(Originally Published on Medium)
Since the 1990s the political shift in America has become painfully obvious
Politics in America has been shifting to the right since the Civil Rights Era. Over time, right-wing politics became intently focused on oppressing underserved minority groups through the tearing down of social programs — even if it comes at the expense of poor white folks. While Lee Atwater eloquently explained how Republicans operate saying, “We want to cut this … is a hell of a lot more abstract than “n****r, n****r” in 1981, many conservatives continue to express similar ideas using more complex coded-language.
Since the Nixon era, conservatives have moved the 50-yard-line further to the right. By making increasingly extreme demands, traditionalists are forcing Americans to accept concessions that are detrimental to targeted segments of society. There are many examples of this throughout history. But in the modern era, none have been more notable than the brazen and blusterous actions of a Republican-led Senate over the last decade.
From McConnell’s anti-Black refusal to appoint a Barack Obama Supreme Court Justice to the blatant attacks on tens of millions of Americans’ healthcare to the inclusion of billions of dollars for military aircraft in the most recent COVID relief proposal, the right’s consistent betrayal goes far beyond what we’ve seen in modern history. Far-right talking points becoming mainstream has enabled the right to easily manipulate conservative voters into believing that healthcare and science are evil, the social safety net is bad, and non-white poor people are the enemy.
As a capitalist-centered society, America willingly accepts that poor people must exist in order to properly function. It’s a society that not only leaves underserved communities susceptible to inadequate healthcare and resources but allows it to happen by limiting access to services that build thriving communities. The conversation about these issues has shifted so far to the right that it has infested centrist politics largely due to animus-focused conservative rhetoric.
Understanding mainstream politics in all of this is important. As we begin to fully address myriad social and racial inequalities in the United States, knowing who and what is being campaigned on lets us know what we’re up against. We may live in a time when inflammatory language isn’t so abstract, but don’t take it for granted. Conservatives who support the Trump administration’s impertinence are as complicit as he is. However, they’re not all as belligerent as Trump. Modern conservatism lives in Lee Atwater’s abstract vision and it’s doing real harm every single day.
As conservatives drag politics to the right — taking the center with them — more liberal politicians have been forced to the right, and as a result, have made conservatism more centrist.
After the passing of the Civil Rights Act and after racist Democrats (Dixiecrats) jumped to the Republican Party because of their disdain for racial equality, the language used to attack Black folks, Latinos, and marginalized communities began to take on a new vision. The use of coded language (dog-whistles) became more complex as part of their strategy. That same language is what is used to drag the left further to the right with increasingly extremist demands.
While Lee Atwater is given credit for reshaping the Republican Party to what it is today, there are many players who continued his work after his death in 1991. Atwater had many proteges, including Karl Rove, a Republican operative who worked for both Bush administrations. Rove, once dubbed “The Architect” by Bush Jr., is but one of many conservative men who are largely responsible for making the use of dog-whistle politics what it is today: mainstream
Enter Newt Gingrich, the man responsible for turning partisan battles into culture wars and paving the way for the rise of Trumpism. Gingrich is a pioneer of modern politics. He normalized the use of name-calling, strategic obstruction (see Mitch McConnell), and conspiracy theories in political discourse. The destruction of the modern political landscape is something Gingrich views as essential to “Western civilization” surviving into the future.
It was men like these that painted the Democratic Party as radical activists of the far-left. With the Republican Party’s donor-driven agenda so wildly unpopular the party’s primary appeal comes from being traditionalists and playing on white America’s loathing of the radical left, migrants who are painted as job stealers, and Black people who are portrayed as lazy. Their success lies in alienating cultural and demographic changes occurring in white America.
While the existing Democratic Party makes a compelling villain to conservatives, the picture that the right paints of “do nothing” Democrats forces the left to accept policies they would otherwise turn away from. In order to accomplish anything of the left’s platform, they are forced to appease the right’s demands which grow more extreme with every passing day. This became evident in the 1990s when Bill Clinton took office after running on a conservative platform.
Clinton served as a catalyst for pushing liberal politics further to the right. He used the same Southern Strategy and the language Republicans use to win over rural areas of the country. He preached about law and order, taking control of the border and stopping illegal immigration, and taking on the drug war among other “working class” issues while using all the same Black crime, welfare queen, and murderous immigrant tropes Republicans had been using since Nixon.
Centrist politics are no longer about being in the center of the left or the right and despite many centrists holding somewhat liberal views, the willingness to accept any extreme measure that counters the success of Democratic policies makes non-partisan politics more conservative than not. Centrism, for all intents and purposes, is America’s new conservatism.
In 1972, the Democratic platform vowed to “abolish capital punishment, recognized as an ineffective deterrent to crime, unequally applied and cruel and excessive.” In 1996, the platform boasted about establishing “the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes.” The evolution of capital punishment by Democrats also tracks with many other issues such as well.
In 1968, the party’s platform promised to pass and enforce effective gun-control legislation. In 1996, the party was praised as “courageous Democrats who defied the gun lobby” after banning assault weapons. Then, in 2004 and 2008, the party underwent a major shift due in large part to conservative attacks on the party “coming for your guns.” The party then vowed to “protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms. Then, in 2012, the party proposed to focus on “effective enforcement of existing laws,” to tackle America’s gun problem.
In 1972, the Democratic platform proposed to “guarantee a job for all,” expand public employment, withdraw all US troops from Vietnam, abolish the Electoral College, break up corporate monopolies, and “establish a system of universal National Health Insurance which covers all Americans … federally financed and federal administered.” The Democrats backed off of that concept in 1992 suggesting “a uniquely American reform of the healthcare system” that was more intently focused on making care more affordable.
Through the 1970s and the 1980s, Democrats built an identity as advocates of a liberal, activist government. Then came Clinton. His two platforms, in 1992 and 1996, had the party turn its back on the image it had taken decades to build. Instead, they adopted the rhetoric, ideas, and messaging that had been working for the Republican Party. A progression continues today.
Despite the vast majority of Democratic voters supporting Universal Healthcare, party officials recently voted to keep the idea off of the party’s platform. Similarly, while most Americans support decriminalizing marijuana, the party again voted not to include it in their platform. The party’s focus on trying to win the proverbial swing voter or potential Trump voter is seemingly hurting the party with its own base. It is because of these departures that many Democratic voters aren’t too thrilled about the party moving forward.
As long as the American people continue to allow Republicans to drive the conversation farther to the right, the country will always accept what Democrats have to offer because it’s not as bad as what conservatives are offering. However, by doing so, voters will soon find themselves having a hard time differentiating between the two parties that are more similar than ever.
Now, when voters signal that they are looking for some of what Democrats once offered, they are at risk of being labeled progressive or socialist. Some voters may not mind that, most however aren’t too keen on being labeled as left of Democrats. There are plenty of liberals that show a certain level of contempt for progressives and democratic socialists as well.
Despite liberals denouncing the progressive or socialist labels, now, being a progressive means seeking to achieve what Democrats were trying to accomplish decades ago. Healthcare for all shouldn’t be a progressive or socialist issue but Republicans and Democrats alike have made it so. Democrats did this despite 85% of Democratic voters supporting Medicare for All.
Democratic voters also support the legalization of marijuana (76%), but DNC leadership also decided to keep this issue off of the platform and have instead opted to allow states to individually determine whether it should be legalized. While it may seem that Democrats are simply refusing to listen to their base, the reality is that they are trying to appeal to conservative voters similarly to how Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did it in their campaigns.
If voters want to see the issues Democrats once stood for come to fruition, they must get used to the idea of being seen as a progressive. While the transition from liberal to conservative may have been gradual for Democrats, it doesn’t take much to see how it happened and why we are where we are in American politics — which is almost solely conservative. Thanks to Republicans turning absolutely everything — from racism to healthcare — into a culture war, America is on the approach to becoming a solely conservative nation.
Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. He collaborates with many in Academia in discussing the issues mentioned here. If you’d like to learn more, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.