'Republicans have moved much further right'
Ronald Reagan once said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me.” Since Reagan’s time, the Democratic Party has become increasingly radical on defense, government spending, environmental policy, and social issues. An anti-Communist hawk like JFK would have no place in today’s Democratic party.
William A. Galston thinks otherwise in his Wall Street Journal piece, “Americans Are as Polarized as Washington.” Galston asserts, regarding polarized Washington: “In Congress, the answer is clear: While Democrats have moved toward the left, Republicans have moved much further right.” He offers no further explanation or documentation; apparently years of repetition by the New York Times has turned opinion into fact.
As for the polarized Americans, Galston draws a similar conclusion from a “welter of statistics” from Gallup polls, based on voter self-identification:
On the role of government, Republicans have moved much further right than Democrats have to the left. It is hard to overstate the intensity of Republican sentiment on this issue. Between 1972 and 2012, the share of Republicans who regard themselves as very conservative on taxes and using government to promote jobs and social services soared to 38% from 9%, and the share of economic conservatives overall rose to 80% from 48%.
It is true that in these decades, conservative principles were clearly articulated by Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Rush Limbaugh, and the many voices on talk radio and in the conservative press. Before the upheavals of the 1960s, people who believed in the principles of the Founders regarded themselves as patriotic Americans, not necessarily as conservatives.
Mr. Galston chooses to ignore that political descriptors like "liberal," "moderate," and "conservative" are relative to the prevailing political climate. “The role of government” has not remained static over the last century. Government spending has increased inexorably, with three expansionist waves pushing up the baseline: the New Deal, the Great Society, and Obama’s socialized medicine and massive deficit spending. Federal spending from 1901 to 1916 averaged 2.4% of GDP, with a low in 1916 of 2.1%. The recent high in 2009, bumped up by bailouts, was 24.4%, dipping to 21.4% in 2014. (All figures from AT contributor Christopher Chantrill’s excellent usgovernmentspending.com.) In sum, the federal government has expanded more than tenfold since Woodrow Wilson was president.
Total federal, state, and local government spending has risen from 6.9% in 1900 to 41.4% in 2009, dropping back to 36% in 2014. Advocating in 1900 that government spend 10% of GDP would have been a liberal big-government position, while this same policy in 2014 would put you on the extreme right.
The evidence that more Republicans identify as “conservative” or even “very conservative,” therefore, does not mean that the GOP has become an extremist fringe party (if only!). The Tea Party arose not because a lot of people suddenly adopted extremist ideas (no doubt brainwashed by talk radio?); it was a reaction to the massive spending by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. On the other side, those on the far left during the Reagan years might be comfortable calling themselves moderates today, since they identify with the president of the United States and the majority of the Senate.
Galston concludes with a tired plea to end gridlock: “The U.S. government has become dysfunctional, and there is a shared responsibility to fix it. Leaders must behave differently.” It seems so very reasonable to ask both sides – especially those loony extremist Republicans – to move to the center. Unfortunately, it’s a losing game for conservatives when the center is continually redefined leftward.