What's the Matter with Provincetown?

The Democrats' two years of control delivered zero social liberalism.


Barack Obama the hard-left bomb thrower is gone. I miss him already.

Yes, I know. The president routinely depicted by detractors as the demon seed of the '60s counterculture is in fact an establishment figure who blocks efforts to end federal discrimination against gay people, supports immunity for federal agents who illegally engaged in warrantless wiretapping, declines to withdraw on any front from either the war on drugs or the war on jihad, made insurance giganticorps the centerpiece of his health care law, failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and helped deliver hundreds of billions of dollars into the hands of insolvent bankers and industrialists.

But for the two years prior to the midterm elections, while all of Washington was captive to the whim of Eldridge the Jackal Obama, it still seemed faintly possible that the government might permit some more of the personal freedoms Democrats claim to favor. In a pre-election New York Times Magazine profile, Obama claimed to have achieved 70 percent of his goals in his first two years—a high success rate for any president. Maybe somewhere in there with Cash for Clunkers and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the triumphant Democrats might, say, repeal Bill Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act, which imposes legal, tax, and inheritance troubles on gay Americans, one of the party's most loyal constituencies. Perhaps there would be time, between the short Summer of Recovery and the debt-wracked Fall of the Economy, for the Obama team to stop winking about its reefer-friendly liberality and push for changes in the federal scheduling of controlled substances, which puts marijuana into a more restrictive category than morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

That tiny hope is now gone. Forced to negotiate with a Republican Congress, Obama must lean "right," probably by pursuing the publicly muscular foreign policy that glues Republicans to Democrats. Progressive Obama is gone, and he may not be back even when the Republicans inevitably bungle their advantage.

Cheer yourself up with University of North Florida historian David T. Courtwright's potluck history No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Harvard), which hit bookstores just before the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and pared back the Democrats' Senate majority. Spectacularly bad market timing is always enjoyable. But there is an important question buried in this analysis of a culture war that, by Courtwright's estimation, lasted from 1968 to 2008: Why do Democratic voters allow themselves to be hoodwinked by promises of social expansiveness into voting against their interests?

This is emphatically not the question Courtwright means to ask. The book's premise is that the culture war ended in a "messy failure of reaction, obscured by the illusion of conservatism." As Courtwright tells it, "Culture warriors blasted secularists while Republicans used popular anger over crime, drugs, welfare, and taxes to win office.…Yet, for all the tough talk, no national politician slowed the culture's leftward drift or reined in the size and power of the government."

To which I reply: What leftward drift in the culture? To the extent that America is any less shriveled, boring, and uptight than at any time in its past (a point that is open to argument), the grooviness has not been coming from Democrats. With the occasional exception of such self-immolating madcaps as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the Democratic frontier is closed to social innovation. More typical is the work of Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a confirmed bachelor who in late 2009 blocked an attempt to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

Part of Courtwright's premise—that culture-war wedges such as abortion and louche behavior distract voters who might otherwise be voting for financial regulation and wealth redistribution—is familiar to readers of Tom Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? or Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's Nation of Rebels. Where Courtwright stands apart is in acknowledging that fiscal conservatives were rolled by the Republican Party as badly as social conservatives were. While previous work on this theme has presumed that a cabal of freewheeling Friedmanites made progress in liberalizing the American economy, Courtwright details how the period that began with Richard Nixon's wage and price controls proceeded through Ronald Reagan's ballooning deficits before terminating in George W. Bush's orgy of spending on Medicare, education, and bipartisan wars.

That Courtwright intends to go easy on the Democrats is evident on page 2, where he denies Mary Jo Kopechne the dignity of a name, describing her only as the "blonde passenger" Ted Kennedy killed in the Chappaquiddick bridge episode. We learn that the Democrats have "committed themselves to civil rights and sexual freedom" and become the "Party of Enlightenment." This alignment, the author contends, put the Dems in opposition to evangelicals, "an audience hardly well disposed toward Enlightenment bromides."

But No Right Turn's description of libertarians' dance with Republicans is quite accurate. At the heart of the book is Richard Nixon's formula for keeping social conservatives on the reservation: "You have to give the nuts 20 percent of what they want." Through careful and honest renderings of budgeting under Reagan and both Bushes, the book makes it clear that fiscal conservatives got even less than their one-fifth.

Courtwright is also a drug historian, and the book has the obsessive, trackless, data-mainlining quality of a man driven mad by prolonged exposure to drug war logic. That makes for a cramped work full of pleasant surprises. Up from the sluice box of history, for example, comes the Rev. Billy James Hargis, founder of American Christian College and hero of a Kodak Moment described by Time in 1976: "Hargis had conducted a wedding for the student; on the honeymoon, the groom and his bride discovered that both of them had slept with Hargis."

But where are the Democrats? No Right Turn describes a culture war in which Republicans succeeded in painting their opponents as the party of acid, abortion, and atheism. That sounds like a fun group, but it doesn't sound much like the Democratic Party. It may be misguided to think Republicans will prevent social decadence, but is it any dumber than believing Democrats can deliver it? 

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at reason.