Some thoughts on mainstream politics in the contemporary USA:
In virtually any other Western industrialized nation, Obama and Hillary Clinton would be considered center-right politicians, certainly on economics. I think that’s attributable to America’s unique heritage as having been founded as a more or less classically liberal nation, at least in theory. That and our traditions of Protestant fundamentalism mean we’ve never really had a throne and altar tradition in the U.S. But then Socialism and Communism never had the appeal they’ve had in Europe either. Hence, our conservatives are basically right-wing liberals, and our progressives are center-right liberals. There’s no real “right” or “left” in the U.S.
But I do think Obama’s election represented a significant shift leftward due to demographic, cultural, socioeconomic and generational change. Some political scientists had been predicting that for a while. I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se, because it will hopefully put the neocons out of business as significant players in US foreign policy. But while Obama may govern from the center-right like Bill Clinton before him, but I think their hearts belong to the center-left, as do those of most their serious partisans.
I’d argue there are some significant differences between neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists around Obama on foreign policy. The latter are quite objectionable, but not as extreme as the former. I wrote when the Iraq War was just starting that the legacy of the neocons’ overreach would likely give the liberal internationalists the upper hand, and that seems to be happening. And it’s a good thing.
There are differences between the two on economics as well. The neocons are allied with the traditional right-wing of the plutocracy, like the old monied elites associated with northeastern banking families (Mellon, for instance), and with the Sunbelt insurgents from the postwar era (for whom the conservative movement has always been a front). Basically what these folks want is a 19th century Western or contemporary Third World model of capitalism, plutocracy, and class relations. And they’ve been working hard for it for 30+ years.
The progressives represent a rising upper middle class that’s only started to join the ruling class within the last generation. These include the “newly rich” of super wealthy outside the traditional WASP elite and traditional plutocracy (Bill Gates and the other computer tech tycoons are obvious examples). It also includes the top layers of the expanded public sector that began to grow exponentially in the mid-20th century (the “new class” and all that), the top layers of the urban professional class, the elites among traditional minority groups (like Obama himself). This faction of the ruling class is seeking to replace the traditional WASP elite and it’s the conflict between the two that’s the basis of most electoral conflict and much of the “culture wars” that get played out in the media.
The progressives don’t necessarily share the right-wing plutocrats commitment to the re-proletarianization/Third Worldization of the economy. They tend to favor the traditional progressive model that goes back to the early 20th century, only modified for contemporary times (for instance, they’re obviously not segregationists or eugenicists, at least not the classical kind, like many of the old progressives were). Obamacare, for instance, like the proposed “Clintoncare” from the 90s, is fairly straightforwardly in the progressive tradition of denouncing big capital publicly and while granting it favors privately (as H.L. Mencken observed about the classical progressives).
Incidentally, the neocons don’t necessarily share the right-wing plutocrats economic views. They let their right-wing allies have what they want in the economic arena, just like they pander in a rather pathetic way to social conservatives in the cultural arena. But the neocons are allies of the right solely for the sake of their common interests in promoting American militarism. This stems from the neocons’ Jacobin worldview and their Israeli nationalism. For the plutocrats, it’s more about economic imperialism.
Conservatives aren’t that good on gun rights, either, as some often claim. The NRA, for instance, is funded mostly by gun manufacturers who want to make money selling firearms, not uphold anyone’s rights. Their rank and file membership is a lot of cops, cop-lovers, and other comparable types who care more about law and order than about gun rights per se. It was Mr. Conservative himself Ronald Reagan that pushed for stricter gun control in California in the late 60s after the Black Panthers began brandishing firearms in public and getting into confrontations with the pigs, leading to their eventual armed walk-in of the California state legislature. I think Reagan and Bush, Sr. both supported the Brady Bill (maybe I’m remembering wrong on that).
Obviously, the Democrats are more leftward on social and cultural issues. That reflects to a large degree the conflict between different factions of the elite I described above. The Democrats have achieved an electoral majority by organizing a coalition of traditional outgroups: from Catholics and Jews to gays and environmentalists to urban cosmopolitan intellectuals. It’s what the McGovernites tried to do in the early 70s, but failed miserably because the wider society at that time hadn’t yet changed demographically, culturally, and generationally enough to make it feasible. But the wider society has caught with them in the ensuing 40 years, and now the old McGovern coalition has more or less reemerged to form a new majority. But what’s happened in the meantime is that the Democrats have bought off the left with identity politics and social issues, while moving the party rightward (relatively speaking) on foreign policy and economics.
The center-left has moved to replace older ideologies like American exceptionalism with political correctness as the legitimizing ideology of the state. This is done for the purpose of securing the loyalty of the rising upper middle class and elites among traditional outgroups, obscure the continued oppression of the lower socioeconomic orders among traditional (and other) outgroups, and encourage traditional ingroups and majoritarian groups to regard these rather than the ruling class and the state as the primary enemy.
It will be interesting to see what happens when a political class of traditional progressives and academic neo-Marxists have complete control of the state, including the military-industrial complex and police state that will have long been put in place by preceding regimes, and are aligned with corporate wealth while presiding over a two-tiered re-proletarianized class system. A horror? A ghost story? Perhaps not, but still interesting. We already see glimpses of it with progressive paternalism on domestic policy, and “human rights” imperialism. Don’t forget that during the Kosovo war the German Defense Minister was from the Green Party, and supported the war.
Human rights imperialism in foreign policy, plus totalitarian humanism in domestic policy, will be combined with a Third World model of class relations, within the context of America’s military industrial complex and police state. It’s the last three of the five that the European states currently lack for the most part. It will certainly be an interesting situation.