Is America Turning Left?

By Emanuel Boussios

Much has been made of the 2008 political realignment — the Democrats have taken over the presidency and both houses of Congress. Does this fact mean a leftist trend among Americans?

The political realignment, I believe, is more a repudiation of the past eight years under President Bush. While the government has bailed out key industries before (i.e. the savings and loans bailout in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the airlines in 2001), the current bailout and stimulus package is rather unique in imposing limits on executive pay and bonuses, further illustrating a leftward shift. This shift towards the left includes: massive government intervention in recent months, including the unraveling and “bailout” of the financial system and the Big Three, the surfacing of universal healthcare, and the massive public works project in the new stimulus package (what I like to call “the second New Deal”).

Do these key actions translate into a political ideological realignment sharply to the left? Over the past decade, the reemergence of conservatism in the US had appeared strong. Considerable evidence has shown that conservatism was gaining substantial strength: deregulation in the business sector, the growing ‘neoconservative’ influence on foreign policy issues, and a conservative tilt on some judicial decisions regarding social issues such as gun rights.

When the GOP took over the House in 1994, (they already had the presidency for 12 years)—this completed a nearly two decade (or so) long shift towards the right. The capture of seats in the Senate and Congress by the Democratic Party in the 2006 elections, however, proved to be the beginning of the decline of Republican dominance.

The outcome of the 2008 elections, in fact, bolstered the re-emergence of the Democratic Party. What is also interesting is the nomination and ensuing election of arguably one of the most liberal senators, Barack Obama, as president. (Barack was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal’s 27th annual vote ratings)

Subsequently, Republicans nominated a moderate senator for president (when comparing McCain to President Bush). As for Obama, although the framing of his public policies had been misidentified as being overly “socialist,” there is no argument that many of his policies are overtly liberal. The evolution of universal healthcare, clean-air technology, the promotion of job creation through government ‘works’ projects, all translate into a much more substantial role for government.

The evidence is even stronger when tied into the current US financial crisis. The progression of heavy-handed government intervention into the financial “tsunami” may have planted the seeds for a liberal government, a phenomenon not seen since FDR.

What exactly does this mean for us? The “bailout” plan sets the stage for a massive government rescue of major banks, in which the government would purchase bank shares and toxic mortgages.

Keep in mind, however, that the government had already effectively nationalized the major mortgage companies and the largest insurance firm, and has bailed out two of Detroit’s Big Three. That said, however, what Americans want to see happen with the financial “rescue” essentially is what liberals have loudly supported: that the government “save” the banks by restructuring homeowners mortgages to allow capital to flow again, and order executives to limit their pay and bonuses including “golden” parachutes and excessive severance packages.

Evidence is mixed, however, on the influence of liberalism on social issues. The defeat of gay marriage initiatives, which were on statewide referendums (in several key regions—including the traditionally liberal state of California), had come as a surprise to many liberals.

The passing of other state ballot measures, including the legalization of marijuana for medical use, have been victories for those left of center. There is no question that America has seen a political realignment and an ideological realignment. What comes out of this financial crisis and the degree of regulation and caps on executive pay, and the reach of the current stimulus package determines how far to the left America has become on economic issues.

Whether this realignment towards the left on economic issues affects outcomes—whether more to the left or the right—on several key social issues, including gay marriage, affirmative action, drug use, voucher systems for non-public schools, to name a few, still remains to be seen. This will determine if Americans, on the overall, have become more leftist.

Also, the outcome of the 2010 Congressional elections will be a barometer of the success of the Democratic Party.

Finally, how the Republicans transpire in the presentation of candidates for these elections, whether they are moderate or conservative, will reveal whether this political ideology realignment really is here to stay.

Emanuel G. Boussios is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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