When anyone analyzes American politics in 2021, a pervasive assumption nearly always colors their thinking: that gridlock and polarization have cemented the parties into a stalemate from which neither can escape. This is a structural problem with no easy solutions. But what if that isn’t true?
There’s another way to look at this moment— one that suggests Donald Trump presided over an ideological era that has run its course. If this seems farfetched based politics as they happen moment by moment, and especially following the near-existential events surrounding the election of 2020, it seems less so if we look at the past 90 years of American history. That span was marked by two epochs, one liberal and one conservative. In perfect symmetry, the liberal era dawned in 1932 marked by new ideas and large scale change that eventually lost steam, only to be replaced by a conservative era that followed the same pattern, starting in 1980. The contours of each mirror the other, and suggest at least the possibility that we have entered a new era.
Both rose from the ashes of exhausted and defeated eras in which policy prescriptions had run out or become ineffective. They were replaced by ideas that had been popular among the opposition party for decades but considered fringe, but which, in a short time, became new orthodoxies that endured throughout the period. They followed predictable patterns marked by initial ideological vigor and optimism that culminated mid-era in large policy wins, followed by a slow decline. And, even when the opposition party won the presidency, the available policies did not deviate far from the era’s philosophical center (a view characterized by the metaphor of the “Overton window,” discussed below).
The details of course differ. The fear of communism and the Soviet Union that marked the liberal era had no analogue in the conservative. The focus on socio-religious issues that marked the conservative era had no analogue in the liberal. Yet the larger patterns were remarkably similar. In the table below, the liberal era is shaded blue, the conservative red; the ruling and opposition trends chart the ways the parties behaved if they were in or out of power.
Contours of the Eras
Following the free market excesses of the Roaring 20s, FDR inherited a country ready for large-scale government intervention. Throughout his and Truman’s administrations, the New Deal remade American society, and the values of equality prevailed over individual liberty. This continued into the 1960s, when JFK and LBJ not only made gains in civil rights, but solidified government-sponsored safety net programs begun under FDR. Once the left had achieved these sweeping changes, they began pushing for programs that were unpopular, and Nixon, which governing within the liberal orthodoxy, began to plant seeds for the future conservative era. Carter’s administration actually began rolling them back.
Meanwhile, when the liberal era began, Republicans fell into chaos and couldn’t decide whether to proceed by trying to co-opt some of Roosevelt’s messages or by opposing him at every turn. (Not that it mattered much; by 1934 Democrats had a supermajority in both chambers of Congress.) The opposition began to gain strength by the 1960s and the GOP developed a contested blueprint for the future in the failed Goldwater campaign. Nixon governed largely within the liberal consensus, but conservatives continued to gain power, normalizing Goldwater’s seemingly extreme positions. Reagan picked those up and nearly won in ’76 and rode them to victory four years later.
The conservative era followed similar contours. Reagan unleashed an anti-union, pro-market, low-tax era that upended thinking of the liberal era. It reversed the focus on equality and emphasized personal liberty. This thinking dominated American politics through the 2000s. Clinton, like Eisenhower during the progressive era, “triangulated” throughout his administration, adopting conservative positions on welfare, crime, the environment, and big business, solidifying them as legitimate. Much as LBJ completed his era’s biggest goals in the ’60s, George W. Bush managed to finally achieve the deregulation and low taxes Reagan initiated. Finally, Trump, whose approval never reached 50%, presided over the least-popular government in the polling era.
Like Republicans in the liberal era, Democrats fell into chaos following Reagan’s election. A new faction tried to find wiggle room within the values of conservatism, one that courted business and ignored labor while retreating its defense of the poor, marginalized, and politically disenfranchised. This approach delivered some victories in the era, but always on conservative terms. However, during the Bush administration, a more vocal liberalism emerged that looked to government to ensure greater protections for racial, gender, and sexual minorities as well as safety net programs like health care, affordable college, child care, and so on. Still, the conservative consensus prevailed through the Obama administration. Although he managed to achieve many victories in his tenure, they were still framed within the accepted orthodoxy of the conservative era. ObamaCare, as one example, wasn’t a government program; it was a market-based kludge.
Change Comes Fast
This is the big lesson of the two eras: when things changed, they changed fast and, but the standards of a year or two earlier, radically. It’s as if what an electorate “knows” has suddenly changed. What is considered fringe and unacceptable one year becomes wholly mainstream the next — and what was mainstream the previous year now seems dangerous and extreme. There are a host of examples, but few are as stark as tax rates. In 1931, the highest income tax rate was 25%. In one year it jumped to 63% — a number inconceivable by modern standards. Yet it went higher, jumping to over 90% in the mid-40s. It remained high until the 1960s, when it came back down to around 70%, which is where it was when Reagan began slashing, bringing it all the way back down to 28%.
What is politically possible, what voters see as “reasonable” ideas, exist within what political scientists call the Overton window. During the past forty years, proposing a top marginal tax of 75% would have seemed laughable, inconceivable — even though under a different era it had been that high for decades. And while that window can appear to be nearly immovable, with only the smallest incremental changes coming after years of trench warfare, circumstances that have been building for decades can shift it far to the right or left in a matter of months. Opposition parties work for decades to popularize ideas, slowly dripping them into society’s bloodstream until they seem less alien. Meanwhile, ruling parties eventually achieve their popular goals and then begin to pursue more extreme goals that unnerve voters. These currents create the conditions for quick, radical change.
It’s hard to describe what’s happening without seeing this dynamic at play. Joe Biden was no one’s avatar of progressive revolution. His half-century of politics has been marked by placing himself in the dead center of the Party’s wings. In his long years serving in the conservative era, that meant having taken a number of positions that now seem retrograde. The man who opposed busing to desegregate schools in 1974 now heads the party of Black Lives Matter. That the early months of his administration have been so markedly liberal is evidence that the rules have changed. Joe isn’t a revolutionary leading the party left, he’s the same old politician who finds the middle ground between a Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders. It’s just that the middle has shifted almost unrecognizably in the past year. Given that he is passing more overtly leftist legislation than any Democrat since LBJ, and especially given that it has so far been wildly popular, that suggests the real possibility that something monumental is happening.
The popularity of the relief bill could be an outlier. The Covid-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis. When Democrats push to pass a $15 minimum wage, or a sweeping voting rights act, or to undo the filibuster, perhaps voters will regard these acts as unacceptable overreach. Yet if history is a guide, there’s a very good chance they’ll be popular. In that case, Biden could be the unlikely leader of a new age of liberal politics, a popular leader who will lead the US out of its current period of polarization and calcification. Time will tell, but it’s no more outlandish than the dramatic shifts that happened in 1932 or 1980.