Errand in the Wilderness.

            Back in late 2021, a couple of New York Times reporters gave some thought to the question posed by Will McAvoy: “If liberals are so fucking smart, why do they lose so God-damned always?”[1]  They pretty much concluded that liberal elites are good at the standardized exams that govern ascent in the public and private institutions of our increasingly Mandarin society.  In real terms, however, they are stupid and out of touch with ordinary people.[2] 

            Think of the political arena as a quadrant with Liberal policies on the left and Conservative policies on the right across the top; and with Economic policies and Social/Cultural policies running down the left side.  In the imagination of liberal elites, say the reporters, the majority of American voters think like liberal elites: they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  It follows then that fiscal conservatism will tend to rein-in social liberalism while social liberalism tests the limits of fiscal conservatism. 

            Polling data suggests that this belief is—to a degree–nonsense.  Certainly, this type of moderate voter exists, as do moderate elected officials of both parties.  However, many Americans are the reverse of the imagined fiscal conservative, social liberal voter. 

Many are socially conservative.  Thus, most Americans support restrictions on abortion.  Some are hard-core abolitionists.  Many others want to restrict abortion to the first trimester.[3]  Thus, support for restricting immigration is widespread.  Thus, most Americans always opposed the de-fund the police movement that briefly energized Democratic activists after the death of George Floyd.[4] 

Many are economically liberal.  Thus, they support gore-the-rich policies to pay for enhanced benefits for lower income groups.  The targets include both rich individual taxpayers[5] and corporations that are seen as predatory.  These favored policies include reducing the price of prescription drugs, expanding health-care both to under-served populations and in the scope of what is covered by Medicare (vision, dental, hearing). 

One central problem is how to pay for expanded benefits.  The choices are between running up the deficit and printing money, and heavily taxing corporations and wealthy individuals.  In this sense, the gore-the rich policy actually is fiscally conservative.  In contrast, “fiscal liberalism” would appear to mean running up the deficit, printing money, and courting the danger of severe inflation. 

Socially conservative voters with grave economic concerns were the voting base of the New Deal.  “Tax-spend-elect” was the policy of the New Deal.  It is possible that historians will conclude that the fifty year-long shift of the Democratic Party toward cultural and expressive liberalism turned out to be an errand in the wilderness that helped create Trumpism. 


[1] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjMqda19wk 

[2] David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick, “As Democrats Misread Americans, They Shoot Themselves in the Foot,” NYT, 29 September 2021. 

[3] This position is a retreat from the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, even though a majority of Americans say that they support Roe.  It may reflect concession to fifty years of public outcry against abortion.  It may reflect revulsion against pro-choice lobbying for abortion on demand and public funding of abortions.  Probably it reflects something else I haven’t considered. 

[4] People living in high-crime minority areas seem to have wanted a strong police presence, but with abuse left off. 

[5] Defined as anyone making more than $400,000 a year.