No, Margaret Thatcher Wouldn't Have Been a Liberal Now

Williams, U.S. Military

Margaret Thatcher bids farewell after a visit to the United States.

Since Obama entered office, liberals have developed a rhetorical trick meant to highlight the extremism of his opponents. When Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or anyone else comes out against a policy or approach—new taxes, Keynesian spending—liberals will note these policies weren’t always anathema to conservatives. “Reagan raised taxes 11 times and gave amnesty to unauthorized immigrants!” “Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency!” “Bob Dole had a plan for universal health insurance!”

The point, always, is to present today’s Republicans as unreasonable and—implicitly—to position Obama at the center of American politics. After all, if habitual tax raiser Ronald Reagan is a conservative, what does that make Obama, who has cut taxes far more than he’s raised them?

With the passing of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, you see this playing out again. Conservatives claim her as a key figure in their ascendance during the 1980s, and liberals point out that—in terms of her political positions—she’s far from where the Right is at the current moment. Here’s Mother Jones’ David Corn on Twitter, linking to a New York Times’s story on Thatcher’s legacy, “Thatcher upped overall taxation (raising bottom rate 25 to 30%) & supported [the] welfare state—the National Health System.”

The problem with this point is that it mistakes ideology for policy positions. Obama’s policies might reflect the sensibility of a Rockefeller Republican, but his actual ideas about the role of government, the position of individual, and the place of civil society mark him as a liberal. Likewise, Thatcher raised taxes and supported (some version of) the NHS, but those were positions drawn from the contingencies of the moment. In terms of her beliefs, she was clearly a creature of the Right, hence this now-famous quote from her 1987 interview with Women’s Own magazine, “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”

The simple fact is that times change. Liberals and conservatives hold different positions at different points depending on the circumstances. And while both ideologies imply a commitment to certain kinds of policies, the actual content can vary. As can the overall approach to politics. We don’t know what Ronald Reagan would have been like if he were operating in today’s political environment. It’s possible—and I’d say likely—that he’d join his fellow Republicans in their anti-tax dogma and categorical opposition to Obama. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that Thatcher wouldn’t have also pursued austerity measures if she were currently leading the United Kingdom.

None of this is to say that liberals can’t use this talking point. But they should know that it doesn’t make much sense.