The wedge recession and America’s shift to the right

The Democrats may benefit politically from the GOP’s government shutdown and threatened default on the U.S. debt, but polling data have underscored how conservative Americans have become in recent years. Despite a weak economy, high unemployment, and growing income inequality, there is continuing pressure to cut government spending, with a weakened safety net exacted as the price for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare").

A conservative shift in public opinion following the Great Recession of 2008 went against historical patterns, according to a study by sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza (“A Broken Public? Americans’ Responses to the Great Recession”). Instead of prompting a consensus in favor of government expansion—as was the case during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during other major downturns in the U.S. and in European democracies—the Great Recession led the political equivalent of a knife fight over the last piece of turkey at Thanksgiving. It deepened partisan differences and led to an overall move toward the right. “Rather than the recession stimulating new public demands for government,” Brooks and Manza write, “Americans gravitated toward lower support for government responsibility for social and economic problems.”


In the Boston Review, Claude S. Fischer summarizes one explanation for this break in tradition:

The key, [Brooks and Manza] argue, is political partisanship. Republicans reacted so strongly against government in that period—indeed over the previous couple of decades—that they pulled the nation to the right. Their analysis of a quarter-century of Americans’ answers show how Republicans have been moving “south,” away from government action and away from the trends for Democrats and Independents. […] They calculate that, had it not been for these widening party divisions, this polarization, then between 2008 and 2010 Americans as a whole would have actually moved a bit in the direction of favoring more government action.

Fischer notes that in early 2010, “Americans across the board seemed to react to the conditions and controversies of the day by rejecting government welfare-state programs” but that more recent polling data suggest that voters are increasingly receptive to the idea that the government should intervene to do “something” about income inequality.

The idea that partisanship (and the dug-in heels of Republicans in the face of economic crises) is responsible for the rightward shift is supported by election results over the past 15 years. They show a near disappearance of competitive states and congressional districts, with a red vs. blue schism that has endured through such events as the War on Terrorism and the Great Recession. In the 2012 presidential campaign, it seemed that the economy itself was as much of a wedge issue as same-sex marriage or gun control, with no consensus on whether the government should intervene at all.

There’s also a theory that a shift to the right is almost inevitable under a Democratic president; as John Sides explains it, the voters act as a thermostat, seeking a corrective to whatever political impulse controls the White House. The Monkey Cage’s Larry Bartels notes:

The marked conservative shift under Democrat Barack Obama is by no means unusual; the country also moved sharply to the right under Bill Clinton (before the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994) and Jimmy Carter. Conversely, public opinion moved sharply to the left under Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, from the standpoint of public opinion, the “Reagan era” had already passed its high water mark by the time its namesake was inaugurated.

The thermostat theory predicts that the country will move to the left under the next Republican president. I don’t know what happens if the Republican Party keeps moving to the right so fast that it can’t win a presidential election. Does public opinion keep moving infinitely to the right under an infinite series of Democratic presidents?

50-state conservatism?

The partisanship and “thermostat” explanations suggest limits to the rightward shift, but Bartels also notes that, based on polling data by political scientist James Stimson, “the American public in 2012 was more conservative than at any point since 1952” (emphasis by Bartels, who analyzed the latest data from Stimson’s “policy mood series”). Another study, by Cornell’s Peter Enns and Julianna Koch, suggests that a 50-year shift to the right “repeats itself in every state” (emphasis by Enns). This study is based on questions asked by American National Election Study beginning in the early 1960s.

For example, the percentage of respondents agreeing that “the government in Washington is getting too powerful” rose from about 45 percent in 1964 to nearly 70 percent in 2000 (and almost 75 percent in the South). Another question was “whether the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living or whether the government should let each person get ahead on their own.” The latter response rose from about 60 percent in 1964 to about 70 percent in 2002.

We need more recent polling data to make an educated guess about whether this shift to the right was cyclical or permanent. But both parties seem to have moved to the right on economic issues (both recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have preached government austerity). And there is asymmetry at the state level: fiscally conservative Republicans like Chris Christie can occasionally get elected in a blue state like New Jersey, but it’s hard to imagine a liberal Democrat even being competitive in red states like Alabama or Kansas.

If the United States has indeed become more conservative, or less likely to support grand government initiatives, there are several possible explanations. One is that our larger and more diverse nation has lost its commonality. According to the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, “The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.” In a more provocative article called “How Racism Caused the Shutdown,” ThinkProgress’s Zack Beauchamp argues that “the South’s new faith in across-the-board conservatism—kicked off by the alignment of economic libertarianism with segregationism—is one of the most significant causes of […] ideological inflexibility.” (But I’ve also come across Northern conservatives who aren’t any happier about federal programs helping the poor in overwhelmingly white states like Kentucky and West Virginia.)

I also wonder whether the appetite for government action has been weakened by “kludgocracy,” which I explained in a post last week as the theory that “our political system is biased toward piecemeal, often contradictory policies that, above all, preserve existing sources of power (a bureaucratic, if not necessarily an economic elite).” Obamacare certainly suffers from this syndrome; its complexity and buggy websites have enraged conservatives and dispirited many liberals who preferred a simpler and more direct single-payer health insurance program.

Then there’s possibility that conservatism is strengthened by one of the left’s biggest causes, environmental protection. The idea that we live in a world of diminishing resources may work against the idea that government should do more to help the disadvantaged and unlucky. At Reason magazine, the first of Peter Suderman’s “Eight Things That Can Go Wrong with Obamacare” is: “When more people have health insurance, it could be harder to see primary care physicians.” This is a zero-sum vision of America, in which there is no way to provide for the poor without an unacceptable sacrifice from the better-off. This perception is difficult to change, but it’s one more goal (or burden) of the president’s signature program.

Related: "Paralysis in Washington," by the Editors.

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