How Our Political Landscape Has Changed
“Even if removing 98 percent of a given impurity costs twice as much as eliminating 97 percent, and removing 99 percent costs ten times as much, the political appeal of categorical phrases like ‘clean water’ may be just as potent when the water is already 99 percent pure as when it was dangerously polluted.” - Thomas Sowell
In the 1960s, a “free love” movement swept the nation, taking aim at Judeo-Christian sexual morality which it viewed as repressive and tyrannical. That same decade, the Civil Rights movement achieved major strides toward equality for black Americans—not just legal equality, but equality in the social sphere, as well. Over the next few decades, these political movements continued to be successful, fundamentally transforming the culture of the United States. Young Americans are so far removed from the sexual morality which prevailed during the 1950s that few can even picture that era without caricaturing it—men seeing a sexless world like Pleasantville; women imagining the blind submission of The Stepford Wives. Likewise, few can conceptualize what it might be like to live in a culture where contempt for overt racism is not a universal given.
In the early 1980s, a different political movement took off: the Reagan revolution. During the height of Cold War tensions, President Reagan convinced Americans that an intrusive federal government smacked of Soviet tyranny, while a limited government represented Western freedom. He slashed top marginal tax rates, deregulated industry, and implemented Free Trade policy. At the same time, Reagan embraced a new geopolitical ideology which defined America as a prime mover in advancing the cause of freedom worldwide. This neoconservative foreign policy was magnificently successful in opposing communism and bringing about the end of the Cold War by collapsing the Soviet Union.
America’s two major political parties built their infrastructure and developed their strategies around the success of these successful political movements. Democrats chose to be on the forefront of social policy and benefited politically from the cultural success of social liberalism. Republicans took the lead on the economy and foreign policy and benefited politically from Reagan’s powerful economic boom and Americans’ fears of Russia. Where one party succeeded, the other party conceded. As Democrats won victories on social issues, the Republican Party developed a zero-tolerance policy on overt racism and even reluctantly adopted the Left’s limited-government approach to sexual matters. As Republicans won victories on economic issues, the Democratic Party begrudgingly conceded that “the era of big government is over,” endorsed capitalism, and even supported the neoconservative invasion of Iraq.
The trouble with successful political strategies is that their very success courts their eventual irrelevance. By changing the political circumstances on the ground, strategies that once resonated with voters inevitably become stale. As I argued in previous essays, Reagan’s fiscal and foreign policy fails to inspire Americans now that the Soviet Union is long dead and economic regulations no longer feel particularly burdensome. The sexual revolution has become largely irrelevant now that American society has normalized most sex acts between consenting adults. The Civil Rights movement likewise seems to have lost its raison d’etre in an American culture which reflexively ostracizes racists and has institutionalized various forms of Affirmative Action. The cultural water has been treated, so to speak, and it is already 99% pure.
Unfortunately, successful political strategies die hard. Many on the Right have doubled down on Reaganomics, continuing to argue that America’s economy desperately needs another tax cut, more deregulation, or new Free Trade agreements. A sizable proportion of the Left, in order to remain on the the progressive edge of social policy related to race and sex, have begun to chase “microaggressions” and “implicit bias” or have attempted to redefine gender and consent. Unfortunately for both parties, the political pendulum cannot be pushed any further in the old direction. A point of diminishing returns has been reached, and backlash is inevitable.
The slow death of formerly-successful political strategies has created a generational divide that cuts through American politics. Older Republicans avoid the Culture War like the plague, remembering their party’s utter defeat on social issues during the nineties. Young Republicans, on the other hand, enthusiastically embrace a Crusade against “political correctness.” Older Democrats recoil instinctively from the word “socialism,” remembering America’s struggle against internationalist and nationalist socialist regimes. Young Democrats, however, eagerly adopt the label and use it to describe their political battle against the income inequality inherent in Ronald Reagan’s meritocratic economy.
This is the future political landscape: a rightward swing on social issues; a leftward swing on the economy. Young people are leading the way, and there is no going back. “Socialism” will no longer be a dirty word in American politics no matter how much “traditional conservatives” rant and rave. On the other side, the Left’s relentless advance on social issues has hit a brick wall, and the Right will retreat no further.