It is an article of faith among those on the political left and in the media (but I repeat myself) that the Republican party has moved significantly to the right in recent years. Depending on who you are talking to and what purpose they have at the moment, the alleged radicalism of the right either began with GWB (Bush shunned the UN on Iraq!) or has actually occurred in reaction to Obama’s rise to power (those insane Tea Partiers, don’t you know). As I have mentioned, I think this alleged movement is largely a myth, and that by any objective measure both the Republican party and the politics of the nation have actually been trending to the left for pretty much nearly a century.
But that discussion got me to thinking just what kind of objective measure might there be for such a thing, and how can we go about measuring it? It is actually quite a difficult question, kind of like objectively defining pornography. What is right and left can mean all kinds of different things, and is ultimately determined relative to the point of view of the determiner himself. To someone like Noam Chomsky, Bill Clinton was probably a rightwing fascist, while to Jonah Goldberg actual fascists were in fact members of the left. So you can see how this might be a problem.
But after thinking about it, the first measure that I came up with was government spending. We can easily see what kind of things the federal government has spent money on throughout history, and so if we can allocate various federal programs as favorites of the political left or right, and see how spending priorities have changed over time, that might give us some clue as to the direction in which the government itself, if not the political parties individually, have been trending.
This site is somewhat useful for this purpose. We can look at government spending broken down into various categories like defense, education, welfare, pensions, and interest, for various years going back all the way to 1792. Further breakdowns are possible as well.
Defense spending has, of course, long been a sacred cow for Republicans. This is not to say that D’s have no interest in defense, but trying to get R’s to agree to defense cuts has been virtually an impossible task. So it seems reasonable to me to categorize defense spending as a right wing priority. How has defense spending fared since, say, 1950 to pick a year somewhat randomly? Well, in 1950 defense spending comprised 54% of the federal budget. By 1970 that had dropped slightly to 48%. By 1990 it had dropped to only half of what it was in 1950, to 27% of the total federal budget. And by 2010 it had dropped further, albeit slightly, to 25%.
Welfare spending, on the other hand, has long been a priority of Democrats. Again, this is not to say that R’s have no interest in supporting welfare spending, but I think it is fair to say that it is a higher priority for the left than the right. So how has spending on welfare programs changed over the last 60 years? In 1950 spending on welfare programs made up 3.6% of all federal spending. By 1970 it had risen to 5.2%. By 1990, it had risen to 8%, and by 2010, it had nearly doubled again to 15%. (Go here for a more detailed view of what constitutes “welfare” on this site.)
So we see that since the middle of the last century, spending on a right-wing sacred cow, defense, has steadily decreased by roughly 50%, while spending on a left-wing sacred cow, welfare, has increased by more than 400%. So is this indicative of a national politics that has moved to the left, or the right? To me the data speaks for itself.
Of course defense and welfare spending are not the only possible spending measures, and spending itself is just one possible measure of political trends. Which gets me to the real point of this post. If we were to attempt to devise a scientific (who doesn’t like science?) and objective analysis of political trends, left or right, in the nation over the last 50 to 100 years, what type of measure would you all suggest?