Comment: A Tipping Point?

Malcolm Gladwell has observed, in The Tipping Point, that trends sometimes build gradually but explode suddenly. As an editor of a liberal magazine, I wonder whether we are nearly at that point with the ascendance of conservatism.

For more than two decades conservative media organs, think tanks, foundations, political donors, and politically engaged corporations have gained strength while their liberal counterparts have been fighting a rearguard action. Conservative foundations are very explicit about what they are doing, while liberal ones are often hobbled by business-dominated boards and a reluctance to be explicitly political. The once-liberal press is centrist at best, and the new networks, like Fox, are resolutely right-wing. Our cover story is about yet another emerging right-wing media fiefdom.
Elsewhere in this issue, Geoff Nunberg's piece documents that the oft-repeated charge of liberal media bias is nonsense. And tabulations of the influence of think tanks usually reveal that right-wing and centrist outfits like American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and Brookings top the charts, while the liberal Economic Policy Institute barely makes the top 10. As organized business becomes more explicitly ideological, right-wing idea factories rarely lack for funding.

On the media front, while The New York Times has a moderately liberal editorial page (and some terrific new columnists), The Wall Street Journal is there, day after day, not loftily contemplating the public good but engaging in strategic ideological trench warfare.

Nominally Democratic institutions, most notably the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), are part of this rightward continental drift. The DLC has been remarkably feckless as partisan challenger to George W. Bush. Just enough Democrats are in thrall to a corporate agenda to blunt the party as a useful opposition. Populist movements, like organized labor, do valiant work, but are outgunned.

All of this has caused the ideological center of gravity in America to shift steadily to the right, even though polls show most Americans remain fairly liberal on the policy particulars. That is, most Americans say they would pay higher taxes to support things like universal health insurance, high-quality child care, and prescription drugs for all. Most Americans overwhelmingly support the present Social Security system. Most do not want to overturn Roe v. Wade. Most think workers should be paid a living wage and have the right to join unions. So, in a sense, elite opinion is far to the right of mass opinion and the political system is just not offering voters the menu they'd like to see. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham termed this a "politics of excluded alternatives."

But elite opinion matters immensely, because it sets agendas and contours what politicians think is "mainstream." (So abstinence-only birth control is considered mainstream -- your tax dollars are supporting it -- but universal health insurance, which most Americans want, is considered utopian.)

And the more that tax resources are taken off the table, the harder it becomes to revive threadbare public institutions. The more things are privatized, the more the constituency and the institutional memory of public alternatives fades.

So have we reached a tipping point? We are uncomfortably close. But that doesn't quite portend permanent conservative hegemony.

There are three leading candidates to tip the polity back. They include:

  • A resurgent Democratic Party. Not very likely. The party today is less of a leader than a reflection of the forces that act upon it, and those forces are more often conservative than liberal.
  • A failed presidency. Most previous periods of ideological dominance have ended with an administration that presided over a disaster. George W. Bush, elegant speechwriting and all, still seems wildly out of his depth; the foreign policy crises are worsening, and we could easily have a double-dip recession.
  • Citizen mobilization. Along with a failed presidency, this is the one that often turns the tide. Just when things seem immovable, ordinary people periodically get fed up and mass movements resurge, as a durable counterweight. These trends build gradually, emerge suddenly. Sometimes they even reclaim the Democratic Party as a liberal force.

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