Yes, certain trends may favor Democrats. But there’s no denying how dramatically conservatives have shifted the national debate. A response to Larry M. Bartels.
I appreciate much of what Larry Bartels had to say about my new book, The Age of Austerity. And I am a long-time admirer of Bartels’s work—Unequal Democracy, I think, is a unique and valuable contribution to our political-economic literature. But his review of The Age of Austerity misses key points and makes substantial errors of political judgment. I will briefly quote five key arguments and rebut them.
First, Bartels tries to minimize conservative dominance in our era. He writes:
Much of Edsall’s case for the notion that Republicans enjoy “a substantial long-term advantage” in contemporary politics will sound familiar to readers of [Edsall’s earlier] Building Red America…It seems worth recalling here that this is a party that has won five presidential elections to the Democrats’ three in the generation since Ronald Reagan…but only with considerable help from the Supreme Court and Osama bin Laden—and a party that has controlled the Senate only half the time and the House of Representatives less than half the time in this period.
I argue, and have argued, that the period from 1968 to 2004 was one of conservative domination, especially in policy-making, and that the right regained this power in 2010-2011. Of crucial importance: The center point of American politics has been pushed substantially to the right. Liberals had fragile control of the national agenda during a brief window immediately after Barack Obama took office. From 1968 to the present, Republicans have won seven out of 11 presidential elections, an enviable batting average. Even during the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, when Democrats controlled both branches of Congress, bids to enact consumer protection, labor-law reform, and health-care legislation, to name just a few initiatives, were defeated.
The scope and consequences of the conservative movement’s success can be demonstrated in a number of ways. Nondefense discretionary spending reached 4.7 percent of GDP in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected. By 2008, it fell to 3.3 percent, a very substantial 32.2 percent decline, reflecting a major shift in national priorities. Under the deficit-reduction program approved by Congress and signed by Obama last year, nondefense discretionary spending is on a further downward path—to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2021, a 46.8 percent reduction from 1980 and a return to 1961 spending levels. The modest DREAM Act, providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who go to college or serve in the military, was rejected by the Senate. Furthermore, by October 2011, the Obama Administration had deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year. All these examples demonstrate how the country has moved to the right.
In addition, tax policy from 1980 to the present has decisively favored the rich, and Democrats, when in power, have not reversed the rapid growth of inequality. From 1980 to 2011, the top tax rate has been halved, from 70 percent to 35 percent. From 1970 to 2010, according to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the share of total income going to the top 1 percent has more than doubled, from 7.8 percent to 17.4 percent, and the share going to the top 0.1 percent has nearly quadrupled, going from 1.9 percent in 1970 to 7.5 percent in 2010. During the recent financial collapse, the costs of recession were overwhelmingly imposed on the poor and the working class, both in terms of unemployment and foreclosures, and as financially beleaguered cities and states cut Medicaid and other key services.
The Supreme Court did indeed elect George W. Bush. Control of the federal courts has been one of the signal victories of the right. Recent Republican appointees are striking for their conservative ideological consistency, as Jeffrey Rosen documented in an excellent New York Times Magazine article. The current Court—the most conservative since the mid-1930s—has been a key player in expanding the political and economic power of the privileged in decisions ranging from Citizens United to Wal-Mart v. Dukes, to District of Columbia v. Heller and many more.
Second, Bartels believes I overstate the political consequences for the GOP stemming from its habit of overreach:
While Republicans clearly have the upper hand in Edsall’s account, he acknowledges that “the GOP has often proved to be an inconsistent risk manager, overreaching when victory is at hand, and overestimating ideological support from the general public.” This may be an apt description of Newt Gingrich’s GOP, which clearly overreached in shutting down the government and impeaching the president; but it hardly seems apt as a description of George W. Bush’s GOP…Bush presided over a reckless, ideological fiscal policy and a reckless, ideological war, but the eventual erosion of his public support had much less to do with ideological overreach than with perceived incompetence. As for Boehner, the remarkable intransigence of his Republican congressional caucus, even in the face of a national economic crisis, was rewarded with a midterm election triumph.
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