsider, Sanders is paddling his way along the mainstream of American public opinion.
(See Juan Cole’s recent blog post for a comparison between public opinion polls and Bernie Sanders’ views.)
Even Rand Paul, who has reasonable positions on many issues, is ridiculed by “conservatives” like Bill Kristol, who called him a “liberal Democrat” (for his position on the Patriot Act), a label that, as we have seen, is almost completely devoid of meaning today.
Public opinion, as usual, is given little weight as corporate media and billionaires decide to whom they will be lending their support.
So yes, it’s true, the GOP is a looking like a clown-show, and it’s true that their interests are almost indecipherable from those of big business.
But to do something about it we have to recognize that the shift to the right, and the shift toward subservience to corporate dominance, is not just the GOP’s problem; it is everyone’s problem.
The solution is not simple, and stopping this shift will not be easy. Thomas Ferguson offers some crucial insight at the end of his book Right Turn:
Merely changing the party that occupies the White House…will not reverse the current drift of U.S. public policy. By itself it will not put millions back to work, or produce a more intelligent and humane response to foreign competition, or revive the progressive income tax. By itself, surely it will not secure a fuller democratization of American life – the basic popular promise of the New Deal. And it will hardly ensure the promotion of independent organizations, or subsidies to participation, or public funding of the electoral process, or a serious effort to reach and involve the nonvoting electorate, or any of the essential moves that such a democratic renewal would require.
Absent a sudden upsurge from below, or until economic catastrophe forces a new alignment of American business elites, the new, more conservative party system will be maintained. Democrats and Republicans will squabble and maneuver. The costs to the population will rise. But the basic structure of the party system will remain unchanged. America will continue its right turn.