Former Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser is tired. After leaving the Post last month, he wrote an article explaining why he wasn’t too sad to leave Washington, How Republicans Lost Their Minds, Democrats Lost Their Souls and Washington Lost its Appeal. At first I thought that it was just more Washington insider false equivalence. But I was pleasantly surprised.
Kaiser is very concerned about the rightward trend of both parties. He’s clearly a liberal. But he still has an old-fashioned notion that both sides ought to make sense, even if you doesn’t agree with one or both parties. And when it comes to the Democrats, it is pretty clear. He talks about the primary motivation of the Democrats in the 1980s to court the rich for campaign donations. He doesn’t go into it (probably because it is obvious to him), but this is how the Democratic Party turned from primarily an economically liberal party to a socially liberal party. This is the defining issue in American politics today.
The biggest issue in his article is that the Republicans have lost their minds. My belief is that this is not something that the Republicans did on their own, however. It was a joint venture with the Democrats. As the Democrats gave up on economic liberalism, the Republicans had no real choice but to move toward their current radicalized economic policies. If the Democrats are for low corporate taxes, then the Republicans are for no corporate taxes. And on and on. (See Real Corporate Tax Reform for a very interesting idea on that issue.)
But the article does suffer from the fact that it is an older man looking back on days when he was less cynical and mistaking that for better times. For example, he notes that in the 1960s, the Senate had Republicans ranging from the anti-government zealot Barry Goldwater to the very liberal Jacob Javits. As it was, Javits was considered an outsider in the Republican Party even at that time. And he only became more so throughout the 1970s.
The 1960s were a period of transition for both the Democrats and the Republicans. For some reason, Kaiser isn’t willing to say what was really going on. But he knows the history. Basically, the southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. And Republicans like Javits switched to the Democratic Party. And that is all about one thing: white racial resentment. That’s what got Nixon elected and that’s what got Reagan elected.
So I think it is wrong to say that those days were better just because the parties were more ideologically diverse. The real problem we have is that the two parties together are not as ideologically diverse. Most people who voted for Obama in 2008 thought they were voting for someone who was more than just another New Democrat who would have fit nicely in the Republican Party of the 1970s. That’s the critical shift that has happened during Kaiser’s career.
But the overall narrative is correct. The only problem I have with what Kaiser wrote is that he leaves too much implicit. And the paths of the two parties are intimately linked. In the 1970s, the Democratic Party started moving to the right on economic issues. Part of this was policy based—looking for better ways to do things. In the 1980s, it was made worse by the embrace of big money donors. And from the 1990s onward, it was made worse still by false lessons about electoral losses in the 1980s. In this history, I really do think that the Democrats are the the ones to caused the changes.
The Republican Party just reacted. As the Democratic Party moved more to right, the Republicans shifted to the right as well. What has happened in the last decade or two is that the intellectual hollowness of Republican economic policy has become clear. It was fine in 1980 to believe in supply side economics. The truth is that no one knew for sure if it was valid. But over time, we’ve seen that all those policies did was enrich further the already wealthy and cause the incomes of the rest of society to stagnate or worse. In an effort to support this policy, the right has turned to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. And that’s what leaves us today with a Republican Party that is intellectually vacuous.
I don’t doubt that Robert Kaiser would agree with this narrative, at least in the broad sense. But his article is not really concerned with why things have gotten to the current state, but rather just that they have. He ends the article in a very disturbing way, however. He predicts that we are headed for a discontinuity, although he doesn’t say what he means. It could be something as simple as the young and poor starting to vote in greater numbers. Or it could be something as bad as revolution. I agree with him that we need something “to happen to change this awful game we are playing.” But I’m not certain that something will happen. Humans have an amazing ability to accept bad situations as long as they don’t get too bad. But it is hopeful that a war weary journalist in his 70s like Kaiser still thinks positive change can occur.