What Shift Right?

Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor joins other pundits in proclaiming “America’s Big Shift Right” in politics and governance. “In Washington today, when it comes to the size of government, the debate isn’t over whether to cut spending, but by how much,” she writes.  That’s true, but it’s because the federal budget has doubled in just 10 years, with half the increase coming in the past three. Politics may be more conservative, but government is still getting bigger.

Some of Marlantes’s arguments are mystifying: “Instead of coming on the heels of a great liberal expansion of government, today’s shift comes after three decades of the unraveling of elements of the social safety net.” Really? The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2007 that three major “safety net” programs accounted for 45 percent of the federal budget. In this chart the red line represents “social safety net” programs:

Marlantes quotes a distinguished historian on the same point:

“The New Deal programs have been weakened and destroyed over decades, and there are just many fewer elements in the safety net,” says Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University and author of “Liberalism and its Discontents.”

But what is he talking about? Social Security is bigger than ever, and we’ve added Medicare, Medicaid, the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, and food stamps. Farm subsidies are still in business, in far different economic conditions from those that allegedly required the creation of price supports and other payments.

Two years ago, in a review of two books on the rise of conservatism, Brian Doherty noted:

the right has shown an amazing ability to fool almost everyone, from average voters to academic historians like Schneider and Phillips-Fein, into believing that the conservative movement has won key victories and substantially achieved its most important goals….

And the free market? Under both Democrats and Republicans, the general direction of the U.S. government has been toward more spending, more taxing, and more federal control, even if Reagan did succeed in dramatically lowering the highest marginal tax rates. Otherwise smart observers such as Schneider and Phillips-Fein miss these facts, conflating the success of the Republican Party, as it comes and goes, with the success of conservative ideas.

Phillips-Fein expresses this confusion about right-wing success most baldly, declaring out of nowhere, to buttress the significance of her topic, that “the New Deal has been turned back.” Except for court packing and the National Recovery Administration, every significant practice, and certainly every big idea, behind the New Deal has only gotten stronger in the last 60 years.

Marlantes seems to make the same mistake. She notes that the percentage of self-described conservatives has risen in the Gallup Poll. But considering how much the federal budget has increased, the increase in conservative sentiment is pretty modest. Shouldn’t people who call themselves “moderates” when the federal budget is $2 trillion (about 2002) be “conservatives” now that it’s approaching $4 trillion? And yet most of them don’t.

By the way, Marlantes does note that “generational changes are clearly pushing public opinion to the left when it comes to certain moral and cultural issues, most notably gay rights,” a point that I’ve also made.

A shift to the right? In politics, maybe. In the actual size of government, no.