The Rachet Effect—Why do post-Carter politics only move to the right?

This post is about the goal of a real Progressive Coalition, should we ever get one. I’ll be writing about a “real progressive coalition” much more as we move into the election and post-election seasons.

In a recent piece on Obama, the Republican Bishops, and contraception, I mentioned the Overton Window (click to read if you’re not familiar with the concept).

Commenter Roman Berry then added another interesting analogy — the “Rachet Effect,” and pointed us to this chapter in an online work-in-progress by Michael J. Smith.

I don’t endorse the book (which I haven’t read), but I really like this metaphor as an clear explanation of what we’ve been observing since 1978, if not earlier.

In a chapter called “The rachet effect” the author writes (my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

The ratchet is a simple, ubiquitous, ancient bit of machinery. There’s one in your bicycle wheel (it allows you to coast without pedaling), there’s one in your watch (if you’re the old-fashioned type and have a mechanical watch) … What the ratchet does is permit rotation in one direction but not in the other.

Here’s a diagram of a simple rachet:

Rachets have a wheel (item 1), a pawl (item 2), and a base which locks them together. Note that this wheel can move counter-clockwise all it wants. But if it attempts to reverse any move, the pawl prevents it. The wheel can stand still or move forward; it just can’t move back.

Exactly like our political system. The author again:

The American political system, since at least 1968, has been operating like a ratchet, and both parties — Republicans and Democrats — play crucial, mutually reinforcing roles in its operation. The electoral ratchet permits movement only in the rightward direction. The Republican role is fairly clear; the Republicans apply the torque that rotates the thing rightward.

The Democrats’ role is a little less obvious. The Democrats are the pawl. They don’t resist the rightward movement — they let it happen — but whenever the rightward force slackens momentarily, for whatever reason, the Democrats click into place and keep the machine from rotating back to the left.

Whatever the cause, it’s a perfect analogy, isn’t it? Very clever on the part of the author.

As to the answer to the question in the headline — “Why?” — my explanation is simple. Money enables Republicans and neuters Dems.

In support, Smith offers this story:

I have a somewhat unlikely friend, a rich man in Chicago — let’s call him Al. Politics is not Al’s profession, or even his first interest in life, but he is a well-connected, intelligent guy who has some pet political causes. I happened to ask him one year, during a Senatorial campaign, which candidate he and his friends were contributing to. … Al looked at me as if I had just revealed unsuspected depths of idiocy. “Both, of course,” he replied. …

“But… which one do you want to win?” He laughed. “It doesn’t matter. We own ’em both.”

And that’s the name of the game, in one handy metaphor.

In my view, it’s the job of the Progressive Coalition, if we ever get one, to remove the pawl.

Offered for your mechanical enlightenment,


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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