US Democrats beware: vindication doesn’t ensure victory

Atmosphere is ripe for party of big government to sweep elections – but that’s nothing new

Count the ways in which the US Democrats stand vindicated before voters. John Maynard Keynes could not make a more fluent case for government than the news of the day does. Unelected experts appear ever more as lifesavers and not the knaves of populist demonology. Even the bidding among states for medical goods has brought home the indispensability of federal leadership.

The atmosphere is ripe for a party of big government to sweep elections in post-pandemic America. But then so it has been before.

Looking back at the past century or so, two political facts seem to hold across several rich democracies. One is the ideological supremacy of the left.

The other is its electoral underperformance. In 1900, the US government devoted less than one per cent of national output to healthcare, housing and other varieties of social spending. Bar its militarisation, the state was still the wraithlike thing envisaged by some of those who founded it.


By 2016, the number was touching 20 per cent. Through the 1980s, that rightwing imperium, that lean-government Eden, the social state grew. For all the noise around the conservative “movement”, the best this paper tiger has ever done is slow the rate of the other side’s progress. (In the culture wars, its record is even worse, as a married gay couple might attest between tokes of legal pot.)

And below those spending numbers: an ineffable change in attitudes. In 1933, the government asked the writer Lorena Hickok to tour the Depression-stricken heartland. Most testing to read about in her dispatches is not the medieval hardship but the embarrassment of those who took public aid. One indigent walks past a relief office day after sheepish day before finally going in. A laid-off teacher draws a terse conclusion from her own dependence: "I'm just no good, I guess."

Self-reliance to the point of masochism has not gone from American life, but it is no longer central. Surveys show that most citizens like federal social programmes, thanks. Taking the shame out of need: this, as much as the spending data, attests to the ascendancy of leftwing thought.

Yet how meagre have been the electoral spoils. Republicans have held the presidency for more time than Democrats since 1900. If we use the Depression as the baseline, Democrats have had the better of it, but not by a margin commensurate with their ideological dominion. You might assume from the electoral record that social spending has oscillated between growth and shrinkage. Instead, it has obeyed a steep and secular trend of increase.

Jabbering incoherence

We are left with one of the oddest quirks in politics. Voters often choose the party that is less keen on government to oversee its expansion.

This is not an American eccentricity. Christian Democrats have run Germany for all but 20 years since the dawn of the republic in 1949. In the similarly one-sided UK, a Tory leader has to be supremely inept or luckless to not end up as prime minister. And, in both countries, the rise of social spending has been even steeper than in the US.

France, with its mutating parties, is harder to judge, but presidents we can safely call centre-right have nurtured the welfare state to its current grandiosity.

It is true enough that conservatism varies across territories. Gaullism and Christian Democracy were never as laissez-faire as America’s Grand Old Party. Even so, each of these parties is at least somewhat warier of the state than its domestic rival. And still each is favoured, more often than not, to augment that state or at least to maintain its parameters.

Perhaps this is the jabbering incoherence of hoi polloi that democracy-sceptics always anticipated. More likely, there is a subtle hedge going on. Voters trust that parties who enlarge the state reluctantly are likelier to do it sensibly. The zeal of the believer is the nightmare to be swerved.

Either way, this strange pattern should give Democrats some anxiety to go with the intellectual coup of the moment. Yes, millions are about to have their livelihoods saved by the state, and cherish it ever after. Or else the efforts will fall short, and rage will set in as to why more was not done.

A third future, in which voters demand no change or a freer market post-virus, requires a grander imagination than mine. At no point since the Depression have attitudes seemed surer to tilt towards the public realm.

It is just a mistake to assume this tells us anything about elections, that’s all. If the past century has been clear on one point, it is that vindication is not the same as victory. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020