20th Century Lite Gets Heavier

The End of an Era, Part 1

This election signals the end of an era, a roughly 30-year political-cultural trend that we can call the Reagan era after the man who was swept into office by it and stood as its advocate and then as its symbol for so many years.

This era was a 30-year period, from roughly 1978 to 2008, which saw the general advance of the political right—and the cause of small government, free markets, and constitutionalism—from irrelevance to widespread influence.

The milestones in this 30-year history were: the tax revolts and the launch of deregulation in the late 1970s; Reagan’s election in 1980; his tax rate cuts and tax reforms; some significant deregulation; the collapse of Communism in 1989; the rise of the “Asian Tigers” and of global capitalism; the defeat of Hillarycare in 1994, followed by Republican control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 50 years; the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News Channel, and a whole conservative alternative media; welfare reform; balanced budgets. Even Bill Clinton was part of this trend when he proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.” He didn’t mean it, but the important thing is that he felt compelled to say it.

The momentum of this trend stalled out in the 2000s. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” shifted Republicans incrementally toward the side of big government. September 11 pushed the public to the right on foreign policy—for a while, at least—but took so much attention way from domestic policy that very little of any significance was changed during the decade of the 2000s.

Then came Barack Obama, exploiting the financial crisis to demand a philosophical shift away from free markets and toward a massive increase in the size and reach of government. The big question of the past four years was whether this was a permanent reversal or a temporary aberration. The balance of evidence was that it was a temporary aberration. Remember the quickness of the rise of the Tea Party, the massive public resistance to Obamacare, and a string of election victories for the small-government cause. Scott Brown was elected to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat—Ted Kennedy’s!—partly on the basis of a pledge to vote against Obamacare. The Republicans took back the House in a historic “wave.” Scott Walker won a series of election victories in Wisconsin, the birthplace of Progressivism, by taking on the public employees’ unions.

So it looked as if President Obama’s first term would be a brief diversion on the way to a revival of the right. And we could look forward to an even better revival than before. A repeal of Obamacare would have been the first actual rollback of a major piece of welfare-state legislation. And for the first time the Republican establishment had embraced entitlement reform, which is pretty much the whole ballgame when it comes to limiting the size of the federal government.

All of that was within reach, and the cultural and political forces that produced it have not totally disappeared. But the re-election of Barack Obama puts all of it on hold and sets it back by more than just the next four years.

Obamacare will remain the law and will be far more difficult to reverse after it is implemented. This is not just because it will gain a constituency of dependents—after all, once people get an idea of how Obamacare works, it is likely to generate some resentment, too. More important is the fact that it is difficult to “unscramble the omelet.” A repeal of Obamacare was such a promising agenda because Obama had delayed the law’s full implementation until after the election. He did that to avoid having to answer for its worst impact. But it gave us a chance to erase the law before it really took effect. Now Obamacare will go into effect and it will have three or more years to break a whole network of private business relationships in the health-care industry and connect everything to government instead. Replacing that is a hugely more complex and difficult task—both politically and practically—because essential parts of the private medical economy will be destroyed and will have to be reinvented from scratch.

We do have an untouched Republican majority in House, which will have little reason to back down before President Obama’s agenda. Politically, they paid no price for the resistance they have offered so far. So they can block the worst legislation Obama will propose. But Obama will have enormous power based only on what he did in his first two years, by virtue of being able to preside over the implementation of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank financial reform. Are you surprised that Obama is still “implementing” laws passed more than two years ago? Don’t be. Both laws followed the usual modern pattern, but exaggerated to the point of parody. They are not laws but huge grants of arbitrary authority to the executive branch, which will write dozens of pages of regulations for every page of the so-called law. As he had hoped, Obama has delivered that enormous grant of power to himself. In his second term he gets to use it, reshaping the medical and financial industries by fiat.

This is not to mention the enormous grant given to him by the Supreme Court in 2007 when it empowered the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide. Obama has been cautious in using this power in his first time. Expect him to try harder in his second term.

When Obama was first elected, amidst of wave of bailouts, re-regulation, union payoffs, and central planning, I described what we were going through as “20th Century Lite.” We have been told to forget all of the lessons of the 20th century—the lessons the intellectuals refused to learn—so we were going to have to go through them all over again, but hopefully on a smaller scale and an accelerated timeline. I had hoped that Obama would be the new Carter, who would bring this recapitulation to a quick end and kick off a new Reagan revival. Now we know that won’t happen. The worst case is that Obama will be a new FDR, who will wreck the economy but still be re-elected and viewed as a savior. More likely, he will be the new LBJ, who triumphantly extends the welfare state but in doing so sets it up for future collapse.

Either way, 20th Century Lite is not going to be a small diversion. It’s going to be heavier and last a lot longer.

This article will be continued in the next edition of The Tracinski Letter.



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One Response to 20th Century Lite Gets Heavier

  1. Don Vandervelde November 9, 2012 at 3:43 PM #

    Robert, pls account for the constitutional prohibition against the legislature delegating, or others usurping, its law-making function. Why aren’t we filing suits in court, a la the court reversing Roosevelt’s court-packing effort? If we don’t fight it, we become its enablers.