What I can’t stand about current political coverage is that it lacks perspective. Hysterical reactions to the 24-hour news cycle and sound bites, self-serving statements applied without principle or consistency, almost tribal reactions against “the other” party, ideology or interest group, too little actual listening to people we disagree with, obsessive attention to inaccurate polls that put too much emphasis on elections as horse races are what constitute “political analysis” these days.
What I try to offer on this blog is some historical perspective and consistently applied principles. I’ve lived long enough to observe that the current acrimonious face-offs between “liberals” and “conservatives” fail to acknowledge that these definitions have evolved and changed over time. Neither side likes to acknowledge that they have reversed their positions.
Reversal on Role of Military
For example, Republican President and former general Dwight Eisenhower warned against the political threat posed by the “military industrial complex” and excessive military spending. How many Republicans today listen to Eisenhower’s wise words?
Democrats in the late 1950s and early 1960s were considered the party closest to the military, strongest on national defense, and most aggressive internationally. This changed as the Vietnam War turned sour.
Reversal on Civil Rights
President Eisenhower won more than a third of the African American vote. Republicans in the 1950s and early 1960s were stronger supporters of civil rights legislation than Democrats in Congress. Only with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did Democrats abandon their white supremacist brethren in the South, champion civil rights legislation and aggressively seek the support of African Americans. In response, Republicans began to court former Democrats or “Dixiecrats,” and try to foment or ride a wave of white backlash with a Southern Strategy appealing to racial fears.
Reversal on Tax Cuts as Economic Stimulants
In the early 1960s, Republicans in Congress opposed John F. Kennedy’s income tax cuts designed to stimulate growth because, they argued, the tax cuts would balloon the deficit. They argued against Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” approach to spending billions on both the Vietnam War and a Great Society, which they feared would lead to severe inflation. They were right. In the 1970s, that’s what happened.
And yet when Republicans took the presidency themselves in the 1980s, they adopted their own “guns and butter” approach — deep tax cuts and massive military spending — which led to huge deficits and far slower growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Reversal on Social Safety Net, Economic Regulations, the Environment
Republicans were aggressive proponents of a social safety net for the poor throughout the 1970s, really until the Reagan years. It was under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, that wage and price controls were implemented in 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and environmental regulations enacted, Occupational Health and Safety regulations were adopted, and cost-0f-living adjustments on Social Security were signed.
Reversals on Health Care Reform
Nixon proposed his own version of Obamacare, a market-based approach to universal health coverage, which was rejected by Senator Edward Kennedy under pressure from labor unions because they thought they could get a more progressive approach through Congress after Nixon’s impeachment and removal from office, or after the Republicans’ defeat in 1976. They were wrong, and before his death in 2009, Kennedy described his failure to accept Nixon’s offer as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”
Reversals on free trade, open borders
Since 1980, and throughout the Reagan and Bush years, Republicans were champions of free trade and almost open borders on immigration. It was Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 who, supported by labor unions, called for trade wars with Japan. In 1986, Reagan signed a bill granting amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants.
Republicans who revere Reagan seemed to forget that aspect of his legacy when Donald Trump was running an anti-immigrant campaign in 2016.
Reversal on tax cuts, civil rights quotas
George H.W. Bush campaigned on a promise of “no new taxes” in 1988 but then in 1991 broke that pledge and signed legislation raising taxes. He also signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and a civil rights act encouraging racial quotas. These decisions hurt him in the hard-core conservative base in 1992, but he is still admired by most Republicans.
Reversal on nation-building
His son, George W. Bush, said during the 2000 campaign he was opposed to “nation-building.” This was in opposition to President Clinton’s use of the American military to build up and secure Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzogovenia and Sarajevo. But after 9/11, Bush and company proceeded to topple the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq and, at enormous expense, to engage in serious nation-building in both countries that continues to this day.
Reversal on budget-busting Medicare benefits, health care reform, again and again
The younger Bush signed a pharmaceutical benefit in Medicare that was a windfall to the pharmaceutical industry and contributes significantly to the budget deficit rather than a Democratic proposal for Medicare to purchase mass pharmaceuticals in bulk for discount prices.
Democrats complained, but when they fashioned “Obamacare,” there was a serious windfall for the private health insurance industry from the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Obamacare resulted in 20 million Americans attaining health insurance, but the biggest winners were still the insurance companies because many of these policies had huge deductibles.
When Democrats first proposed a Nixon-like health care plan in the Clinton administration, spearheaded by Hillary Clinton, Republicans opposed it on the grounds it was too bureaucratic. A Republican senator, John Chafee of Rhode Island, proposed a “compromise” that was very much like Obamacare, but Republicans saw that they could stir up the rightwing and win seats in the 1994 election, so they continued to rail against “Hillarycare.”
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney signed health care legislation that became the model for “Obamacare” in 2009, but then Romney and his Republican friends vehemently opposed Obamacare, and used it to win seats in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
We shall see what Republicans do on health care in 2017 and 2018 when they have a Republican President and full control of Congress. Chances are they will either reverse themselves on policies they opposed during the Obama administration, and/or lack the courage to do anything substantive on health care.
Reversals on women’s rights
Early feminists, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, were more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. Most of the early suffragettes were Republicans. Feminists began to rely more on the Democratic Party in the 1970s after the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision fully legalizing abortion. Both political parties remained divided on the issue in the 1976 election — Jimmy Carter was mildly pro-life, First Lady Betty Ford was pro-choice and called herself a feminist. But Ronald Reagan mobilized abortion opponents in the 1980 election and anti-feminist forces that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.
More reversals on free trade, fair trade
Republicans in the early 1990s were strong advocates of free trade and the benefits of globalisation. President George H.W. Bush negotiated NAFTA. Defying organized labor, President Clinton signed NAFTA.
After trumpeting the positives of free trade and the benefits of globalisation, supporting both NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign announced her opposition to TPP, under pressure from her Democratic challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Democrats in Congress in late 2016 now say they will work with the Trump administration to make trade agreements more worker-friendly and to make sure that China does not have an unfair advantage in trade deals. We’ll see if that actually happens.
Reversals on crime and welfare
Democrats in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s developed a reputation for being soft on crime, more concerned about protecting civil liberties and individual rights than keeping citizens safe. Republicans ran successful “law ‘n order” campaigns in 1968, 1970, 1972, and throughout the 1980s against Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). After the Democrats’ defeat in 1988, Bill Clinton changed the party’s position, ruthlessly supporting the death penalty, “three strikes you’re out” mandatory sentences for drug offenders and mandatory life sentences for what Hillary Clinton called “super-predators.” The Clintons also supported “an end to welfare as we know it,” with strict limits on benefits and work requirements.
This welfare reform worked well while the economy was expanding in the 1990s, but during the Great Recession, many people in marginal economic situations were deeply hurt.
By the time Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, she felt the need to reverse herself on Clinton-era crime and welfare reforms, which had led to extremely high rates of long-term incarceration, suffering and family disruption in African-American communities. Even so, a segment of the African American community did not trust her, and did not turn out for her in the huge numbers she needed to win the super-close 2016 election.
One can expect Democrats, in order to motivate African American turnout in the post-Obama era, to return to their “humane” positions emphasizing civil liberties, allying with “Black Lives Matter” protesters against police bias and brutality, opposing the death penalty, protecting or expanding welfare benefits. Whether these will be winning political positions in the future remain to be seen.
In other words, if you take the long view, what used to be “liberal” in some measure becomes conservative, then liberal, and what used to be “conservative” in some measure becomes liberal, then conservative, then liberal.
Like squabbling siblings, liberals and conservatives need each other for self-definition, even if it is to define what they are not as well as what they are.
- American Conservatism and Liberalism Both Have Internal Contradictions and Are Dependent on Each Other