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    Progress and the Pendulum

    I'm watching the snow through an airport window, thinking about the posts I've meant to get to in the last hectic week or so, and about the things I have to do and the places I have to fly over the next ten days. But for today, it'll have to be a short one, and mostly a metaphor.

    We're at the end, more or less, of a decades-long rightward swing of America's political pendulum swing in this country. We'd gotten to the point where lots of sensible proposals seem like wild-eyed leftism, and where many of the conversations at the right end of the spectrum have come untethered from practical policy and basic reality. Essentially, the conservative movement has driven the country off the road, and now we're beginning a long, slow leftward hitchhike to the middle. The end of the swing was deeply frustrating for most progressives, including me, and the 2008 national election seemed to mark the beginning of that return to sanity. But it's been frustrating for lots of progressives (again, including me) that momentum of the last year hasn't been greater. Lots of people were hoping Obama would turn the country around and start to gain some enormous ground, very very fast. All I can say to my fellow liberals, progressives, and lefties, is this:

    Look at a pendulum sometime. If you don't have one handy, and grandfather clocks aren't part of your decorating scheme, look at a kid on a swing. Notice that when the pendulum reaches the far end of its swing, it slows down. Then, for a very brief period, it actually stops. (This is easier to see if you're watching some 8-year-old girls who can really fly on the swings. Look at that moment where they're essentially stopped in midair.) After the stop, it picks up momentum again, this time in the opposite direction. It starts moving pack to the mid-point slowly, then faster, and as it passes through the middle of its arc it's going at its maximum speed. That's the momentum that carries it back the other way, until it reaches the other end of its swing, runs out of energy, and pauses before returning.

    I would suggest that we've just has a thirty-year pendulum swing end. The motion back in the direction lefties prefer isn't terribly fast right now, and isn't as fast as it's going to get. Gradually, as with real pendulums, we will reach the middle of the political spectrum at blazing speed and keep moving, moving along further and further until, in a couple of decades perhaps, we've swung too far out past the concerns of the avergae voter and the pendulum will start falling back toward the center. I don't know when that will be. But the pendulum always starts the return with a little hesitation. That doesn't mean it's not going to pick up speed.



    The pendulum analogy is apt to a point. The center of American politics does oscillate between left and right. But a pendulum swings smoothly, and its arc is perfectly matched on either side. Politics, on the other hand, moves in fits and starts not only at the end of the oscillation but all the way through its swing, and it may swing in one direction longer and further than the other. Morever, there is no central point to which the political pendulum always returns but rather an ever evolving center.

    As a result, it's virtually impossible to get one's bearings. How can be you confident that we're witnessing some kind of flutter at the end of an oscillation to the right, rather than a momentary hesitation in an extended rightward swing? If you consider America's leftward to swing to have lasted from Roosevelt to Reagan, then if the rightward swing were to balance out the left, we'd be in for another 20 years of conservative domination. Not a pleasant thought.

    Just so. It's more like a set of coupled oscillators rotating on the back of a cow tied to a rope grazing its way along a hillside.

    For fun with coupled oscillators, check out this app:

    (Although I still like the post for its hopeful optimism.)

    I was hoping that there would be a cow at the end of that link. The only fun part was making the oscillator beyond the bounds of the applet. I'd rather watch Glenn Beck.

    You want the cow? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE COW!

    I can handle the cow. I just can't get up that early.

    True story, btw: I actually had a physics professor assign a problem regarding a cow on a rope that was carving out a spiral with a pair of coupled oscillators on her back.

    And people say that physicists don't know how to have fun…

    I had an Italian math prof who represented the ardor of two lovers, call them Romeo and Juliet, with wave functions. Juliet's ardor increased in proportion to Romeo's, but Romeo's ardor decreased in inverse proportion to Juliet's. The prof couldn't underststand why his students cracked up when he referred to Juliet as an "eager beaver."

    Other than this instance, the class was extraordinarly boring.

    Yeah, it's true. The analogy is imprefect. The metaphor is flawed. And no, the pedulum swing isn't perfect or regular.

    My relative confidence that we're seeing the end of the swing comes from the fact the policy exhaustion on the right. They have no place to go, really, except some kind of Mad Max-Handmaid's Tale mashup. We're not going further to the right because we can't make any further progress that way without catastrophe. (Or, to try to revive my bad analogy, if we go any further that way the pendulum breaks and the weight goes flying, or the child goes off the swing through the air and breaks various bones).

    I think we're in an odd moment where an ideology has exhausted itself, but is still taken seriously by various players.


    I think there are plenty of frustrated Republicans who would disagree with you. Here are a few highly unpleasant options short of apocalyptic dystopia:

    • More abortion restrictions
    • More immigration restrictions
    • Lower taxes
    • Reduced gun control
    • Harsher prison sentences
    • "Privatization" of Social Security and Medicare
    • School vouchers
    • Reduced welfare
    • Anti-same sex marriage amendment
    • Elimination of affirmative action policies
    • Teaching intelligent design in schools
    • More wars

    To name a few.

    I don't agree that everything on that list isn't dystopic (especially if you pass more than one of them), or at least disastrous. A big tax cut and another big war is a recipe for fiscal meltdown and possible government default. The privatization of Social Security or Medicare would resultin a badly failed system and widespread suffering by the elderly (who vote in large numbers, and are viewed sympathetically by other voters). I mean, if Bush had privatized Social Security (which, you'll note, he didn't manage), the market would have already hurt it badly.

    That policy list is basically composed of three kinds of policies: 1) policies that would lead to disastrous consequenes and voter rage 2) policies that are broadly unpopular with the national electorate (if the GOP repeals Roe v. Wade, they go staright to the political wilderness and start eating locusts) and 3) niche or wedge issues that won't suffice to win when candidates don't have an answer for bigger issues. (Talking about three strikes and stem cells will work in times of prosperity and peace; in times of war and recession, you have to have a plan for the war and the recession.) And some of those policies are two-fers: disastrous and unpopular, or unpopular and relatively trivial.

    1) policies that would lead to disastrous consequenes and voter rage

    It would not be a historical first.

    2) policies that are broadly unpopular with the national electorate (if the GOP repeals Roe v. Wade, they go staright to the political wilderness and start eating locusts)

    I expect that the changes would be incremental, e.g. making it harder and harder to get an abortion without outright banning it. If Roe were overturned, which could easily happen if Republicans get enough judges, you would see abortion banned in red states where voters support it. At some point, there would be a voter backlash, but that could be decades away.

    3) niche or wedge issues that won't suffice to win when candidates don't have an answer for bigger issues.

    Yes, the niche focus may be the biggest constraint to growth on the right. Unlike 20th century liberalism, conservatives have no clear vision for domestic policy, which is why G.W. never made, nor even really attempted, sweeping domestic changes.

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