In an article in the New York Times (11.30.12) Timothy Egan writes about what he sees as a ‘liberalization’ of America despite the fact that a significant percentage of Americans call themselves ‘moderates’ or ‘conservatives’. What is his evidence – the referenda on dope and gay marriage, and the fact that a black president is pushing for higher taxes for the rich – all true statements, but missing the point that the country has become profoundly conservative. Although white evangelicals have lost demographic ground, they still represent 25-30 percent of the population or between 75-80 million people. A Rasmussen poll in November 2012 showed that almost 25 percent of Americans wanted only to cut spending to resolve the current fiscal crisis.
A Rasmussen poll in February 2012 showed that 55 percent of Americans oppose affirmative action, and even more among ‘Millenials’. The percentage of Americans in labor unions in the private sector has dropped to 7 percent, and Pew (2/11) reports that “The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view.” Pew also reports that over 50 percent of Americans favor school vouchers, with the number increasing. The Friedman Foundation’s recent (2012) polls show that support for vouchers is between 55-70 percent, depending on the state. The Washington Post poll (8/12) showed that 55 percent of Americans wanted smaller government.
I have selected statistics on just a few indicators; but could have chosen subsidies, social programs, welfare, Political Correctness on campus, and any number of other liberal issues to indicate the population is not at all ‘progressive’, but very conservative. Despite this evidence, Egan goes on in his article to praise past liberal achievement, apparently wanting to sanctify Liberalism and promote it as the only way forward. However, even his choices are suspect.
He starts with Lincoln’s support for the 13th Amendment. While a significant milestone in American history, it was the constant pressure of the Abolitionists who, contrary to Lincoln’s much more pragmatic and constitutional opinion, insisted not only on immediate emancipation but equal rights for freed slaves, something Lincoln never advocated. Lincoln’s most compelling desire was to save the Union; and he knew that since the Constitution afforded extensive States’ Rights, he could not run roughshod over them. He was a conservative Constitutionalist who eventually bowed to Abolitionist pressure. While Lincoln favored the abolition of slavery, he was very careful to try to do so within the framework of the Constitution.
Egan then talks of Teddy Roosevelt’s institution of the income tax as a transformative and historical measure; and implies that somehow it, too should be sanctified and continued ad perpetuam. While the tax system did establish the means for government to raise revenue, that very fact is the reason why it should be suspect. Our deficit and debt problems today are because of an unholy dualism – raise taxes and raise spending in a pernicious cycle until we are pushed to a Fiscal Cliff.
To select such ‘liberal’ achievements as women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Act is myopic. They were important milestones in the country’s evolution, but should be seen within the context of the economic development that provided the dynamic economic environment into which women and minorities would be integrated. It was the ‘conservative’ focus on business enterprise, the move towards liberalizing the regulatory and fiscal systems, the extension of a muscular international presence which helped to erode the Communist threat and helped to initiate a truly global marketplace. . In other words, without a perennially accelerating economy into which women and minorities could enter, these ‘liberal’ achievements would have been for naught.
The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run — direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply — with only one major blooper: Prohibition.
Once again Egan is myopic. There is no point at looking at history unless you look at subsequent outcomes. Direct elections have been so distorted by the endless state primaries, the contentiousness of media-fueled, rancorous political debate, the ubiquity of conspiracy theories abounding in the Internet, the persistent unenlightened electorate, that many observers look wistfully back to the days of Alexander Hamilton who had more conservative ideas on elections and backed the Electoral College:
Hamilton argued (Federalist Paper No. 68) that the "sense of the people", through the election of the electors to the college, should have a part of the process. The final say, however, lies with the electors, who Hamilton notes are:
"Men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."
Hamiltion worried that corrupted individuals could potentially be elected president, particularly those who are either more directly associated with a foreign state, or individuals who do not have the capacity to run the country.
"Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States"
The regulation of monopolistic trusts was important in the days of the Robber Barons when there were no checks on rampant laissez-faire capitalism to create a more equal playing field; but a more conservative approach that allowed mergers and acquisitions, enabling corporations to maximize efficiency, lower costs, and maximize shareholder profits has been a mainstay of the modern Republic. In other words, capitalism is a dynamic system which has always operated at the margins and which swings from a highly-regulated system to a freer one. One historical moment does not reify or sanctify it; nor does it serve as a justifying moment for a political theory, ‘liberalism’.
The same argument can be made for “modernizing the public schools”, another moment in history serving to move education from the parochial to the large civic community; but there is nothing sacrosanct about public education, and it is conservatism which is not providing the impetus for needed change. “Cleaning up the food supply” is of course good; but it has been conservatives who have put the brake on overweening government interference in private transactions and who have assured a more realistic balance between needed technical oversight and free enterprise.
It is ironic that Egan ends with this statement – “All political moments are ephemeral. This one could vanish in the blink of a donkey’s eye”; because he is inadvertently supporting the argument I make here – there is no reason to crow about the historical ‘achievements’ of liberalism as apocryphal, transcendent events signifying an eternal, blessed movement. American democracy is nothing if not a continuing dynamic interplay between liberal and conservative forces which ebb and flow over time, which have immediate and unexpected long-term consequences.