Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why the political impetus is always to the left

I have not had much to say on the current election, mostly because, much as I love politics as a spectator sport, other things have interested me more. But I had a thought today about the current election situation that exemplifies the different way liberals and conservatives operate.

The accepted wisdom is that Democrats are more clannish and practice more party loyalty and that Republicans are more issues-oriented, sometimes resulting in long-running ideological feuds that damage the party. To a certain extent this is true. But there's an interesting wrinkle to this general thesis.

George F. Will has talked about the liberal "ratchet effect"--the idea that our culture moves left by increments, but never right, the long-term result being a significant leftward movement over time.

Why is this? I think I know.

The success of Democrats over the long term is illustrated by the current election. Democrats are getting hammered over the health care issue. Now you have to ask the question: did they know they were in for it when they voted for it? I think the congressmen who voted for it had to know that they were going to pay a price for their votes. But they voted for it anyway. And their leadership knew, as they bribed and cajoled their way to victory in the vote that the chances of their party being put out power was increased by doing so. They may not have known that it would be as bad as it has turned out (the continued economic crisis being the aggravating factor), but they had to know it was going to hurt.

But they also knew that, even if they were defeated at the polls, the legislation would never be fully reversed. A good part of it would be here to stay.

This is the difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans: liberal Democrats are willing to stick their necks out for their ideological agenda, knowing it will hurt them in the short run. Republicans are simply not willing to do this. Heck, their not even willing to do much on issues like same-sex marriage or abortion, where the public is on their side!

I can think of several times when liberal Democrats have forced through big, sweeping pieces of legislation they knew would hurt them in the next election cycle. In Kentucky, this happened in 1990 with education reform--a big, sweeping, unpopular measure with a huge tax increase that cost them lots of seats in the next election. They did it anyway.

When was the last time conservative Republicans stuck out their necks for a big, bold piece of legislation that pushed things in a conservative direction in the teeth of public opinion and for which they would have to take hits? I can't think of a single one. Even when conservative Republicans have opinion polls on their side, they have a bunker mentality. Liberal Democrats never have a bunker mentality, even when their agenda is unpopular.

A lot of Democrats will lose seats this election, but the health care legislation will never be repealed. It may be curtailed, but never repealed. Some of it will stay, and ratchet will move leftward just a little bit more. But there is never any ratcheting to the right because there is so little willingness to sacrifice for conservative ideas.

This is why the left will win in the end. It's all a matter of dedication and willingness to sacrifice for your ideas. Some have it, and some don't.


Andrew said...

No need to be so negative. Look at 1946 and Truman; New Zealand in the 80's, Ireland in the 90's, Canada in the 90's.

It happens that government is shrunk and the ratchet is stopped. We tend not to persevere in the US though, and the reason for that is slavery. It's creation of a perverse set of incentives for people of all races and preferences still eats at our national soul.

KyCobb said...


Thanks for the encouraging thought!

Martin Cothran said...

You're welcome.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

This assumes a left-right paradigm, where left is simply progressive and the right simply adheres to tradition. This does seem generally to be the paradigm that actually operates in American politics, but it's not always so clear. The neoliberalism (global capitalism) that guided much of the Reagan and Bush I and II administrations was, however, a remarkably un-traditional way of looking at the economy, as is the aggressive foreign policy that seems to have discarded with the traditional view of just war. So in many ways, what we identify as the right (in areas of the economy and foreign policy) is actually quite "progressive", and has a ratchet effect of its own.