"There is no better time and place to establish and illustrate the primacy of conservatism than now."
-- Rush Limbaugh, last summer (or any random day)
-- Sean Hannity, last fall (or any random day)
WELL,"WINNING" is a relative thing. In a game, determining the winner is easy. The rules are set. The starting point is agreed upon. But because conservative electoral victories have exceeded liberal ones over the past 25 years or so, political commentators act as if things are equally simple: The reigning policies of the federal government are conservative.
In 1980, when the Republicans won the presidency and the Senate for only the second time in 50 years, the liberal-vs.-conservative score wasn't 0-0. The bluster of nearly every conservative talk-show host, however, is designed to distract their listeners from one overriding point: No matter who wins the presidency this year, the last century went to liberals -- and there's no going back.
Consider a short and incomplete list of 20th-century liberal triumphs, all vehemently opposed by conservatives at the time: the Federal Reserve System; the federal income tax; women's suffrage; federal deposit insurance; Social Security; the investor protections of the Securities Acts of 1933 and `34; public power; unemployment compensation; the minimum wage; child labor laws; the 40-hour work week; the Wagner Act, which gave private-sector workers collective bargaining rights; the Civil Rights Act; the Voting Rights Act; federal fair housing laws; Medicare; federally sponsored guaranteed student loan programs; Head Start; food stamps.
Can we really imagine turning back the clock on these achievements? Apparently the Republican leadership can't. In fact, every Republican president since Herbert Hoover has done more to extend the liberal state than to roll it back.
Nixon permitted his labor department to introduce regulations that created the first "affirmative action" programs, and created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Reagan may have denounced "big government," but can you name one federal agency that he eliminated? Apparently he was too busy helping to "save Social Security" (remember the Greenspan Commission?) and close corporate tax loopholes. Republicans don't even talk about eliminating Cabinet departments anymore. Rather, George W. Bush has expanded the Cabinet for the first time in 15 years -- while also significantly expanding the federal role in education, creating a Medicare drug benefit, and enacting the first progressive campaign-reform bill in nearly 30 years.
Even the House of Representatives has gotten into the act. When Medicare was passed in 1965, exactly 10 House Republicans voted against making the program voluntary rather than mandatory -- the key vote in the Medicare debate. Just last month, over 200 Republican House members supported the prescription drug benefit. Whatever the flaws in the president's version, a social program costing more than $500 billion over 10 years can hardly be considered "conservative."
In fact, the most striking aspect of today's hot-button conservative causes is how far they are from eroding the core of previous liberal policy achievements. Allowing a portion of Social Security to be privately invested, for example, is hardly as conservative an effort as it might appear to be. Neither is substituting class-based affirmative action for race-based, nor banning a rarely used abortion procedure. (Even as they seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, honest conservatives acknowledge that no more than a handful of states would consider outlawing abortion altogether.) Conservatives will use the gay marriage issue for political advantage, but just see if the end result isn't civil unions in many states -- a huge advance for many gay couples. What good is it to win elections if you end up advancing the opposition's policies?
For all the damage conservatives can do to the federal budget with tax cuts, or to environmental and corporate regulations with lax or subversive administration, the truth is they can't swing America back to even the conservatism of the 1970s, much less earlier. It's frequently said that the political spectrum has moved to the right, but it would be more legitimate to assert that it has shifted left.
Not only have conservatives accepted an earlier liberal policy agenda, but what once may have been seen as anti-establishment cultural extremes have become societal norms. Conservatives may still complain about sex education in the schools, but are any of them proposing that we return to a time when, say, it was illegal in some states to prescribe birth-control pills to married women (until the 1960s) or unmarried women (until the 1970s)? And today, Lenny Bruce seems about as avant-garde as Bob Hope.
It must be frustrating being a conservative ideologue at a time when Republicans win elections and yet see little change in the government's direction. If you haven't checked recently, the federal government isn't really shrinking, and government spending isn't really declining -- a fact that some of Bush's conservative brethren are starting to complain about. Furthermore, Bush is pursuing what was once considered the definition of liberalism, a Keynesian economic policy that maintains aggregate demand by cutting taxes without cutting government spending. (True, Bush's economic policy is excessively slanted toward the rich and may be reckless in the long term, but it is Keynesian nonetheless.)
Even the Bush administration's run-in with civil libertarian liberals is instructive. No matter what we may think of the Patriot Act, it pales in comparison to the Palmer raids of the early 1920s or the Japanese internment or McCarthyism, which suggests that the population at large is warier of encroachments upon our civil liberties. And in foreign policy, in the absence of Iraqi WMDs, Bush has taken to defending the war by appealing to the same traditionally liberal positions he campaigned against in 2000: nation-building, and the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.
Meanwhile, a Republican-dominated Supreme Court finds that homosexual relations are protected by the constitutional right to privacy, upholds affirmative action, and approves the constitutionality of limits on campaign contributions -- more evidence of the triumph of liberalism.
For all the talk of the great "new" ideas of conservatives, their successes in altering the fundamentally liberal character of the federal government have been few and far between. Even when it comes to the tax cuts, the public won't accept a conservative justification ("We want to reduce the size of government"). So instead, the Republican Party has been forced to go "supply-side," essentially saying: "We are cutting taxes to grow the economy so that there can be higher tax receipts and "more federal spending." (Liberals might support lower rates if they actually did maximize revenue. But the success of the Clinton administration's economic policies calls supply-side theory into question.)
Now, Bush's tax cuts may well be part of a long-term strategy to "starve the beast" and force huge cuts in social programs. But if the Republicans really believed that their free-market ideology was popular, wouldn't they openly propose getting rid of all regulatory and social programs and reducing government spending by 50 or 75 percent? Likewise, if they thought voters shared their lack of interest in environmental protection, why would they bother giving their rollback policies names like "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies"?
True, the country might appear more conservative than it used to. The Democratic Party's edge in voters' party affiliation is shrinking down to nothing. The Republicans control all three branches of the federal government -- and their control of Congress, at least, doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. Right-wing voices dominate the airwaves.
But ignore party labels for a moment. The fact is that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as conservative or liberal hasn't changed much in the polls of either Lou Harris (37 vs. 17 percent in 1968, 35 vs. 18 percent in `02) or the University of Michigan (26 vs. 18 percent in 1972, 30 vs. 20 percent in `00). Even in the `60s, the right outpolled the left -- and yet the 35 years since then have seen more liberal than conservative legislation.
Besides, liberalism won the 20th century while controlling the government for relatively little of it. All those years of Democratic electoral dominance prior to the Reagan Revolution are deceptive. For most of the mid-20th century, thanks to the Democratic South, a coalition of conservative Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats were in control. That long list of liberal legislative achievements were all accomplished during a few very short periods: the Wilson administration (1913-21); the first six years of the Roosevelt administration (1933-38); and the Johnson administration (1963-1969). That's it: Nineteen years out of 100.
But that's the amazing thing about American politics: Liberals need neither majority-party identification nor full-time control of the government to see consistent progressive change. For when it comes to confronting the imperfections of the marketplace -- institutionalizing the welfare state, the regulatory state, and the civil rights state -- this is a liberal country.
Not that liberals should be complacent. They still have to win elections. Liberalism will only make great strides when liberals control the government. When they remain in power long enough, conservative Republicans can do an awful lot of damage -- by managing federal programs to the benefit of corporate interests (as in the new Medicare bill), subverting environmental and other regulations, and passing budget-busting tax cuts that force reductions in social spending. But in the end, these are still liberal programs, and the fact that conservatives are now administering programs they didn't want in the first place doesn't make those programs -- or the federal government, or America -- "conservative."
So as another election approaches and the term "liberal" is once again used as a smear, just remember that no matter who wins the presidency, conservatives are still way behind. If liberals use another 19 years of opportunity effectively, by the end of this century Americans will be driving their hybrid cars to the gay wedding of their universal-health-insurance provider who...
Let's just say America will be more liberal than it is today. And the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the future will no doubt still insist that conservatives are winning.
Mitchell Rofsky (email@example.com) is president of Better World Club, an eco-friendly auto and travel club.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company