In November, according to Newt Gingrich, voters will decide whether “to decisively repudiate an 80 year drift to the left: a drift in our newsrooms; a drift in our colleges and universities; a drift with our judges; and a drift among elected politicians.”
Conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts must be shocked to hear that.
As he tries to mount another comeback in the roller coaster that is the Republican presidential primary, the Gingrich campaign released a web video featuring the Statue of Liberty, a waving American flag, everyday citizens, and the soaring rhetoric that has come to define a candidate trying to market himself as a historian gripped by bold ideas and taking on the establishment. Gingrich, in the video, frames the 2012 race as one between “bureaucratic socialism” and “radical judges” versus those who want to repudiate the 80-year leftward drift.
But the problem, for a historian like Gingrich, is history. Gingrich’s statement, said Jeffrey Berry, professor of American politics at Tufts University, is “sloppy thinking.”
“At best, it’s overstatement. At worst it’s trying to drum up support by throwing raw meat to the primary electorate,” added Chris Galdieri, assistant professor of political science at Saint Anselm College.
Eighty years ago, in 1932, the United States was on the cusp of a liberal revolution. Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the trajectory of the country, implementing new social programs that would grant relief to those suffering from the Great Depression. Some, like Social Security, would become a permanent part of American life.
“If he’s talking about the advent of the New Deal…setting a new agenda for the country, that’s absolutely true,” said William Crotty, a political science professor at Northeastern University. “It was the social welfare state agenda.”
Another major step in that agenda came in the 1960s with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, another domestic revolution that gave the country Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, and the “War on Poverty.”
But Crotty said 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative” helped re-energize the American conservative movement. It established principles such as cutting taxes, balancing the budget, funding defense, and cutting social services that framed the political debate from the Reagan revolution of the 1980s until today. “From 1980 on, it’s a conservative ascendency,” Crotty said.
Even as early as 1968, Galdieri said, “We had a long string of Republican presidents from 1968 on, and many appointed more conservative judges.”
Since Republican President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, five of eight presidents have been Republicans. Supreme Court Chief Justices Warren Burger (1969-1986), William Rehnquist (1986-2005), and Roberts (2005-present) were all considered conservatives.
Today, state legislatures are passing bills restricting union rights, drug-testing welfare recipients, and cracking down on illegal immigration. “Conservative state legislatures are passing legislation that conservatives only dreamed of being able to pass when [Ronald] Reagan was president,” Galdieri said.
President Obama, a Democrat, is held in check by a conservative House of Representatives. “How is the Tea Party Republican landslide in 2010 evidence of a continuing turn to the left?” Berry asked.
Berry pointed out that despite Gingrich’s characterization of the news media, there are around 3,500 radio stations broadcasting talk radio today, most of them conservative – something that did not exist in 1932. With the advent of the internet, Galdieri said, there is a proliferation of news sources today – liberal, conservative, and in between – that did not exist previously.
Asked to clarify Gingrich’s characterization of a leftward shift, campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond wrote in an email, “9th Circuit 9th Circuit 9th Circuit 9th Circuit,” referring to the San Francisco-based US Court of Appeals known for its spate of liberal rulings, most recently striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
There’s one example. And maybe an observer can’t expect a group of political scientists to buy Gingrich’s line. After all, they’re employed by colleges and universities. And those, according to Gingrich, are drifting left, too.
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.