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Home Opinion Beyond Reaganism and Clintonism: The emerging political order in the United States
U.S. • Politics • Transition

Beyond Reaganism and Clintonism: The emerging political order in the United States

Michael Lind - 30 January 2014

American politics looks to be on the verge of a grand transition from one political era to another: the declining coherency of the politics espoused by both Reaganite Conservatives and Clintonite New Democrats has opened the way for more assertive social democratic progressives and a more libertarian, anti-statist right

Discussion of American politics tends to revolve around short-term phenomena ‒ the poll ratings of President Barack Obama, the state of the competition for control of Congress by the Democrats and Republicans in the 2014 mid-term election, the rise of progressive Democrats like Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and scandals like the one that has engulfed Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.  Amid all of these developments and debates, it is possible to discern long-term trends which are slowly reshaping the landscape of American politics.

The most important of these is the accelerating collapse and transformation of American conservatism.

The transformation of American conservatism

The American right in its familiar form coalesced in the 1950s and early 1960s, around the magazine National Review, founded and edited by William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955,  and the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.  This version of conservatism was called “fusionism” because it fused or combined three elements:  an aggressively confrontationist policy in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, traditionalism in morality and anti-statist, free-market economics.   Anti-communism provided the glue that held these otherwise different schools of thought together, because communism simultaneously threatened American national security, Christian values and free-market economics.

Although the conservative champion Barry Goldwater was defeated by liberal Democratic president Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 marked the beginning of an era of Republican presidential hegemony, in which candidates from the increasingly conservative Republican party won five of six elections ending with George Herbert Walker Bush’s election in 1988.  The only exception was Jimmy Carter, himself a conservative Democrat elected in 1976.

The “New Democrat” or “neoliberal” wing of the Democratic party, led by centre-right Southern Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, like Tony Blair in the UK and centrist social democrats in Europe,  responded to this era of conservative political hegemony by trying to move the Democratic party to the right on foreign policy, social issues and economics.  At first glance, the strategy would appear to have been successful.  Democratic candidates, including two two-term presidents, Clinton and Obama, have won the presidency in four of the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012 (and they won the popular vote, but not the electoral vote, in 2000).

But there are signs that the era of Republican conservatism and its Democratic neoliberal echo is coming to an end.  

On the American right, the “fusionist” conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan has disintegrated and no new synthesis has emerged to replace it as a coherent conservative public philosophy.  The original conservative rationale for high military spending and foreign military intervention became irrelevant with the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet bloc.  The so-called neoconservatives ‒ who originated in the 1970s as a faction of anticommunist liberals alienated by the Democratic left ‒ managed to exploit the al-Qaeda attacks on the US in 2001 to justify a massive military build-up and US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But by 2008 most conservatives as well as other Americans had wearied of these wars and recently the right generally opposed US intervention in the war in Syria, to the dismay of Republican neoconservatives and Democratic “liberal hawks.”

Religious conservatives still play an important role in Republican politics.  But public opinion has turned in favour of gay marriage, in spite of conservative successes in banning it in some states.  Thwarted in their effort to outlaw abortion, social conservatives have been reduced to supporting state laws that make it difficult for women to obtain abortions.  Younger generations of Americans are far more liberal than their elders on matters of sex and censorship, as well as more secular.  Protestant evangelical pressure groups have lost much of their clout.  The religious right is in long-term decline.

The chief beneficiaries from the crack-up of Reaganite fusionist conservatism have been two groups that were expelled by the older conservative movement:  the paranoid populists and the libertarians.  In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr. and other conservative leaders repudiated right-wing conspiracy theorists like those of the John Birch Society, who argued, among other things, that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist.  In the 1960s, the conservative movement parted ways with the radical free-marketeers of what became the separate “libertarian” movement.

As fusionist conservatism has decayed, the paranoid and libertarian strains have come to define the emergent right in the US.  It has become routine even for mainstream Republican conservatives to denounce progressive and centrist Democrats as “socialists,” while conspiracy theories about socialist and Muslim plots flourish among right-wing activists.  

Meanwhile, the distinction between mainstream conservatism and libertarianism has eroded.  Libertarian schemes for abolishing social insurance and dismantling much of the modern federal government now make up much of the Republican Party agenda.  Libertarian suspicion of the “national security state” is shared by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose criticism of US spying activities revealed by the Snowden leaks has scandalised neoconservative policy intellectuals ‒ without hurting his popularity among conservative voters.

The rise of the Liberal left

In addition to destabilising the political right, the collapse of Reaganite fusionist conservatism has also destabilised the centre-left in American politics.  The central argument of New Democrats like Bill Clinton was that the Democrats could compete with Reagan-style conservatives only by being more pro-military, more sensitive to traditional values, and more pro-market than the liberal left.  The declining power of the Reaganite conservative political formula has removed the rationale for the Clintonite neoliberal political formula.

Sensing this, the liberal left ‒ what former Vermont governor Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” ‒ has begun to aggressively reassert itself.  In New York City, the progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio surprised everyone by winning the race to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a centrist billionaire, in a campaign in which he spoke of “a tale of two cities” and promised to tax the rich to fund universal public pre-kindergarten care.  At the national level, first-term Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a voice of the new progressivism, first by championing Wall Street reform and recently by defending Social Security against proposed benefit cuts, including some cuts backed by President Obama.

At the same time, there have been significant defections from the free-market, anti-regulation, pro-trade consensus shared in the 1990s and 2000s by neoliberal Democrats with conservative Republicans.  Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who in the 1990s criticised proposals to raise the minimum wage and argued that trade did not contribute to US inequality, has changed his views.  Another prominent Democratic economist and veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, Larry Summers, has gone from arguing for financial deregulation in the 1990s to warning of the possibility of “secular stagnation” and calling for massive Keynesian stimulus.

Among some centrist Democrats, the response to the rise of the insurgent centre-left has been sputtering rage.  In a widely-discussed op-ed published in the conservative Wall Street Journal, the leaders of the neoliberal think tank Third Way (whose very name is a reference to the “Third Way” movement of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) denounced de Blasio and Warren and warned that “populism” would lead the Democratic party back into the electoral wilderness.   But while these sentiments find strong support among Democratic donors in the financial industry and the think tanks they fund, Democratic activists and voters are shifting to the relative left.  Like the neoconservatives on the right, the neoliberals on the left may end up as an elite sect, a group that has funding and spokespeople but little or no voter support.

Obama’s progressive shift

President Barack Obama governed in his first term as a conventional centre-right New Democrat, with an administration populated by Clinton veterans.  His signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare,” is a typical neoliberal policy initiative ‒ a version of the right’s model for providing universal health insurance, modeled in part on the health care reform in Massachusetts enacted under then-Governor Mitt Romney.  But since his re-election in 2012, Obama has responded to the changing political scene by shifting in a progressive direction.

The president has embraced the issue of combating inequality, an issue associated with the marginal left as recently as the Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years back.  While neoliberals and today’s conservatives argue for wage subsidies such as the earned income tax credit (EITC) as the best way to combat poverty, Obama has joined progressives in pushing for a higher statutory minimum wage.   Following public opinion polls, Obama has reversed his position on gay marriage from opposition to support.  In a recent interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, Obama expressed openness to the legalisation of marijuana usage, a policy pioneered by the state of Colorado.  The president has suffered no political damage as a result.

The anti-majoritarian features of the American political system

While demographic trends favor the centre-left, the transition to a new political order in the US will continue to be delayed by the ability of reactionary conservatives to exploit the anti-majoritarian features of the American political system.  Some of these are rooted in the structure of the Constitution itself.  The US Senate, in which every state is allotted two senators regardless of population, is one of the most malapportioned legislative bodies in the world.  For example, the 38 million residents of the 22 smallest states are allotted 44 of the Senate’s 100 Senators, while the 38 million residents of California are represented by only 2.

Other anti-majoritarian institutions are also important.  Thanks to the filibuster, a procedure that allows individual Senators to block legislation unless overridden by supermajorities, 41 senators representing one-third of the US population can block a law.  The over-representation of rural, mostly-white populations in the federal government is magnified further by the non-majoritarian electoral college, which allows candidates like George W. Bush in 2000 to lose the popular vote but win the presidency, and by the gerrymandering or manipulation of districts that elect members of the House of Representatives.

Senate malapportionment and House gerrymandering hurt populous cities even more than they hurt populous states.  New York City has fourteen times as many people as the least populous state, Wyoming, which nevertheless has two senators.  Conservative state legislatures, which draw the lines of House districts, frequently divide progressive-leaning cities into several districts dominated by conservative rural and suburban voters.

Because of the difficulty of altering the anti-majoritarian features of the US constitution, urban politicians since the New Deal era in the 1930s have frequently favoured federal government policies that can circumvent the opposition of conservative, anti-urban state legislators and governors.  The design of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, in which the federal government wholly subsidises state-level expansions of Medicaid, itself a partly-federal, partly-state programme, reflects this calculus ‒ as does the determination of many conservative-dominated state governments to sabotage the programme, at the expense of poorer members of their own state populations.  While the decentralisation of decision-making might make sense in other democracies that lack anything like America’s toxic nexus among states’ rights and white supremacy, in the US devolving public policy responsibilities from the federal government to the state legislatures would merely reinforce the already-exaggerated influence of the rural and white and elderly at the expense of the urban and nonwhite and young.

The transition to a new political order in the US

Transitions from one political era to another are slow, prolonged affairs, particularly when, as in the US, the political system provides opponents of change with multiple veto points.  For this reason, Reagan conservatives and Clinton Democrats will continue to play a role in American politics for years to come.  But it is not too early to predict changes in American policy and politics, as a result of the rise of a new right and a new left.

In foreign policy, the increasing influence of libertarians on the right and progressive Democrats is likely to make the US far less interventionist in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghan wars (although events like 9/1l can always alter the situation).  The failure of globalisation to deliver the rising living standards that Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats promised has made it much more difficult though not impossible to persuade Congress to ratify new trade agreements.  A less interventionist, more protectionist United States may be emerging.

In domestic politics, the triumph of social liberalism and the declining influence of white working-class voters may mark the end of an era in which both parties accepted a free-market economic consensus, limiting their battles largely to “identity politics” issues of race, sex, and reproduction.  The left-right divide in the years and decades ahead may be defined more by economic differences between increasingly assertive social democratic progressives and a more libertarian, anti-statist right.  Like Richard Nixon, whose election marked a transition between the New Deal era of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and the conservative era of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama may prove to be a transitional figure, marking the divide between one era in American politics and the next.

Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Michael Lind , Opinion , U.S. , United States , Barack Obama , Republican , Democrats , Republican Party , G.O.P , GOP , Democratic Party , Bill de Blasio , Elizabeth Warren , Chris Christie , William F. Buckley , William F. Buckley Jr. , Barry Goldwater , Lyndon Johnson , Richard Nixon , George Herbert Walker Bush , George H. W. Bush , Bill Clinton , Al Gore , Tony Blair , Dwight Eisenhower , Howard Dean , Michael Bloomberg , Larry Summers , Ronald Reagan , David Remnick ,

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