Predicting the past from the present facts

By Razib Khan | April 4, 2010 1:12 am

Matt Yglesias points to an OKCupid survey which shows that in the United States there tends to be a rather coherent block of social & economic conservatives within the Republican party, while the Democrats are a coalition between those who emphasize social issues and those who emphasize economic issues. Social liberals are often found in the upper socioeconomic strata and look positively upon globalization and free trade. Economic liberals, in the American sense, are not necessarily social liberals, as is well known in the case of black Americans who tend to support government programs but are more socially moderate-to-conservative. Combined with the consistent pattern of conservatives outnumbering liberals it would naturally lead one to believe that this is a nation where the Right is eternally ascendant.

And it is certainly true that compared to European nations the United States is conservative on many social and economic metrics.* But is the arc of American history toward a conservative or liberal direction? In other words, what is the probability that there would be a blanket ban on abortion in the United States in one generation? What about the maintenance of federal laws which ban recognition of same sex marriages? Which the proportion of national GDP which consists of government spending?

For all the talk about American exceptionalism the arc of history seems to be moving to the Left, broadly speaking. Despite the reality that the American Left seems weaker in numbers and less coherent a movement than the Right, conservatives have been waging a rearguard battle by and large. The macrohistorical trends are simply not born out by the strength of numbers that conservatives have at any given moment. One might infer from this that there are strong sociocultural dynamics and institutional biases which nudge Western liberal democracies in a Left direction, with the rate of change modulated by contemporary political configurations. And yet perhaps we are too Whiggish, human history has been characterized by secular trends being nested within broader cyclical patterns.

* This has been to be qualified, as many European governments have more restrictive abortion rights regimes, and racial nationalist parties gain more traction in most of Europe than they ever would in the United States.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Politics

Comments (8)

  1. The OKCupid post is full of unstated assumptions. For example: using age-based averages for points on the graph is a good proxy for using individuals (I think it is not).

  2. Bob Carlson

    The period of 1955 to 1960 doesn’t seem so different from the present. Urban were more progressive, with the “extreme right-wing at home in the small towns of the Midwest.” Unfortunately, only the abstract of the paper is available.

  3. $12,764,878,911,618.18 says this particular cyclic pattern (which started with the New Deal, roughly) is drawing to its close.

  4. miko

    As far as I can tell, 90% of the time “social conservative” is a code word for “proud bigot” and equates with “wrong side of history.” Can anyone name a “social conservative” talking point from 50 or 100 years ago that has carried the day?

    Economic liberalism/conservativism is more difficult to discuss, because in some ways almost all mainstream politicians in the US are conservative within the spectrum of developed nations, yet the free market system beloved of Adam Smith “conservatives” is one of the great inventions of “liberal” social politics (Adam Smith was an indisputable social liberal and proponent of what morons today call “tax and spend” government). It is impossible to separate social values from economics, and this is what makes the US different–we interpret “self-interest” much more narrowly than other countries. For Canada and other “left” but fundamentally capitalist countries, individual self-interest is still a driving economic and social factor, however self-interest is construed broadly and includes the well being of others. For example, it is considered in most developed nations a negative impact on quality of life to be unable to go to large sections of major cities for fear of being a victim of a crime, or to live among children who are malnourished. Americans don’t seem to think so, and are happy to point out that, for example, DC is a great place to live if you avoid 40% of it completely. To me, this is a failure of either imagination or moral development, and the ability of comfortable Americans to blithely accept the degraded condition of their fellow citizens is up there with Hindus.

    In the near- to medium- term, I don’t think there is any doubt that government spending (education, infrastructure, health care, police, social services) can address many of these problems and in many cases is the only solution. Conservatives who argue otherwise are, I think, deluded or disingenuous. I think there is a principled argument over whether we can afford to live in such states in the long term in the face of economic competition from emerging economies who do not make the highest quality of life for the largest proportion of people a determining factor in economic policy–for all living things, altruism and cooperation are risky. There are also real debates to be had over the extent of such programs, how they are implemented, and fair distribution of the tax burden. Where are the conservative politicians willing to have these debates in the US, the ones who aren’t turning puffy and red and crying on c-span? The “conservative” part of the US governmenet are cowards beholden to the weirdos. (Yes, Democrats show a lot of cowardice too, usually of their own shadows.) Republicans just got Richard Nixon’s health care plan passed–it’s a model of a conservative social program–without having to even vote for it, you’d think they’d be happy.

  5. What does “wrong side of history” mean?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar