Why US conservatives have gone crazy

Why Obama’s courting of the right may be disastrous – both for Democrats, and for the United States.

Tea Party Express Comes To Rockford, Illinois
Democratic presidents' moves to the right helped to redefine what conservatism means, says author [GALLO/GETTY]

“We are going to do the worst thing we can do to you Americans. We are going to take away your enemy.”

 – Soviet Spokesperson Georgi Arbatov

San Pedro, CA – A quarter-century after Arbatov threatened us Americans, his point seems extremely well-made. Without the Soviet enemy, the US floundered. We only found our way again after the 9/11 attacks, which gave us license to go after anyone we damn well wanted to – even if, like Saddam Hussein, they might be sworn enemies of those who actually attacked us.

But some folks need enemies a good deal more than others. In the US, we call those folks “conservatives”, and their need for enemies has become a defining influence on how everyone thinks about politics. You see, for the past 20 years leading Democrats – most notably presidents Clinton and Obama – have been trying to cozy up to conservatives, taking away their enemy. The results have been nothing short of disastrous – both for Democrats, and for the US.

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s emergence and ultimate victory in his run for president was initially hailed by political elites for moving the Democratic Party “to the centre” and “restoring its relevance”. Clinton, after all, was a founding member of the “centrist”, business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, explicitly established to move the party rightward. His leadership in passing NAFTA – against the majority of Congressional Democrats – was emblematic of this rightward shift (as well as playing a crucial role in pushing third-party Ross Perot supporters into the hands of the Republicans).

“For the past 20 years leading Democrats… have been trying to cozy up to conservatives, taking away their enemy. The results have been nothing short of disastrous – both for Democrats, and for America.”

How well did this move to “restore” the Democratic Party work out? Two years later, Democrats not only lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years, they lost record numbers of state legislative races as well. In 2008, the Democrats tried it all over again – only to lose even more decisively two years later, leaving the GOP with more state legislative seats than at any time since before 1932.

Because state-level results are routinely ignored by national political elites, it’s worth it to briefly focus on them. In the 1980s, Democrats controlled state legislatures by as much as 34-11 (with the remainder split), and 29-6 even as late as 1992. (This, remember, was supposedly the “Age of Reagan”, when the Democratic Party was being decimated.) But in the 1994 elections, the Democrats plunged from a still dominant 24-8 position of control to a slight GOP edge, 18-19.

Control of state legislatures remained fairly balanced until the 2006 elections, when Democrats gained a seven-legislature edge, which they upped to 13, before the GOP’s 2010 wave shifted things drastically once again, giving the GOP an edge of 11. This history of shifting state-level fortunes strongly supports the conclusion that shifting “to the centre” made Democratic Party substantially less attractive to the electorate as a whole – exactly the opposite of elite conventional wisdom.

Liberal white knight

This conclusion only grows stronger looking at aggregate totals of seats and percentages. In November 1994, the GOP picked up 380 seats in state legislatures and 106 seats in state senates. Democratic majorities were substantially reduced from 58.7 per cent to 51.8 per cent in state assemblies and from 58.6 per cent to 53 per cent in state senates.

The 2010 swing was even more dramatic: the GOP picked up 568 state assembly seats and 139 state senate seats. Democratic majorities were slashed to minority status, from 56 per cent to 45.4 per cent in state assemblies, and 53.4 per cent to 46 per cent in state senates – again, more GOP state legislators than at any time since 1932. For 80 years, the GOP had been the party of Wall Street, Democrats the party of the little guy, and this had worked out well for the Democrats. But two consecutive “centrist” presidents moved the Democrats substantially to the right, particularly on economics, erasing the last 80 years of history and putting conservative Republicans back in charge.

True, many people mistook Barack Obama for a great liberal white knight – no doubt over-interpreting his cautiously limited speech against the Iraq War while running for Illinois State Senate in October 2002. Not to mention, he was black. But the counter-indications were equally clear for those willing to see – not least the speech that put him on the map nationally, the 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, where he claimed, “There are no red states, there are no blue states, there are only these United States of America.”

“Clinton and Obama were the two most conservative Democratic presidents since the 19th century, who moved the party rightward, just as political elites said they should in order to revive their party.”

Obama aimed to minimise or circumvent the culture wars, in order to strike a set of “grand bargains” that would purportedly solve the United States’ big problems – a thoroughly centrist, thoroughly technocratic ambition, identified with the broader political philosophy of “neoliberalism”, a throw-back to 19th-century, pre-New Deal liberalism which generally adopts a market-based outlook on the world, purportedly benefiting free trade and small businesses, but actually benefiting large-scale oligopolies like health insurance companies, Wall Street banks, large-scale mercenary organisations and other big winners of the Obama era.

Greatest ‘grand bargain’

Major policy consequences of this technocratic centrism – as opposed to traditional New Deal liberalism – were easily observed:

  • Obama’s legislative centrepiece, health care reform, was modeled on the conservative Republican Heritage foundation model from 1993/94, later implemented by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts in 2006;
  • Obama supported Bush’s no-strings-attached bank bailout (TARP), and extended it without new conditions once in office, effectively throwing away all political leverage to restructure the financial industry in order to fix the source of the financial crisis that caused the Great Recession;
  • Obama included roughly 40 per cent of the GOP-favoured tax increases in his stimulus package – which was roughly only half the size that was needed according to economists at the time, even though such tax cuts tend to be less effective as stimulus overall;
  • Obama failed to take other macro-economic actions that could have accelerated economic recovery; and
  • Obama failed to press for any vigorous action to help distressed homeowners.

Even before his stimulus programme began taking effect, Obama committed himself to the ultimate anti-little guy project of “debt relief”, via an unelected “debt commission”, the quintessential anti-democratic, technocratic mechanism for the greatest “grand bargain” of them all – the gutting of the welfare state, undoing the defining achievement of the modern Democratic Party.

The objective political conservatism of Clinton and Obama has been masked by numerous factors – not least the intense rightward shift of the United States’ political elites over the past 30-40 years, and the attendant marginalisation of left-liberal voices. Also, both men play-act the role of liberals with considerable aplomb, while the term itself has become more associated with social policies, rather than economic ones. Still, it remains the case – supported by two centuries of role-call data in Congress, along with more than half a century of combined public opinion research– that government activism in economic policy is the dominant dimension of American politics, the primary determinant of what counts as liberal and conservative, and both men have shown an unprecedented willingness to abandon traditional Democratic economic policy.

In short, Clinton and Obama were the two most conservative Democratic presidents since the 19th century, who moved the party rightward, just as political elites said they should in order to revive their party, and the result both times was a sharp political shift to the right, devastating the party it was supposed to save and empowering enemies recently on the fringe. The first time around, it might be deemed remarkable – but strange to say, almost no one remarked. Which is partly why it happened again. To a very large extent, this reflected the sharp elite move to the right, a process whose early stages were detailed by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers in their 1986 book, Right Turn. However, something more happened specifically in reaction to both Clinton and Obama which caused the rightward shift of elite opinion and interests to be reinforced and echoed more robustly across class lines.

Claustrophobic conservatives

This can be seen clearly in the Tea Party reaction. While the Tea Party represents a complicated social phenomenon, with a good deal of elite string-pulling, it can generally be described as a reactionary ideology that ignores two key facts in the economic realm: (1) how nearly a decade of conservative rule under George W Bush has produced record deficits, along with other serious problems; and (2) how both Clinton (before Bush) and Obama (after) tried to accommodate conservative ideas with their neoliberal politics.

“Clinton and Obama’s rightward moves gave rise to two main types of conservative reaction. First was an intense explosion of conspiracism…Second was a vast rightward re-definition of what conservatism means.”

Objectively, neoliberals moved closer to conservatives, closing the gap between the two parties. But psychologically, the story was dramatically different: the more Clinton or Obama moved toward conservatives, the more trapped, the more claustrophobic conservatives felt. This was a natural expression of conservatives’ inherently hostile attitude toward political group differences and the exact opposite of the dominant liberal/pragmatic attitude, which favours compromise over ideological purity. Gallup polling in 2010 and 2011 underscored these fundamental attitudinal differences.

While neoliberals saw their moves to the centre as inherently conflict-reducing, conservatives saw those moves as deeply threatening. After all, if Clinton or Obama were willing to work with them, there had to be something rotten going on. However, there was no obvious reality-based way to articulate this, since Clinton and Obama actually were quite close to conservative thinking in major ways.

Instead, Clinton and Obama’s rightward moves gave rise to two types of conservative reaction. First was an intense explosion of conspiracism, which allowed for the interpolation of vast imaginary political space into a highly compressed political spectrum where no such actual space exists. The militia movement under Clinton and the Tea Party under Obama both traffic heavily in this sort of imaginary, often deeply paranoid politics. (Birth certificates, anyone?)

Second was a vast rightward re-definition of what conservatism means, thus creating substantial new space between (neo)-liberals and conservatives. In early 2008, Bush proposed and Congress passed a $200bn stimulus package. True, it was chock-full of relatively ineffective tax cuts, but its justification was the same as that for Obama’s larger stimulus package a year later. That’s partially why Obama optimistically expected to get about half of the Senate Republicans to support the stimulus bill. Instead, he got three. The conservatives’ sudden discovery that the conservative individual health care mandate is unconstitutional is another high-profile example of this characteristic response.

Together, these two reactions serve to fundamentally destabilise and reorient American politics, but they do so based on conservative psychological trauma that is utterly disconnected from objective reality. The fact that the so-called “liberal media” accepts and normalises this – rather than ridicules it – tells you how utterly meaningless the word “liberal” has now become.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg