Commentary Magazine

The Reformist Right and the Reactionary Left

In late February, the nation’s attention snapped back and forth from protests in the Middle East to protests in the Middle West. Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, announced budget-saving measures that immediately set off a national debate over labor unions and their relation to state and local governments. Walker sought to force state employees to pay more of their pension and health-care costs and to rescind most collective-bargaining privileges for most state workers. Public-sector workers and their allies in the Democratic Party and on the liberal left reacted with outrage. President Obama called Walker’s proposals an “assault on unions.” In short order, 60,000 protesters swooped down on Madison, the state’s capital. In office less than a month, Walker found himself compared to Hosni Mubarak and Adolf Hitler. To prevent a vote on Walker’s measure, for which there were sufficient votes in the state legislature to secure passage as long as there was a quorum, Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin and holed up in various venues in Illinois.

In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant collective-bargaining rights to public employees, which sparked a rapid unionization of state workers. It was these same rights that Walker sought to roll back. He had several reasons for doing so. First, the state’s budget has to be brought into balance, and Wisconsin needs the money. Second is the matter of the unfairness to taxpayers, who must contribute substantially to their own benefits while those in the public sector—who work for the taxpayers, after all—barely do at all. Third, Walker sought to weaken the power of government unions, which use their wealth and power to lobby and control their paymasters in state government. More broadly, Walker has issued a fundamental challenge to the assumptions that underpin the liberal state, saying he wants to “right-size” state government so it will provide “only the essential services our citizens need and taxpayers can afford.”

Walker’s actions follow those of other Republican governors, such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, who have put Democrats and their union allies on the defensive. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s hard-charging governor, improbably became a national celebrity by staring down his state’s teachers’ union. Elected in 2009, Christie quickly recognized the burden that health and pension benefits for state workers place on New Jersey’s long-term finances. He set out to impose a 2 percent property-tax cap to limit government spending, change pension rules, and require that teachers contribute small portions of their salaries to pay for their health insurance.

Other governors, mostly Republicans, have also taken up the fight, calling (like Walker) for a rollback of collective bargaining for government workers and seeking reforms of pension systems that are contributing mightily to structural deficits. These proposals have met with spirited resistance, almost all of it emanating from the core groups of American liberalism: public-sector unions, academics, and activists. As Walker put it, “Any time you challenge the status quo, any time you are bold, you are going to get a big reaction.”

The action in America’s state capitals reflects a broader trend with profound ramifications not only for present-day governance but also for the ideological alignment of the nation’s parties. This trend, put fully into gear by the Great Recession, is the reconfiguration of the political categories of the West, and in a manner that has surprised almost everyone.


Initially, most analysts believed that the profound crisis of capitalism suggested by the market meltdown of 2008 would redound to the benefit of the left. It seemed logical. The Times of London even dragged Karl Marx out of the dustbin of history to ask whether his “hour has come at last.” Instead, the cunning of history, operating through the selfsame financial crisis, brought center-right governments to power in many countries. Even many places in which leftist governments are hanging on have adopted policies often associated with their adversaries. The dismal fiscal situation and even more dismal prospects for the future forged a rough consensus internationally on the policy medicine needed to move forward. It involves slashing spending, avoiding tax increases, cutting red tape, and shrinking government.

For the first time in more than a century, the left, normally preoccupied with imagining a better future, appears bereft of a major policy project and is stuck defending its past achievements, even those of extraordinarily recent vintage, like the passage of the health-care bill. The Great Recession and the underlying fiscal disaster it helped reveal has caused a crisis in what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue social model.” According to this model,

both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing “social dividend” . . . longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on.

The “blue social model” suggested that incremental improvements engineered by government would proceed apace, but fundamental changes would be unnecessary. This was how a modern society should be run. It was logical, practical, and fair.

Myriad factors—from mass migration to technological innovation to global competition—has rendered the “blue state model” obsolete. Now the nations of the West face two intractable problems. One is the exploding cost of health-care entitlements and old-age pensions, which are straining budgets. Another is that government work is expensive but not very efficient: every year, taxpayers spend more for less. Addressing these problems will require complex and innovative solutions. Those solutions are already meeting resistance from those most immediately affected—and they just happen to be the backbone of the left. As the principal architect of the social safety net, the left is resistant to changing its composition. Paul Starr, editor of the American Prospect, has noted that liberalism has become largely “defensive” and “oppositional.” It must not only defend policies put in place a half-century ago, like Wisconsin’s collective bargaining rules, but also the signature piece of legislation of the Democratic political and electoral wave that rolled over the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 before it was engulfed in turn by an anti-Democratic wave in 2010.


The American social safety net is generally considered smaller and less generous than those of its European counterparts. Partly to address that imbalance, Democrats flush with power after taking control of the presidency and the Capitol forged ahead with their health-care revolution, intended as the final piece in the grand construction of a cradle-to-grave welfare state based on the European model.

The midterm elections of 2010 indicated that the American people were unhappy with that concept. This national referendum called on Republicans, who found themselves not only with their largest majority in the House of Representatives in more than 60 years but also with the highest number of state legislators since the 1920s, to fix things. The nation has tasked these politicians with reforming the welfare state before it submerges us in red ink.

In this new situation, the Democratic Party must now play the “conservative” role and seek to block, dilute, or restrain Republican initiatives. As James W. Ceaser recently wrote in the Claremont Review of Books, Democrats are certain to “emphasize their offices’ constitutional authority” and the virtues of divided government. This is most evident when it comes to health care. Upon taking their seats in 2011, House Republicans quickly voted to repeal the new bill (literally, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act). President Obama promptly threatened to use his constitutionally mandated veto should any such repeal reach his desk. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership in the Senate also brought up a repeal bill for a vote just to show that it would be defeated; a tribute to the power of divided government to halt legislation in its tracks.

With the passage of ObamaCare, the Democrats achieved their most striking policy success since the Great Society in the 1960s. But as President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address revealed, he and they have little else in the pipeline. The near-trillion-dollar cost of the stimulus package passed in 2009 took the even more expensive and intrusive climate-change proposal off the table. This left Obama with little to advocate beyond high-speed rail and solar shingles. American liberalism may still agree with Lyndon Johnson’s statement that “we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few,” but it has run out of the energy and public support needed to turn that “lot of things” into actual policies.

Being the party of reform has resulted in distinct advantages for the right. It has helped conservatives enormously in the electoral arena, sending a jolt of energy through conservative ranks and providing them with something specific to argue for rather than lamenting the general decline of civilization. Second, it has forced the right to think seriously about how to reconfigure the welfare state for the 21st century. Today conservatives are putting forward ways to trim government, make it more effective, and bring it into line with fiscal reality. Republicans are now setting the public-policy agenda as the party of ideas. Their proposals may or may not be wise, but they are the ones being debated.


Across the Atlantic, the same new left-right dynamic is abundantly apparent. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been applying his energies to modernizing Gaullism, the principal center-right current in French politics that in the hands of Jacques Chirac had become ideologically incoherent. Sarkozy has defended the virtue of work in a nation that is focused more on leisure and has encouraged those who want to work more than France’s strict 35-hour workweek dictates. Sarkozy believes that a stronger work ethic can contribute to the economic and social renewal France needs to remain a player on the world stage.

To actualize this vision, Sarkozy has sought to reform France’s generous pension system, which has removed many able-bodied people from the workforce and created unsustainable structural deficits. In response to proposals to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62, students and public-sector workers, backed by the Socialist Party, launched major protests that paralyzed the country for a week. As Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry put it, “The legal [retirement] age of 60 years old is . . . a question of justice.” If she is elected president in 2012, Aubry promises to roll back the law and return France to the glory days of the 1980s under François Mitterrand. Her program is not a call for progress but a return en arrière.

In Great Britain, the 2010 elections ushered in a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Just prior to the balloting, Conservative leader David Cameron told Parliament, “The only new ideas in British politics are coming from [the right] side of the House.” Once in office, the new government proceeded to propose major budget cuts, among other reforms. The austerity program—$130 billion in cuts, the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP—was touted as the way to unleash market forces to address Britain’s economic troubles, a means of encouraging self-reliance to overcome a morally “broken society” and ultimately to retain its national independence.

The reaction of the unions, student groups, and the Labour Party was one of outrage. In response to the decision to allow tuition to rise at public universities, students angrily hit the streets, attacking Prince Charles’s motorcade, smashing windows of the Treasury and the Supreme Court, and chanting “education is not for sale.” Few realistic policy alternatives were proffered, but opposition to the changes proposed by Cameron’s government was duly recorded.

In countries with left-of-center governments in power during the crisis—such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain—fiscal pressures have forced the adoption of policy programs they would never have chosen on their own. These programs opened wide chasms between those in office and their electoral base, especially since they were imposed from the outside—by Germany, the International Monetary Fund, and other European creditors. In Ireland, reforms have led to the government’s collapse. Spain’s Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has reluctantly brokered a “social pact” with labor unions and employers that will raise the retirement age to 67. But this change will not take effect until 2027. Zapatero is now taking more politically difficult steps to reduce Spain’s tightly regulated labor market.


The left might benefit in some ways from the inversion of the West’s political categories. First, it can recast itself as the prudent party, the one that favors slow, incremental change over radical reform. Second, it can try to convince voters that conservatives are really radicals, hell-bent on shredding the social safety net and setting off a race to the bottom. And finally, being in opposition is a congenial place to be when one lacks an agenda for change.

Meanwhile, serving as the agent of reform poses pitfalls for the right, especially in the United States. In other nations, such as Great Britain or France, conservative parties have been in a sense the default governing parties for much of the past century. To govern, these conservatives have had to be pragmatic and flexible. Because they have so often had to exercise government authority, they are reluctant to criticize it. American conservatives, on the other hand, have found it easier to take principled limited-government positions without having to fight for them, since they were largely excluded from power from the 1930s until the dawn of the 1980s. Less governing experience combined with the need to manage strong anti-government forces within their ranks (today represented by the Tea Party) makes the American conservative grip on power much less secure.

Such tensions within American conservatism boiled over in the first round of the 2011 budget battle. Republican leaders in the House proposed $32 billion in spending cuts. But Tea Party members balked, arguing that only $100 billion in cuts would fulfill their campaign pledge. “As important as these spending cuts are,” Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “we need a lot more than we’re getting served up today.” The revolt highlighted a split in the GOP’s ranks. The leadership is concerned that if it cannot pass a budget that the Senate and the White House can endorse, the government will shut down as it did in 1994—an outcome they fear will threaten Republican electoral prospects in 2012. But the Tea Partiers came to office as true believers, and they are not only fearful but also contemptuous of compromise.

As Henry Olsen has pointed out in National Affairs, these intra-party divisions complicate the GOP’s standing with voters. Swing voters (a large portion of whom are working-class whites) are “leery of modern conservatives—because while these voters oppose rapid expansions of the welfare state and federal power, they do not favor rapid retrenchments of them, either.” According to Olsen, conservatives need to persuade skeptical centrist voters that they aim to maintain—not dismantle—the social safety net. Irving Kristol once offered similar counsel: “The welfare state is with us, for better or worse, and conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse.” Only streamlining and rationalizing the welfare state can preserve it.

But that presents the right with an enormous challenge. Efforts to move the welfare state in a conservative direction—to make it “consistent with the basic moral principles of our civilization and the basic political principles of our nation,” as Kristol put it—have in the past gone awry. As the administration of George W. Bush discovered, an agenda that seeks to introduce tougher standards in schools, market mechanisms in environmental policy and health-care delivery, and faith-based initiatives to fight poverty can actually end up requiring more government spending and a litany of unintended consequences. The tension between reforming the welfare state and enlarging it by different means is evident today in David Cameron’s “Big Society” program. Cameron says that “in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.” So much for limited government.

The alternative—simply taking an ax to government spending and cutting it to the bone—does not go over well with the American public. Austerity budgeting often leads to poor public-policy choices because the biggest programs are the most popular and nearly untouchable. With the notable exception of Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, few members of the GOP have been willing to address entitlement spending, which is the heart and soul of the budget crisis. And so what does get cut from discretionary spending often has little to do with rationality or efficiency—and that includes defense. Neither policy course is especially appealing for conservative politicians, even though they are extremely attractive to those in the intelligentsia and the populist movements that don’t actually have to face voters every two years. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls this the “Conservative Dilemma.”

A dilemma it may be, but today it is conservatives, whether Scott Walker in Wisconsin or David Cameron in Great Britain, who are taking action and broaching difficult problems. They may stumble or make poor choices, but they are not allowing themselves to be paralyzed by staring into the coming budget abyss; they are, instead, taking bold steps to ensure that their polities can avoid tumbling into the bottomless chasm.

To preserve free societies, ultimately we need both forces of change and defenders of the status quo. The dialectic between them helps keep politics in balance and away from the extremes—stagnation on the one hand and revolutionary excess on the other. That dialectic is not static, however. The attack on the new party of reform is designed to make any of the changes to current practice that it proposes seem like revolutionary excess. But by denying the need for change when a failure to change will inexorably result in disaster, the party of reaction is arguably at greater risk of seeming irrelevant, irresponsible, and irrational to an American public concerned about the dangers posed by liberal governance to the nation’s present and future well-being.

About the Author

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at City College of New York.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.