Thursday, August 04, 2005

More political typology-type stuff

Michael Lind has an excellent bigthink post up on TMPCafe. His thesis is this: Let's divide everyone up via the Nolan chart into four groups: libertarians (economic right, social left), liberals (left), conservatives (right) and populists (economic left, social right). Now let's consider that we have a bipartisan system of government so the four groups must somehow form coalitions to gain power. Look at the last 72 years: from 1932 to 1968 the Democrats were a coalition of populists and liberals championing the New Deal while the Republicans combined conservatives and libertarians. Then LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, Nixon pursued the "Southern strategy" and the result was that populists were brought into the Republican party and libertarians were kicked out. Of course, many libertarians haven't realized this yet. (I hardly mean libertarian in the Libertarian Party or Objectivist sense, but the much more moderate sense of libertarian, the kind that might live in New Hampshire or Arizona.)

The last piece of the descriptive puzzle is that a majority of Americans are more right than left, socially, and a majority of Americans are more left than right, economically. This observation is supported by a good deal of polling, including the Pew study which I recently derided. For example, Pew reports that 65% of Americans favor "the U.S. government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes" and 61% oppose "allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally[.]" Let's say that views on the economy and social issues are independent and assume that 60% of people are more left economically and 60% are more right socially. Then the population breaks down into 36% populist, 24% conservative, 24% liberal, 16% libertarian.

Obviously this lacks some subtlety, but I think the model's explanatory power outweighs its flaws. Here are some things it explains:
  • Why were the Democrats the majority party after the New Deal and why have they been in slow decline since 1968? It's because a plurality of people in this country are populist. Whichever party captures the populist vote wins elections. Thus the fact that from 1932 to 1968 we had a Democratic president for 28 out of 36 years and from 1968 to 2004 we've had a Republican president for 24 out of 36 years. (Why did the Democrats not lose the Congress until 1994? The establishment Democrats were hold-overs from the New Deal era. Plausible, no?)
  • Moreover, look at the exceptions: Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton. Lind writes:
    Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the only two presidents the post-1968 Civil Rights Democrats have elected, ran as social conservative, economic liberal populists.
    I'd add that, in the earlier half, Eisenhower was definitely a moderate - he was no Barry Goldwater - and ran largely as a populist.
  • This also explains intra-party divisions and loyalties. For example, why is it that it is very hard to be a pro-life Democrat or a pro-choice Republican? Because the parties are delineated along the social axis. That's what defines them. On the other hand, both Democrats and Republicans have members who range from free-trader (Clinton and Bush [nominally, at least]) to protectionist (Gephardt and Buchanan). Furthermore, it explains the Republican's erratic economic policy, from the definite conservatism of Reagan to Bush's ambiguous spend-aholic nature.
This story rings true for me personally. I voted for John Kerry because he was the social liberal. I also largely agreed with his economic proposals and strongly disagreed with Bush's, but there was no way I would vote for Bush because of his illiberal and somewhat bigoted social positions.

So what's the normative conclusion for the Democratic party?
All of this means good news for Democrats and bad news for social liberals.

The good news for Democrats is that they can regain the majority if the now-dead Civil Rights Democrat coalition of 1968-2004, a coalition of social liberals who agreed to disagree about economic issues, is replaced by something like the New Deal coalition of 1932-68, a coalition of economic liberals who agree to disagree about social issues.

The bad news for social liberals is that in a Democratic majority defined by economic liberalism the social liberals would be the minority in their own party and the socially conservative, economically liberal populists would be the majority.
What kind of effects would this have on economic policy? Theoretically, I think that political divisions based on social issues lead to better economic policy. That's because if parties are defined by those social issues, they leave it to the economists to figure out policy. In reality, this has led to not terrible economic policy on the part of Democrats (Clinton) and spectacularly bad economic policy on the part of Republicans (Bush). Yet Bush's economic policy was not as ideologically driven as one might expect. His response to the recession of 2001 was one of two classic Keynesian responses: tax cuts. He had (and has) mainstream economists working for him: Hubbard, Mankiw and Bernanke.

But I think we have every reason to suspect that in a political world centered around the economic axis things would be much much worse. A coalition of Populists and Liberals is not going to support free trade. And the economic policies of the New Deal era were mostly very bad. There was some very blunt Keynes-style government spending (CCC), some social insurance (Social Security), some beneficial regulation (SEC) but it was mostly price-controlling ridiculousness that probably hindered recovery more than helped it (unemployment was still at 14.6% in 1940). On the other side, a return to Goldwater-style "free markets at all costs" is probably going to produce policy at least as bad as Bush's, if not worse.

In any case, I don't see why things would get better by reorienting. Best to have economic policy decided by science instead of ideology. Better to be closer to that ideal than further. Or maybe economic policy doesn't matter that much. Or maybe this is a totally bullshit way of looking at things.


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