Moving Right? Bush’s Decline and American Conservatism

Moving Right? Bush’s Decline and American Conservatism

Have George W. Bush’s administrations produced a large shift to the right in politics in the United States since 2001? The answer is no—but this is mainly because of prior shifts in that direction. My aim in addressing this question is to understand the recent past and to help provide a framework for thinking about the next presidential election. With the administration’s approval ratings plummeting, Democratic victories seem possible. But no outcome is guaranteed. I will begin with the political context of Bush’s evident decline, and then assess the effects of the administrations’ efforts both for public opinion and policies.

Moving Right?

Two decades ago the success of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher provoked parallel discussions in the United States and Britain about whether major political shifts had occurred in the two countries. Analysts who mainly saw continuity beneath the conservative fireworks argued with those who thought that a real break was occurring. In Britain these discussions were especially lively on the left. Figures such as Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques, and Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau emphasized the extent of political shifts at both the elite and popular levels. In the United States, Reagan’s second election made it hard to argue that Democratic commitments still framed American politics. People who emphasized the extent of a rightward shift argued with those who stressed political disorder and left fragmentation.

In Britain the advocates of novelty, disruption, and a new kind of rightward shift clearly had the better of the argument. The result was a complicated process of rethinking on the left that became one source of Tony Blair’s political success. In the United States, the results have been less clear. To some extent this is because the discussion has often been squeezed into the old framework of “political realignment”—meaning short, thorough, and dramatic reversals of political commitments that produce durable new configurations. Measured by the high standards of the realignment literature, the changes of the late 1960s and early 1980s do not add up to another in this alleged history of epochal shifts (in which the New Deal and 1930s remain the exemplary case).

Outside the terms of the realignment debate, however, it is clear that politics in the United States shifted substantially to the right in the late 1960s and early 1980s. If Bush has not produced a similar shift, one cannot use that absence to prove that there is a deep and strong pro-Democratic majority just waiting to be unearthed. This latter message, which is both hopeful and confused, underlies several recent works about national politics. These combine a vigorous and useful anti-Republican polemic with the argument that Republican domination is in some sense artificial, created either by people’s misrecognition of their economic interests or by institutiona...