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Welcome To the World of Zonker Coolidge

Walter Shapiro on why liberalism is so dramatically on the march in personal matters and in such ragged retreat in government.

January 17, 2014

Zonker Harris, the Doonesbury character who has been stoned since about the time that the Beatles broke up, was marveling in a recent strip about the transformation of America. Now a marijuana entrepreneur in Colorado, Zonker was anticipating the inevitable next step when weed would be eligible for federal crop subsidies. As he put it, “Pretty great, huh? The same government that once imprisoned me for possessing dope could end up paying me a fortune to grow it.”

These are indeed high times for anyone who believes in personal freedom.

No social movement in American history has moved faster than public acceptance of gay marriage. Most recent national polls show a hefty majority (about 55 percent) supporting the once radical notion that a person should be able legally to marry whomever he or she wants.

At the same time, the last vestiges of restraint have vanished from television. Network sitcoms primarily consist of double entendres punctuated by flatulence jokes. Cable television features frequent nudity even when Lena Dunham is not on the screen. The twin marital beds that were mandated during the Ozzie and Harriet era seem as quaint an artifact as a fainting couch.

These cultural changes would have been unimaginable back in the days when a crew-cut H.R. Haldeman personified White House style. But equally shocking to veterans of the Nixon era would have been the dramatic erosion of support for Big Government. Four decades ago, a Republican president, who was reviled by liberals, gave the nation the Environmental Protection Agency; presided over a dramatic expansion in food stamps; enacted temporary wage-and-price controls; and toyed with a version of a guaranteed annual income.

Part of this was Nixon’s own Machiavellian view of statecraft and part of it reflected an era when memories of the New Deal remained potent. Contrast that with Barack Obama’s experience as he took office in 2009 in the midst of the most chilling economic collapse since the Great Depression. The new president was allowed less than two years of government activism before the roof fell in with the 2010 congressional elections. 

Even though fewer Americans are working today than were employed in January 2007 (a better measure of the economy than the jobless rate), there is no political constituency for a major economic stimulus. This is not just the Tea Party effect or a failure to read Paul Krugman’s columns in The New York Times. Elite opinion is far more obsessed with long-term deficit reduction (symbolized by the Simpson-Bowles plan) than it is with a Kennedy-esque cry to “get this country moving again.”

Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular long before its disastrous rollout. The legislation, which was built upon the existing health-care system, was less ambitious than liberal alternatives such as a government-run single-payer approach. But playing to the prevailing anti-government mood, the Republicans got away with portraying Obamacare as the sort of reform that Robespierre might have enacted with the help of the guillotine. (Had the GOP used the actual Robespierre comparison, most voters probably would have assumed that he was a French restaurateur competing on Iron Chef).

Such is the paradoxical nature of the politics in 21st century America. Never in history has the nation been so liberal on cultural issues and matters of individual behavior. And not since the days of Calvin Coolidge have Americans been so skeptical about government activism in the realm of economics and social welfare.

Call it the 55-Percent Conundrum. That is roughly the percentage of voters who support legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. It is also the average number of Americans who currently oppose the Affordable Care Act, the most dramatic expansion of the social safety net since Medicare.

Why is liberalism so dramatically on the march in personal matters and in such ragged retreat in government?

A few glib answers leap to mind. There has always been a libertarian streak in American life that places a premium on being left alone by the government – and that covers everything from freedom to smoke marijuana to anger at paying taxes. It can also be argued that Ronald Reagan placed a permanent imprint on American politics by creating a Republican Party united in its scorn for government spending for anything other than the Pentagon. Finally, the right has been gradually losing the culture wars since the 1960s – and the arrival of the millennial generation has codified the triumph of tolerance and permissiveness.

I suspect there is also something else at work here, something that I cannot prove empirically, but it makes intuitive sense. The doctrine of social liberalism mixed with economic conservatism mirrors the ideology of neither political party. But it does fit the worldview of many major donors and bundlers who fund the Democratic Party.

The twin pillars of Democratic Party finance are Wall Street and Hollywood. Democrats who toil in the financial services sector tend to be liberal on social issues and simultaneously passionate about prudent economic policies that neither add to the deficit nor upset the bond market. Hollywood, which makes a good chunk of its income by glamorizing sex and often drugs, is on the barricades of cultural permissiveness. But the other political attitudes of the entertainment world tend to be reflexively liberal on far-away foreign policy issues and surprisingly conservative on issues relating to, say, their own taxes.

In contrast, Republican high-rollers are predictably right-wing on economics and, with exceptions, go along with the social conservatism that characterizes their party. These donors may personally dissent from the GOP’s hosannas to traditional marriage and moral rectitude, but they are unlikely to withhold their money over issues unrelated to taxes, government regulation and foreign policy.

My overall point is not that Democratic donors have the power to impose their political philosophy on the Obama administration and public opinion.  Rather, these donors contribute to a climate of opinion where certain attitudes enter the mainstream and other ideas are consigned to the fringes. When Obama, for example, belatedly announced his support for gay marriage, he knew that it would enhance rather than detract from his fundraising for the 2012 campaign.

Climates of opinion matter in shaping the political discourse. A major problem with political leaders spending their evenings fundraising in Park Avenue living rooms and prospecting for money at Malibu beach houses is that they step into an echo chamber hearing the same thing. A year or two ago, the message for Obama and other leading Democrats was stop dragging your feet on gay marriage and start doing more to negotiate a grand long-term bargain to trim entitlement spending. 

Two events this week crystalized the state of American politics one-seventh of the way through the 21st century.

Senate negotiations over restoring jobless benefits for 1.3 million unemployed Americas remained stymied, which means that there will be no government checks for this destitute group until the end of January at the earliest. But, luckily, the Democratic-controlled New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first American legislative body to put its imprimatur behind recreational use of marijuana. (Legalization in Colorado and Washington State was achieved by referendum).

So there is balm for the long-term unemployed and those suffering from the jobless recovery. They can take their minds off their economic troubles by getting high – if they could only afford it.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

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The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.