This post first appeared on Daily Kos.
The rise of the tea party, and the pending Republican gains in Congress have led quite a few observers to declare that the country is shifting to the right ideologically. Those calls will only grow louder after the election.
Even many on the left share this sentiment. Shocked at the statements of candidates like Sharron Angle and pundits like Glenn Beck, many will think that contemporary incarnations of conservatism are far more reactionary than previous manifestations. Additionally, many on the left will express the age-old progressive complaint that the rightward drift of the country is not limited to Republicans, and that today’s version of the Democratic Party is far more right-wing than the glory days of The New Deal and The Great Society.
The problem with these sentiments is that they are just flat out wrong. Completely inaccurate. Demonstrably false, and easily so. The country has shifted dramatically to the left from where it was 40, 30, or even 15 years ago. Many positions that were quite recently liberal and contested are now mainstream to the point of being unchallengeable (or, at least, it is shocking when they are challenged). Many others that were lefty-fringe positions only 20 years ago are now held by a majority of the country, or at least a substantial, mainstream minority. Further, the current incarnation of the Democratic Party has managed to expand public sector social investment spending to heights that are the equivalent of the New Deal and the Great Society combined
The main flaw in the thinking that the country is moving to the right is a lack of context about where the country has been. Consider:
1. In the 1980s, interracial marriage was less accepted than same-sex marriage is accepted now.
Check out Gallup’s long-term trends on approval of interracial marriage in the United States
. In 1983, a majority still disapproved of it. Even in 1994
, only 48% approved:
Compare that trend to the the 20-year trend on same-sex marriage
Twenty years ago, less than 15% of American favored legalizing same sex marriage. It was a fringe position, but now polls show it to be a majority
. By contrast, twenty years ago, disapproving of interracial marriage was a majority position. Now, it’s a fringe position, and even the President of the United States is interracial.
There have similarly dramatic shifts on public option about LGBT service in the military, whether homosexuality should be considered acceptable
, and whether schools should be allowed to fire teachers who were out of the closet
. There have been sharp, leftward shifts in favor of LGBT rights across the board over the last 20 years.
2. Declining gender income gap
For another dramatic way the country has shifted to the left in recent decades, consider the following chart
of the female-male income gap since 1951:
The gap has closed dramatically over the last 35 years. While the rate of change has slowed, long-term prospects are quite positive
since, in 2005, "women under 25 working full-time earned 93.2% of men's salaries."
While not yet a majority position in the United States, views on marijuana legalization have changed from being a fringe position in 1990 (only 16% support), to a very mainstream position today (41% support). Pew charts the trend
The General Social Survey found very similar results
that were even more favorable to the pro-legalization position. Further, as with many other social issues, it is only a matter time before marijuana legalization in a majority. According to Pew
, strong majorities under the age of 30 support marijuana legalization, and narrow majorities under the age of 45.
Once again, it is difficult to reconcile the rapid rise of a recently fringe left-wing position into mainstream, even majority, status with the notion that the country is moving to the right.
4. The Social Safety Net
Many lefties reading this might object to the examples listed so far in this article as overly focused on social issues. Sure, the country has shifted dramatically to the left in just the past twenty years, and is poised to do so even more in the future. But what about economic issues?
On that front, you may be surprised to learn that public sector social investment spending is easily at the highest percentage of GDP that it has ever obtained in the past
When defense, law enforcement and interest payments on the debt are removed from overall public spending, the public sector is much larger now than it has ever been in the past. In fact, not only have the last two years seen the first significant gains on this front since the mid-1970’s, but public sector spending as a percentage of GDP is now roughly equal to its peak under the New Deal (14% in 1940) and the Great Society (19% in 1968) combined
. Even when the stimulus is over, and unemployment finally begins dropping, public sector social spending should remain higher than any pre-2009 level in the entire history of the United States.
The point of this article is not to say that progressives should be satisfied with our current levels of progress. Certainly not. A new report released this week
by the Census Bureau shows poverty reaching 15-year high. Additionally, income inequality continues to rise, as it has for decades. We still have big problems, and we need to keep pushing to rectify them.
Also, the point of this article is not to imply that progressive victories are guaranteed. Even as you read this, there are big pushes to tear down much social investment spending, including Social Security. And yes, that threat does come from a Republican Party that is far more right-wing than its predecessors
(at least on economic issues, which is all that is measured in the chart below):
As the two parties continue to sort out into ideological, rather than regional, coalitions, it is far more possible than ever before for conservatives to dominate Congress. That is a serious threat to progress.
The point of this article is to provide context to lazy claims that the country is moving to the right. Such claims are irreconcilable with 20-year trends on LGBT rights and marijuana legalization, 40-year trends on gender equality, 50-year trends on minority rights, and 80-year trends on social investment spending as a percentage of GDP. The country has moved dramatically to the left in all of those areas. Many liberal positions that were fringe just 15-20 years ago are now majority positions. Many conservative positions that were the majority just 20 years ago are now fringe. And the social safety net is now as large as it was under FDR and LBJ combined.
Before you claim the country is moving to the right, be cognizant of where it has been--even of where it was back when Kurt Cobain was topping the charts. We really have come a long way.