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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 12/28/2010

Did the Democratic Party really move from economic issues to social issues?

By Ezra Klein

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?

By Ezra Klein  | December 28, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  History  
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Comments

I agree that parties react to social issues and not as much the other way around.
But despite that we see that social liberal issues get larger and stronger coalitions behind them and lack the level of opposition that economic issues do.
This seems predictable enough, but the Right has no trouble getting social conservatives to see their economic issues as part of the cause- no matter how much stretch is required to put them together.

It seems likely that liberalism could make a cohesive argument (as John Chaitt does today over at TNR)uniting social and economic liberalism, especially given the strong alliance between social and economic conservatism...
Something must have gone wrong on the Left to keep such cohesion from coming about.

Posted by: RCBII | December 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

"... does anyone really think that sort of focus can be sustained in non-crisis environments?"

The problem is we're in a crisis environment right now, but the administration won't respond to it as such. They responded to the financial crisis as a crisis, i.e., bailed out the banks. But they've responded to unemployment only with anemic stimulus and now have largely shifted to deficit reduction, i.e. anti-stimulus.

We have an ongoing jobs crisis by any measure, but no serious response from Obama. The political obstacles are no excuse for not having a viable plan.

Posted by: jtmiller42 | December 28, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"... does anyone really think that sort of focus can be sustained in non-crisis environments?"

The problem is we're in a crisis environment right now, but the administration won't respond to it as such. They responded to the financial crisis as a crisis, i.e., bailed out the banks. But they've responded to unemployment only with anemic stimulus and now have largely shifted to deficit reduction, i.e. anti-stimulus.

We have an ongoing jobs crisis by any measure, but no serious response from Obama. Political obstacles are no excuse for not having a viable plan.

Posted by: jtmiller42 | December 28, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

What does he mean by "economic issues"? Is he just saying "top marginal tax rates"? Liberals would probably consider bottom marginal rates more relevant; with the advent of EITC they happen to be fairly low. Government has had a pretty consistent share of the economy since the second world war, so it's not clear how that qualifies as 'losing ground'. Medicare and medicaid passed, and a number of other significant social programs as well. Is he just wondering what is taking the Revolution so long in getting here?

Posted by: eggnogfool | December 28, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Well, Kevin's kind of right and kind of wrong. Social issues definitely took prominence over economic issues in the Democratic Party, but it wasn't any series of choices they made, unconscious or otherwise, that led to this result. Instead robust economic Liberalism was the victim of two broader changes in society: the political mobilization of Businesss and the erosion of the American labor movement.

Without a strong labor movement to act as a countervailing power to increased business community activism, there's not a whole lot the Democrats could do all by themselves. We have a political system fueled by money and Willie Sutton and all that.

Posted by: MattMilholland | December 28, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Hello! Economic Reality check.. Our need for energy (fuel, etc) infrastructure has not caught up with our economic reality. A thriving economy means to us higher gas prices - which we can not afford - if gas price increase to $4 a gallon we are screwed. We have not developed cars efficient for higher gas prices. And higher gas prices will cause many more people to default on mortgages and credit. Also higher inflation because of higher transportation cost.
Becareful for what you wish for! There is no question things are difficult but we have not fully embraced making the tough decisions necessary for a full rebound. I say 5 - 8 years from now and 2 generations more of development of fuel efficient vehicles and the recycling of current gas guzzlers.

Posted by: KBrustmeyer2003 | December 28, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

All you have to do to answer the question posed by Ezra is look at the unemployment figures.

Posted by: DCalle10411111 | December 28, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

It grows tiring to see media in all forms function as a propoganda tool. Mr. Klien would like to suggest since the 1960's democrats shifted to social issues. What is evident is the growth of special interest groups within the democratic party have perverted the actions of the party. Mr. Klien put forth the proposition democrats could not overcome filibusters, yet Bill Clinton passed his tax increase with 50 votes. The democratic leadership engaged in planned failure to this nation. Horse trading tax breaks for millionaires for DADT and the dream act. It is stark evidence the gay movement and latino's are prepared to sacrifice this nation for their personal agendas. Mr. Klien is a willing participant in maintaining the illusion of real effort on behalf of the people, but it is only an illusion.

Posted by: kimdkendall | December 28, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Exactly how does one justify misrepresenting the truth about filibusters as a journalist at the washington post?

Posted by: kimdkendall | December 28, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm in the middle of reading Winner-Take-All Politics, and I'm wondering how much of Pierson & Hacker's discussion of the change in Washington vis-a-vis inequality also applies to the discussion that Drum has focused on. In particular, they describe the change that occurred in lobbying, beginning in the 60's and 70's, as more businesses staked out a presence in Washington, and how that changed the political outcomes, beginning in the late 70's (with the defeat of a labor bill, I believe they highlight). Much of this tracked with the evolution of the Republicans than began with Goldwater and continued with Reagan. And the Democrats responded by becoming more business-friendly as they sought campaign money and political clout to compete with Republicans. I think their historical analysis of how we reached such levels of income inequality supports Ezra's point that, more than conscious decisions to choose specific policies, it was reaction to circumstance and drift that led to the present state.

Could the Democrats regain a "focus" on economic issues? Arguably, we had another crisis in 2008, but the crisis action was on the financial bailouts, not on individual economics. Financial reform was also widely perceived as being too lenient, with too much concern for what the banks wanted and not enough protection for individuals. I think this is the influence of coporate money in our elections -- many politicians are reluctant to take strong stands against potential (or actual) corporate donors. (And many legislators did pay for supporting financial reform legislation, as donations went to opponents.) It suggests that unless campaign financing changes, even a crisis won't refocus Democrats on individual economic issues.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | December 28, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Currently reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A Portrait in Letters.

http://www.amazon.com/Daniel-Patrick-Moynihan-Portrait-Visionary/dp/1586488015/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1293591116&sr=8-1

The section with the March 5, 1965 Memorandum to the President about the Moynihan Report offers some insight into this, specifically when the Civil Rights movement transitioned from a focus on the rights associated with Liberty (right to vote, etc) to one of Equality, and the unwillingness of middle class America to support programs that are focused on equality of results.

http://books.google.com/books?id=bm-BjcLtRwwC&lpg=PA90&ots=zJTh02CMx7&dq=Memorandum%20for%20the%20president%20%20march%205%201965%20moynihan&pg=PA91#v=onepage&q=Memorandum%20for%20the%20president%20%20march%205%201965%20moynihan&f=false

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Family:_The_Case_For_National_Action

http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm

Posted by: jnc4p | December 28, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse


I have read somewhere on the news that something like "Wise Health Insurance" is offering lowest health insurance rate for low and middle income families so search online and find them.

Posted by: josephpatel | December 29, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse

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