It's a given that what is seen as the political "centre ground" in the West has swung rightwards, at least in economic terms, over the past 30 years. In commentary pieces, this phenomenon is frequently linked to the collapse of eastern Communist states during the 1980s, and the resulting perception that Communism is not a viable political alternative to Capitalism.

I have always been puzzled by this link. I don't understand why the collapse of one extreme of the political spectrum should automatically result in large numbers of people shifting their political views rightward. Furthermore, one could argue that the extreme right wing collapsed as a viable political viewpoint in 1945, and there was no mass stampede leftwards as a result.

It seems more likely to me that the shift to the right is far more to do with globalisation - economically this has resulted in large corporations wielding as much, if not more power than governments while socially it's stoked fears about immigration and the pace of change.


  • Can the rightward shift in centre politics be linked to the collapse of Communism? (if so, how and why?)
  • If not, why is it so commonly linked to the collapse of Communism, and what are the real causes?


It was not clear from the original question but this is about economic policy. I accept that in terms of social policy, things have generally become more progressive.

To commenters who are pointing out that we still have a welfare state and so on, the social safety net available has become much less generous. In addition, once-free services (at least in Europe) such as education and health are increasingly being privatized and/or charging, and tax regimes have become much more sympathetic to the wealthy.

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    Shift rightward? The French are rejecting Le Pen and most modern nations maintain progressive and liberal Governments. Commented May 4, 2017 at 17:46
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    Which democratically elected left-wing Governments are you thinking of? You don't think the Nordic countries are progressive? The Western world as a whole is remarkably progressive; European Court of Human Rights, UN Human Rights, continued gender equality, universal healthcare, childcare, maternity and leave and rights, unemployment benefit, free press, independent judiciary, social security, disease control and prevention, reduced armed conflicts, continual and progressive rejection of firearms in modern life...in what way are Western Governments NOT continually striving for progressivism? Commented May 4, 2017 at 21:33
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    They are not necessarily left. They are progressive. Which Matt claimed they are not. Although it does not get much more left wing than Universal Healthcare and unemployment benefit. Commented May 5, 2017 at 19:32
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    @JonathanReez Failure in what sense?
    – Bob Tway
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 13:45
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    @JonathanReez Baseless supposition, at least in terms of the UK. What does "failed to integrate" even mean? National economy with ageing population needs immigration to function. Immigrants offer the state a net tax profit. There is evidence of wage suppression in areas where large numbers of immigrants congregate but this is a minor effect, which could be resolved with better govt policy.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 14:00

8 Answers 8


Some factors to consider when looking at the shifts to the right in the United States:

The failure of loose monetary policy in the 1970s- A misunderstanding of how people would respond to monetary stimulus led to the stagflation of the 1970s. Before this failure, there was much more optimism that the government could manage economic downturns with the growing number of tools described by economists.

Ronald Reagan and communism- Regardless of how you feel about his policies, Reagan was an inspiring leader and an effective communicator. Reagan's speeches about the cold war and made many Americans feel good about being American and made them think the American way of life was worth conserving.

The Conservative Intellectual Movement- The victory of conservatism in 1980, was actually the culmination of a movement that started around the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Before Reagan won his election, the stage had been set by such minds as William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Irving Kristol, Russel Kirk, and Leo Strauss. In addition, there were idea powerful think tanks like the Heritage foundation ready to back up conservative policies (although perhaps not so important these days). There was finally a body of literature ready to support conservative ideas in opposition to the left's monopoly on academia. For more on the birth of the movement, see The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 by John Nash

Changing Demographics- Older people tend to be more conservative. If there is a causal relationship there, then it makes sense for things to shift to the right as the bulging baby boom generation grows older.

I think it would be hard to link the rightward shift to the fall of communism beyond Reagan's speeches and good feeling of being vindicated as communism's dirty laundry was aired. That being said, it was probably better for the right that a extremely economically illiberal state fell apart rather than the collapse of one with an extremely strong constitution, extreme separation of power, and an extreme adherence to a tradition based on classical liberalism and christian morality.

Finally, I wouldn't say that the right has been ascendant the last 10 years, considering that Republicans lost the last 2 presidential elections, didn't hold the Senate for a while, there was unprecedented expansion of government into the healthcare sector, and government spending as a percent of GDP has been going up.

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    Thanks for this, very much the sort of thing I was hoping for. It's a bit US centric - the "left" in the US isn't left by European standards. And over here there's a very definite shift toward the right of the spectrum. I can well imagine this is a result of European politicians trailing in the wake of the trends you describe.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 16:13
  • Whilst I agree with your comments on "The Conservative Intellectual Movement" Hayek et al, surely those days are past and the free market is now a busted flush? I suppose it takes a while for the ideas to filter through
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 12:48
  • @Vorsprung I think you might be out of touch with contemporary conservatives. Belief that markets work better than bureaucrats is very strong today, even if it has to fight for air time with Trump's big government populism.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 13:40
  • @lazarusL I'm sure I am out of touch with conservatives! A belief that markets work better than bureaucrats I can follow. But a belief that free markets will necessarily give us what we want (ie conservative values) might be more in hope than certainty. Maybe conservatives are in the same dilemma that the left was in in the 80s. "If it actually works then how come we are in the poop?"
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 14:15
  • oh btw I am not US I am UK so probably my "conservative" is less rightwing than yours :)
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 14:16

Can the rightward shift in centre politics be linked to the collapse of Communism?

This seems backwards. It's not that the collapse of communism caused politics to shift rightward; it's that certain policies embraced by the left in the 1930-1980 period were perceived as ineffective in the 1980s. The communist Soviet Union had its entire system collapse. The United States and United Kingdom reduced their top marginal tax rates. In the US, rates dropped from 90% in 1960 to 33% in 1989 (ignoring Social Security and Medicare taxes).

Note that the US and UK reduced tax rates before the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it's not possible that the Soviet Union's collapse caused them.

Even countries like France, Germany, and Sweden reduced and rationalized certain kinds of regulation after 1980.

The only way that might be related to the fall of the Soviet Union is that prior to that, right wing politicians like Ronald Reagan (US president) were willing to compromise economic issues to get more military action. After the fall of the Soviet Union, that tradeoff no longer made sense. Higher military spending was no longer their top priority, so they started having more success in other areas.

Furthermore, one could argue that the extreme right wing collapsed as a viable political viewpoint in 1945, and there was no mass stampede leftwards as a result.

There is an argument that the fascist government of Germany was left wing. I don't want to argue left/right designations here. Instead, I'm going to identify it as a racist government, which I think is consistent with your intent. Was there a stampede away from racism after 1945?

In the US, segregation ended. The Voting Rights Act was passed. A black man was appointed to the Supreme Court and later replaced by another black man. In 2008, a black man was elected president. What's that if not a stampede?

Has racism ended? Of course not. Neither has government intervention in the economy. But there were swings away from each.

Another example is that the Great Depression did cause a stampede away from things that I would consider right wing and towards things I'd consider left wing. Taxes and spending increased in the US. That's how we got to a 90% tax rate, the end of constitutionally limited government, and permanently higher spending on unemployment insurance, Social Security, etc.


With respect to the UK, Chris Dillow regularly writes about a related idea, the Overton window. His idea is that this window (the range of positions that are deemed reasonable) has shifted through a deliberate effort by think tanks and right wing politicians. The left, by contrast, was eager to embrace perceived constraints and to show it was able to manage the economy in a “serious” way. I don't know whether that's true or whether that's all there is to it but it is an intriguing alternative to your hypotheses. See Shifting the Overton Window and Thatcher's Good.

Also note that while it has become a cliché to lament the fact that the left-right divide does not fully capture the diversity of political opinions, there is some truth to that contention. Many opinions that would have been common one or two generations ago and could be construed as right-wing (say about the role of women, sexual preferences, marriage, abortion, etc.) are now out of the mainstream and even right-wing politicians prefer to avoid them (here again I am mostly talking about Europe and even there it's not necessarily equally true in all countries).

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    " manage the economy in a 'serious' way." How does one manage the economy in s serious way? what exactly does that mean? Is this just pointing out that socialists want a planned economy, and capitalists want a free-marker economy?
    – user1873
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 14:58
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    @user1873 The sentence is “show it was able to manage the economy in a “serious” way”. It's about perceptions and has nothing to do with socialism or planned economy, which is not seriously pursued by any mainstream part in the UK (or Europe).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 15:09
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    @user1873 I am speaking about Europe and, like I said, about intended perceptions so I am not sure what the size of government spending compared to the economy has to do with it. I am not even saying that it works (in the sense that the public would perceive left-wing parties that way) or that they actually do it better or worse than anybody else, just that they seem very careful to show that they can be as “serious” as the right in this respect.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 16:03
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    Overton windown was discussed on this site before. Basically, it's a concept used to describe things, not some law of nature or a proven fact. Also, a liberal complaining of right wing using an Overton window is ironic to the extreme since the idea originated on the left and was more effectively (as vaguely as effectiveness can be determined) and widely tried to employ it, at least in the USA.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 20:49
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    @DVK His point is a bit more subtle than that and I personally find it more plausible than most of the free-wheeling speculation in the other answers. And I don't quite see how it is less provable that any other political science/sociological/historical hypothesis, which is precisely what this and other questions are about. But obviously it's just a blogpost, not a scientific paper or anything. I certainly did not meant that it was anything more than an intriguing hypothesis or that anyone was “complaining” about it. But rereading my answer, I am not sure exactly how you got this impression.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 21:58

@lazarusL's answer is a very good one for America, so I'll just add on to that. Communism hasn't had quite the same influence here in Europe, but we're still affected by America's change in attitudes. Personally I don't like the whole left-right comparison because it's not that simple, but there has been an effect on our way of thinking. One thing that might explain the effect in the past ten years is the rise of US television- we get a huge amount of US TV and other media, which does influence our thinking.

But we also have a situation that the US doesn't- the ability for anyone in the EEA to work anywhere else. Here in the UK especially it's because an important issue because we're so much wealthier than the other countries. We've seen a rise of anti-EU attitudes as a result- so much so the possibility of leaving is one that politicians are promising to consider. I would say that a more economically cautious, protective attitude is natural given that and the so-called "double-dip recession".

As for the rest of Europe, I can't answer so much, but I can imagine that the situation in the middle-east concerns them because of their proximity. Certainly here there are concerns about UK citizens becoming extremists abroad and there are regularly anti-Islam protests. I imagine it's similar in the rest of Europe as well.

So I'd say there's definitely an increase in isolationism as a result of all this. Personally, I don't think it's a good thing.

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    I would categorise the freedom of a person from one US state to move to and work in any other US state to be approximately the same as the EEA free movement. There are "wealthier" and "poorer" US states, although maybe not to the same extent as in the EEA
    – Caleth
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 9:36

What I think has happened is not so much a shift from left to right, as from collective organisation to individualism. The Second World War was an emergency on a scale that required collective organisation, and the Cold War afterwards threatened to turn into such an emergency on very short notice.

However, large-scale collective organisation, especially military forces, in democratic states tends to require high taxation, and the wealthy hate that. As wealthy people learned how to use the new tools of communication for influence, they built up movements such as tax protesters, the religious right, and so on.

Since the end of the Cold War, military forces have not been required on the same scale, and the power of wealth has been employed very effectively in the interests of the wealthy.

  1. The population in the affluent north has gotten older, life expectancy is greater and the average age is higher

If you’re not a communist at the age of 20, you haven’t got a heart. If you’re still a communist at the age of 30, you haven’t got a brain. ( François Guizot)

  1. Global warming and other factors have increased migration. Ultra right politics use this to increase rascism

  2. The rise of NeoLiberalism is linked to fascism, see for an obvious example the military junta in Chile in the 70s which influenced Mrs Thatcher and was influenced by the Chicago Boys


As I describe in my answer to this question, political opinions are largely static throughout life. There has been a rightward shift in the USA as the Greatest Generation who fought alongside the communists against fascism in WWII, supported FDR's New Deal and consistently supported the left, died from old age which reduced the opposition to groups who have been imprinted with politics motivated by the anti-communist sentiments of the Cold War. The millenial and gen x generations do not experience communism as a visceral threat, instead they experienced an economic boom under Clinton, followed by an economic collapse and unpopular war at the hands of Bush, motivating them to strongly support the Democrats, filling in again the opposition to the cold war group.


Opinion shifted right because the extreme left failed, and the extreme right hasn't yet. I assume by your 1945 comment about the extreme right failing you are referring to the fall of Nazi Germany, which wasn't an extreme right government it was a fascist socialist government. The extreme right is exemplified in places like Hong Kong or the The U.S.A from ~1950-1990. China's exploding economy is also a direct route of moving further right.

The rightward shift is primarily evidence based, countries/cities/regions that have been far left are continually going bankrupt or having to make drastic changes, while those that have started to adopt right wing policies are seeing benefits.

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    Citations would help here.
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 19:31
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    The U.S. has been moving further and further right since Reagan. The U.S. was the world's biggest lender before Reagan. Today the U.S. is the world's biggest debtor. Top income tax rates in the U.S. were between 70 and 90 percent up until Reagan.
    – Kennah
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 1:59
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    Franco, Pinochet, Médici, Banzer, Greece, Portugal, ... Yes we can argue whether those were as extreme or failed as extreme but there isn't exactly in dearth of failing right wing governments.
    – user45891
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 15:50

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