By Robert A. Vella
The popularly-held opinion is that conservatism is on the rise in America and that progressivism has fallen from its mid-20th century pedestal. When President Bill Clinton announced that the “era of big government is over,” he declared a rhetorical fait accompli to the notion that the will of the people could determine government policy. It was an extraordinary proclamation that affirmed the neoliberal ideology he shared with mainstream establishment Republicans. And, it dealt a punishing blow to the traditional Democratic Party base who justifiably felt betrayed.
The reality, however, is very different. There are two distinct aspects of politics in the U.S. which should be linked but aren’t today because functional democracy has been effectively assaulted by an array of hostile interests. The first is how the majority of Americans feel about particular issues, and the second is what policies are enacted by those who hold political power. When democracy is working properly, elected politicians generally align with their constituencies. When democracy isn’t working properly, there is a great divide between public consent and government policy.
The ascendency of economic populism and xenophobic nationalism we’re seeing around the world is a direct result of this disconnect between the people and their governments. No other factor has been nearly as impactful. Intellectual differences over political ideology, which had defined public debate for decades, have been pushed into the shadows. Public discourse is now dominated by visceral emotion where demographic groups are existentially pitted against each other. This is why Brexit happened in the U.K. This is why Donald Trump was elected in the U.S. This is why the fascist far-right has won so many elections across the globe in recent years.
But, what about the Left? Doesn’t it have populist leaders to rally around? If progressivism was still widely supported, wouldn’t another Franklin Delano Roosevelt rise to political prominence?
The answer gets us back to the disconnect between the people and government which in this case is asymmetrical. Whereas the Republican Party has embraced the faux populist Trump, the Democratic Party continues to oppose left-wing populism. It is actively working to prevent any such political figure from rising up among its ranks. This has created an electoral imbalance, a power vacuum leaving millions of voters and potential voters unrepresented.
So, the Right is winning the political battle against the Left; but, is conservatism winning the ideological battle against progressivism too? Upon close inspection, the reverse appears to be happening.
The American public is in the mood for “big government.” According to the distinguished political scientist James Stimson’s “Public Policy Mood estimate” — a widely respected tool for measuring shifts in ideological opinion across time — the U.S. electorate is more sympathetic to left-wing economic policy today than at anytime in the past 68 years (which is as far back as Stimson’s data goes).
… while voters’ views vary across time, giving rich people tax breaks and throwing sick people off their health insurance have never been popular ideas in American politics. But the fact that many leading Republicans have ceased to advocate for fiscal conservatism — while the party’s standard-bearer has, at least rhetorically, championed an active role for government in shaping economic outcomes — might have played a part in pushing Stimson’s mood index left. Many partisan voters do not have strong intrinsic preferences on many economic issues, which can often appear more technical than moral. Thus, they will often take their ideological cues from partisan elites. With a growing number of conservative commentators and Republican politicians making populist noises on economic policy (however disingenuous), it wouldn’t be surprising to see GOP voters’ views start trending more liberal. And considering that Democratic elites have also shifted left in their economic messaging over the past two years, it’s possible that elite signaling accounts for much of the trend Stimson documents.
Regardless, the liberal turn in the public’s mood last year may ultimately prove less consequential than the leftward drift in the economic thinking of America’s elite policy wonks over the past decade.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, many respectable thinkers on the center and right believed in the concept of “expansionary austerity” — the notion that slashing deficits could spur higher growth, even in a context of relatively low demand. European countries structured their response to the crisis around this theory; the United States, by contrast, pursued a conventionally liberal (in the New Deal sense) Keynesian response to the crisis, running up its short-term deficit for the sake of stimulating demand. Thus, the Western world effectively conducted a natural experiment testing the “expansionary austerity” hypothesis — an experiment that utterly discredited fiscal conservatives. Countries that prioritized deficit reduction saw employment and growth fall off a cliff, while the U.S. economy embarked on a historically long expansion (albeit one that could have been even more robust had the austerians not intimidated the Obama administration into proposing a smaller stimulus than its economics thought warranted).
These events damaged the credibility of deficit hawks. And the fact that the United States proceeded to carry on pushing up its debt to record levels — while retaining the ability to borrow money at rock-bottom interest rates, and experiencing an undesirably low rate of inflation — further eroded the standing of those who preached the supreme importance of fiscal rectitude, even in the face of high unemployment and low demand.
Another related pillar of pre-crisis conservative economic orthodoxy was that policy-makers must not allow the unemployment rate to fall too low — or workers’ bargaining power to rise to high — or else workers would be able to extract wages in excess of their own productivity, which would lead to price increases, which would produce further demands for excessive wages, thereby setting off an inflationary spiral that would discourage investment and shrink the economy’s productive capacity.
Of course, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is now 3.6 percent, and both inflation and wage growth are lower than the Fed would like them to be. In this context, the case for suppressing full employment — or the bargaining power of workers by discouraging unionization — is exceptionally weak. Especially since America’s top corporations could afford to be paying their workers much more without raising prices or reducing investment. In fact, these firms are simply sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, unable or unwilling to find productive investments for their capital. The conservative economists’ solution to that problem, of course, was to incentivize investment by cutting corporate tax rates — but that resulted in one more natural experiment that contradicted conservative orthodoxy.
Don’t take my word for it — take Marco Rubio’s. In his office’s recent report on the decline of business investment in the United States, the Florida senator admits that, while the Trump tax cuts “were often expressly advocated for as a means of on-shoring corporate residence and increasing capital investment,” the legislation has shown little sign of reversing the historical decline in such investment.
Today’s other news:
HONG KONG — A mass of protesters stretching for more than a mile marched in Hong Kong on Sunday in a display of anger and fear over a government proposal that could allow extraditions to mainland China.
Turnout at the demonstration in Hong Kong, a city of more than seven million, could exceed the half-million who attended an annual rally in 2014 not long before a pro-democracy sit-in that shut down major roadways for almost three months.
Organizers said they hoped such numbers would show the breadth of disagreement with the plan, which has stirred worries that people in Hong Kong, including foreign visitors, would be sent to face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.
The Chinese government convened top tech companies this week and warned them of consequences if they cut off technology sales to the country, US media reported on Saturday.
The meeting followed US President Donald Trump’s move last month to blacklist Chinese tech giant Huawei over national security concerns, threatening the firm’s global ambitions and ramping up the months-long trade battle between the two countries.
Earlier this week, the Chinese government summoned executives from American firms Dell and Microsoft and South Korea’s Samsung, among others, to warn them that any moves to ramp down their businesses in China may lead to retaliation, The New York Times reported.
Elected prosecutors from a long list of states vowed to uphold the landmark abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade and use their “immense discretion” to refuse charging violations of restrictive abortion bans.
“As elected prosecutors with charging discretion, we choose not to prosecute individuals pursuant to these deeply concerning laws,” the June statement, released by the group Fair and Just Prosecution, read.
“Legal precedent, as established by the highest court in the land, has held for nearly 50 years that women have a right to make decisions about their own medical care including, but not limited to, seeking an abortion. Enforcement of laws that criminalize healthcare decisions would shatter that precedent, impose untenable choices on 3 victims and healthcare providers, and erode trust in the integrity of our justice system.”