Did the Democratic Party really move from economic issues to social issues?
It's conventional wisdom that starting in about 1960, the Democratic Party -- and the American Left more broadly -- stopped focusing on economic issues and put interest-group politics at the center of the liberal project. "What happened after that was unsurprising," writes Kevin Drum. "On social issues, where 80% of the liberal party was fighting 50% of the conservative party, liberals made a lot of progress. On economic issues, where 20% of the liberal party was fighting 50% of the conservative party, liberals steadily lost ground." I think that this gives politics too much credit for advances in social equality and civil rights, but that's a different post. This post is about the decisions parties do or don't make.
The struggle for racial equality -- or something closer to it -- consumed a lot of political energy in the '50s and '60s and '70s, but it's not as if the Democratic Party created the civil rights movement. You could make a better case that the Democratic Party "created" America's involvement in World War II, which took up a lot of everyone's time in the '40s. But that wouldn't be true either: Political parties respond to events and outside actors, and while the Great Depression had put particular focus on the economy, subsequent eras included more non-economic concerns.
And even so, it's not like bread-and-butter issues were abandoned. Medicare, Medicaid and the rest of the Great Society legislation passed at about the same time as the Civil Rights Act. There was a surge in environmental activism in the '70s (partly due to an oil shock and partly due to some other factors), but there was also almost a universal health-care bill -- the problem was that Ted Kennedy didn't take Nixon's deal, thinking he could do better later on. The Reagan and Bush presidencies dominate the '80s, of course, and then Bill Clinton's presidency kicks off with a Ragnarok-style battle over health-care reform, which the Clinton administration understood as an economic security issue.
You can tell this story for Republicans, too. Ronald Reagan takes office amid a terrible economy and is particularly focused on economic questions, at least for a while. George H.W. Bush ends up focused on Iraq. George W. Bush spends a budget surplus on tax cuts, and then almost immediately ends up in a presidency dominated by questions of war and security. But in both cases, events and external conditions seem more important than any meeting held amongst party elders.
That's how it looks to me, at least. But that's a minority position. So what am I missing? And if the baseline for "time when Democrats really cared about the economy" is the Great Depression, does anyone really think that sort of focus can be sustained in non-crisis environments? And if that's not the baseline, what is?
| December 28, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
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