The Great Wheel of American Politics

Looking over American political history in the “modern era”, there is a clear cyclical pattern – a great wheel of American politics if you will. Looked at from the right, we let “hope” get the better of us and run to the liberal extreme of trying to protect everyone from their bad decisions and control the economy to be more “fair and equitable” and conorm to what we feel is “right” and “just”. When this inevitably collapses we need to bring in a conservative (from either party) to simplify and pare back to get the economy back on track. This leads to the inevitable question of why we don’t just stick with the conservatives and avoid all the trouble.

I think it behooves us all to realize that contrary to our inclinations, BOTH conservative AND liberal ideas do work. The catch is that they are attempting to satisfy two very different desires, and I believe it is the tension between the two that leads to the cyclical nature of American politics.

The “conservative” approach makes economic growth the primary focus, with the general idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. The past century has proven that the most efficient means to this end yet discovered is the engine of capitalism – directing peoples’ greed and desires for material improvement into activities that benefit all of society. There is no doubt that this works to improve economic growth, but there is also no doubt that it often generates painful dislocations as technology shifts and skill sets move from in demand to useless in far less than a generation. There is something of a “caveat operator” mindset here – you own your own employment and if circumstances change it’s your responsibility to adapt. These dislocations and changes definitely feel “unfair” and lead to individual economic uncertainty even in the good times, laying the ground for someone who can render the economic changes more “fair”.

The “liberal” approach is in many ways a more optimistic philosophy – the idea that “yes, we can” do better as a society. That as a society we have the ability to do better, to improve in a way that makes things better for all, and that helps blunt the rough edges and dislocations that are part and parcel of the capitalist system. This would be fine, admirable even, as a private philantropy effort. As a government-run effort however it inevitably ends up overly broad and poorly managed, draining resources from the productive sectors of society while increasing disincentives for the unemployed/underemployed to remain that way. Eventually this comes to a head as the inefficiencies of “fairness” and government mis-management drag down the economic growth of previous cycles, leading to a conservative upswing to improve efficiency and clear the barriers to business for the next turn of the wheel.

Hardcore conservatives may claim that the conservative approach is clearly superior, as economic growth will lead to better overall conditions than restricted “fair” growth. Hardcore liberals will point out the clear misplaced priorities of the market and of society and feel that the elite – those who “know better” – could clearly direct better priorities than the ignorant masses. But between them is the vast mass of the moderate middle, who ultimately decide the direction of the country.

Conservatives need to understand that while running actual conservative candidates would be a big step forward for the GOP, we need to do more. We need to shift the focus of the “liberal” policies away from a reliance on government alone to implement them. If “universal health care” or worker retraining were provided through privately funded foundations instead of government they’d inevitably be better run, but also wouldn’t threaten to bankrupt government in the looming future. It is not sufficient to say that libeal ideas are inefficient or bad for the economy, as many will trade a little economic growth for increased stability. We must realize that there are aspects of the liberal agenda that are very attractive to many Americans, and that as long as they remain in the political arena rather than the cultural arena we can expect an ongoing give and take between the parties depending on the conditions of the day.