A Time of Limits: The Changing Landscape of U.S. Politics

William A. Galston

While history never repeats itself, the past does offer useful benchmarks of comparison. Many otherwise sober observers discerned in the 2008 election results the harbinger of a new 1933, or least 1965. At the time, those analogies struck me as far-fetched, and nothing in the ensuing year has made them more plausible.

On the eve of the 1932 elections, Republicans held 218 seats in the House of Representatives. When all the returns came in, they had lost 101 seats, giving Democrats a 313-117 edge. In the Senate, similarly, Republicans began with 48 and lost 13, yielding a 60-35 Democratic majority. One might have thought that after such a sweep, the majority party would have nowhere to go but down. But in the 1934 midterms, the Democrats gained an additional nine seats in both the House and the Senate. For all practical purposes, the Republicans had ceased to exist as an effective opposition. When the dust settled after the 1936 election, they were down to 16 Senate seats and 88 in the House. President Roosevelt enjoyed unprecedented freedom of action. The only check on the New Deal–and it proved temporary–was the Supreme Court.

In 1964, Democrats won an additional 36 House seats, increasing their margin from 259-176 to 295-140–68 percent of the seats, and the largest House majority held by either party since 1936. In the Senate, Democrats began with 66 seats and ended up with 68. Like FDR in 1932, Lyndon Johnson won the popular vote in a landslide. And the Republican opposition was ideologically heterogeneous, with substantial numbers of moderates and liberals. More than half of House Republicans voted for Medicare, as did 43 percent of Senate Republicans.

2008, by contrast, was more like 1992. Bill Clinton won the presidency with a six percentage point margin in the popular vote. When he took his oath of office, he joined 258 Democrats in the House and 56 in Senate. Barack Obama’s majority was seven points, and Democrats ended up with 257 House seats and 57 senators (58 when the protracted Minnesota struggle was resolved in their favor). To be sure, Obama helped add to the Democratic congressional majority, which Clinton had not. Still, the raw numbers did not give him substantially more freedom of maneuver than Clinton had enjoyed–in some ways less, given the routinization of the filibuster that had developed in the interim.

Other structural features of American politics had shifted in ways that deepened the disanalogy between the New Deal/Great Society eras and the circumstances that Obama faced. In the first place, far more Americans identified themselves as conservative than as liberal. This was true the day Obama was elected, and it is more so today. By the end of 2009, conservatives held a two-to-one edge over liberals and had surged ahead of moderates to form the largest ideological block in the electorate. This fact alone makes it implausible to characterize the election of 2008 as the evidence of a swing to the left. More likely, it reflected widespread public discontent with the economic and foreign policy performance of the Bush Administration, and the willingness to give a promising young leader a chance to prove he could do better. And as disappointment with the new Administration has set in, the dominant response has been not a swing towards Republicans, but rather “a plague on both your houses.”

Second, the Republican electorate had become far more homogeneous. According to recent surveys, conservatives now constitute about three-quarters of all Republican identifiers, with moderates making up the remainder. By contrast, Democrats are far more divided–roughly 40 percent are liberals, another 40 percent are moderates, and a surprising 20 percent still think of themselves as conservatives. A divided Democratic party confronts a united Republican phalanx.

And finally, the congressional parties are more polarized than at any time since the 1890s. Political scientists have shown that by the summer of 2009, the most conservative Democratic senator was more liberal than was the most liberal Republican. (Emblematically, Ben Nelson ended up supporting health reform while Olympia Snowe opposed it.) The same dynamic can now be found in the House, too. One definition of the political “center” is the overlap between the parties. If so, the center has disappeared. Or all these reasons, Obama was bound to find it difficult to translate his victory into sweeping action–far more difficult than his enthusiastic supporters believed. And there is another, even more fundamental reason. A defining feature of today’s politics is a pervasive mistrust of government, which stands near a record high. While it has been exacerbated by the public’s response to the bank and automotive bailouts, it was overtly present in the fall of 2008. While the public wanted change, it was not prepared to invest much confidence in the institutions needed to produce change. Government bore a burden of proof that it has yet to discharge. Indeed, the failure thus far of the Administration’s energetic economic program to turn around the depressed employment market has made matters worse.

This deep-seated public sentiment is of the utmost importance for the future of liberalism in America. Whatever our version of liberalism may be, it is at least an affirmative philosophy of government. At home, we believe in the ability of public institutions to promote the common good–opportunity for all, security against grave misfortune, and the kind of economic growth whose fruits are widely shared. We do not believe that government does this by itself; liberals insist on the vital role that individuals, families, civil society, and a thriving market economy must play. But we insist that government must establish, and alertly monitor, the framework within which all these sectors act. And abroad, we believe in the ability of American government, working in concert with other nations, to strengthen the framework of peace, development, and human rights.

We do not believe that law, regulation, and the presidential bully pulpit will suffice to do the public’s business. We agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Liberals should not ignore the consequences of taxation for economic growth and family well-being, of course, but we cannot accept the anti-tax fundamentalism of so many contemporary conservatives. If the public does not believe that tax increases are buying more civilization, however, it will resist them. And if its mistrust of government does not abate, the public will be inclined not to see such gains, even when they are real.

Unlike the liberals of FDR’s time, or LBJ’s, today’s liberals must consciously act to rebuild public confidence in government, and they must monitor it as carefully as they do the monthly unemployment statistics. It’s too late to use confidence-building measures in health care. But there are many other possibilities. For example, create a National Infrastructure Bank to increase investment and decrease pork-barrel decisions; create a National Infrastructure Safety Board to monitor bridges and dams; create a similar free-standing food safety agency; impose FDA reform to improve drug monitoring and accelerate the approval process; implement contracting reform to reduce the proliferation of contracting out and to improve oversight; and increase the use of sunset provisions to help weed out obsolete programs throughout the federal government.

So where does this leave us today? Since the New Deal, liberalism as a public philosophy has been associated with the individual virtue the Greeks called liberality–that is to say, generosity. Liberalism has always promised more, and it has tended to resist trade-offs between the past and the future. To remain relevant, the liberalism of the next decade will have to become less generous and more rigorous.

For too long Americans have saved and exported too little and consumed and promised too much. During the next decade, we will have to save more, invest more, produce more, and export more. This shift has implications for families and households. For decades, the rate of homeownership has risen, as has the size of the average single-family house. Over the next generation, both these trends may reverse. For decades, the personal savings rate has declined, touching zero during the middle of the past decade. There’s no way this can continue. Easily available credit long reduced the incentive to defer current consumption in favor of future needs, a reality that’s changing fast. The shock to our financial system has led major institutions to eliminate credit or reduce credit limits for millions of borrowers.

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This shift away from current consumption toward provision for the future applies to the public sector as well as households. It means that we’ll have to focus more funding on basic research, technological innovation, and infrastructure. That sounds anodyne, but it isn’t, because it means that personal consumption will have to grow more slowly than GDP. The need to reduce the long-term federal budget deficit, now projected at nearly $1 trillion a year over the next decade, is bound to mean lower spending and higher taxes. And because personal consumption includes health care, which will continue to grow faster than GDP, even if health reform is enacted and “bends the curve,” other areas of consumption may have to flatten or even decline–an abrupt shift from 1995-2007, when consumption soared in nearly every category. To the extent that Keynesian liberalism has given pride of place to consumption, it will have to shift gears.

This new liberalism will have to prove to the public that it can say no as well as yes, terminate ineffective and obsolete programs as well as institute promising new ones. It will have to recognize that public provision of security and opportunity depends on, and can be no more robust than, the private economy. It will have to lead a public discussion about the promises we have made to ourselves–their sustainability and their relation to what Herbert Croly called the “promise of American life.” Only a liberalism that is tough enough to make choices can help build a future in which every child has an opportunity to thrive, every adult has an opportunity to work, every entrepreneur with a promising idea has the chance to pursue it, all Americans can afford the health care they need, and all the elderly can retire with a modicum of security and dignity.