Much of what I'm hearing at the American Political Science Association's convention is best summed up in table form, and so doesn't make for very good blog posts. But not all of it. Yale's Stephen Skowronek, for instance, made a very provocative argument questioning whether progressives should continue to look back to the New Deal for inspiration. The left, he said, likes to think of itself as an insurgency dedicated to transforming the scope of government. But today, that mantle properly belongs to the right.
“Obama and progressive reformers were engaged in revising the scope and orientation of longstanding policy concerns in light of new challenges and conditions,” argued Skowronek. “In this regard, the project they embraced was very different from the New Deal transformation. That change was constitutional in scope and conception. It brought in a whole new set of concerns and worked to organize the government around them.”
Now compare that to the right, he continued, “which has become increasingly constitutional in scope, which challenges government-driven solutions in principle, which seeks to dislodge American government from the accumulated policy commitments and offers to establish a whole new standard for legitimate action in its place. Today's progressives may cast themselves as an insurgency to redirect government after years of conservative dominance. But the situation may be quite different. Republicans may have become a kind of permanent insurgency.”
One implication of this, Skowronek suggested, is that if today's progressivism is simply attempting to defend the basic idea that government can solve problems, “freewheeling assaults on established power might be ruled out even for leaders well-placed to deliver them.” That might be what the left wants to do emotionally, but in this telling, they are the establishment, and it’s hard for the establishment to attack itself. The flip side of that, of course, is that conservatism is better placed to turn people out into the streets, as it’s tapping into a deeper vein of unhappiness, and has to make fewer accommodations with the status quo and realities of and participants in the modern state. As Skowronek put it, Republicans “continue to tap more effectively than the Democrats into the repudiative and mobilizing power of the traditional reconstructive stance.”
There's a lot to chew on here, but the basic insight seems correct: Liberals tend to underestimate how much they have accomplished, and how much ground conservatives have ceded, over the course of the 20th century, and even into the beginning of the 21st. Liberals tell themselves a narrative in which the last few decades have been dominated by conservatives, but conservatives look around and see a state that has been substantially shaped by liberals. Social Security was joined by Medicare was joined by Medicaid was joined by disability insurance was joined by the Environmental Protection Agency was joined by the Americans with Disabilities Act was joined by the Children's Health Insurance Program was joined by the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit was joined by No Child Left Behind was joined by the Affordable Care Act and so on.
Right now, the liberal dream, as embodied by ideas like the public option and universal early childhood education, is to push a bit further in the direction we're already going. The big conservative dream, as embodied by Rick Perry, is to somehow turn back the clock and undo almost a century of social-policy legislation. Where it was once the liberals who had radical ideas for what we should do with the state, it's now conservatives who are waging war on behalf of transformative policy change. That's an important shift.