With a single vote, Democrats finally banished the ghost of Reagan. The American Rescue Plan is not the first time that Congress has expanded the welfare state since Ronald Reagan left office, but it is arguably the first time that Democrats have passed an expansion of government without minimal ideological resistance from the right. American government has undergone a fundamental transition in the course of just a few months.
The change that has taken place is best understood under the rubric of “paradigm shift” devised by UNC political scientist Frank Baumgartner. Refuting Charles Lindblom’s theory of “muddling through” that long held sway over the study of policy change, Baumgartner argues that policy resembles biological evolution. The system holds in a particular configuration for long periods, then, prodded by an external impetus, undergoes transformative change in short periodic bursts. This process has played out every couple of decades in America, from the progressive era, to the Roaring Twenties, to the New Deal, to the Reagan Revolution–and now to the Biden transformation.
For most of the Trump years, the Reagan settlement continued to rule over U.S. policy. Despite campaigning on a heterodox economic platform, Trump governed in the same free-market, minimal-government mold that had functioned as the parameters of public policy for four decades. He passed an enormous tax cut and sweeping deregulation. He turned a blind eye to pollution and placed business interests at the heart of his trade policy. (Republican presidents have tended to be more protectionist than their Democratic peers.)
The accumulated pressure of public discontent with Reaganism began to reach critical levels after the pandemic hit. Discarding, once again, their principles of fiscal probity, Republicans shepherded through a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, then followed it up with another similar bill. However, this could be written off as typical GOP expediency. It was when Biden took office that Reaganism definitively fell apart.
Unlike Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama, President Biden and his Democratic allies have shown absolutely no deference toward the constraints of small-government orthodoxy. Instead, they did what was necessary to confront the pandemic, exhibiting more the “bold and persistent experimentation” of FDR than the “era of big government is over” defensiveness of a Bill Clinton. And crucially, Republicans barely fought back. Only a couple of conservative media voices (most of them far from Washington) registered faint grumbles about a piece of legislation that has the potential to transform the American government.
As the ACR debate illustrated, we now operate in a fundamentally different policy framework than the one that had ruled for 40 years. Democrats will continue to pass their fiscal agenda with confidence, and Republicans will look toward other controversies to keep their movement alive. This transformation validates Professor Baumgartner’s theory of change–something that should make North Carolinians proud. Better yet, Republicans in North Carolina and elsewhere will increasingly find themselves in the squirm-inducing defensive crouch to which Democrats had been confined for decades. The Reagan era is over. The Biden era is here.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.