Friday, October 24, 2008

Political Parties

In my last post, I recommended Jonathan Haidt’s essay, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt took it for granted that Republican equates to conservative – i.e., that Republicans value loyalty, authority, and purity, while Democrats do not. This comports with the commonly agreed upon usage of the major media and party leaders today, but a little history will show that there is nothing inherently conservative about the Republican Party.

A century ago, the Republicans were the progressive party. They stood for three things: 1) Negro rights, 2) individual liberty, and 3) corporate profits. They were the party of the educated urban elite – and those who aspired to that status. They wanted to reform society to free individuals from the stultifying effects of the old boy networks that controlled local governments, community and family life, and American culture in general. The Democrats, by contrast, as the beneficiaries of those old boy networks, generally favored maintaining the status quo. They advocated what we in the 21st century might charitably call family values and strong communities. All in all, we might go so far as to say the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative. (If we wanted to stereotype them in the most negative way, we might depict the Republican as a portly banker in a frock coat who takes glee in foreclosing on mortgages; and the Democrat as a southern sherriff putting away his sheet after a night of cross-burning.)

So how did the parties get switched around? Well, in some respects they didn’t. The Republican Party’s advocacy of low taxes and limited government follows logically from its historic mission. There is really nothing conservative about these policies – they are essential elements of classical liberalism in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. Among the Founding Fathers, these same policies were advocated by the “liberal” Jefferson against the “conservative” Hamilton. The Democrats’ concern for the welfare of the working classes, meanwhile, is in continuity with their historic concern for immigrants in the north and farmers in the south.

But, starting with FDR, the Democrats embarked upon a slow march to the left throughout the 20th century. To deal with the Great Depression, President Roosevelt borrowed some ideas from the German and Russian totalitarians – it looked like the wave of the future, and it was widely thought to be a necessary evil at the time. The growth and centralization of federal government power created its own constituency for extending that growth still further. The Democrats became quasi-socialist in practice, if not in name. Because they were imposing major changes on society, they labeled themselves “liberal,” which was seen as a good thing; and they branded all of their various opponents as “conservative,” which was commonly understood as a bad thing. Those who opposed socialism at home and communism abroad began drifting Republican, and the GOP began to live up to its new conservative billing in some respects.

Still, in Haidt’s moral dimensions, the Republicans were probably no more conservative than the Democrats. As late as the 1960s, Democrats were uniformly opposed to abortion (Jesse Jackson called abortion “genocide against the black race”), while the individualistic Republicans were divided on this issue, to the extent that they cared about it at all. It was not until Roe vs. Wade and George McGovern’s nomination for President that the Democrats made their decisive obeisance to social liberalism, which alienated much of their conservative working-class constituency.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had been reorganizing and redefining themselves. William F. Buckley, Jr., made conservatism intellectually respectable, and Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for President brought it out of the closet. But it took Ronald Reagan to make it politically viable. He welded together all of the disparate groups that the “liberal” Democrats had derided as “conservative.” By this time, the label "conservative" was no longer seen as derogatory (except by liberals, who were increasingly out of touch with the electorate), so Reagan encouraged everyone who had been labelled as “conservative” to wear the label with pride and unite against those who called themselves “liberal.” The economic conservatives who opposed big government and excessive regulation could join with the social conservatives who opposed indecency and abortion because they both opposed communist imperialism abroad. It was in the Reagan era that the Republican Party became truly conservative.

And that was probably the high-water mark of conservatism in the GOP. Apart from judicial appointments, there is nothing particularly conservative about the Bush administration. Haidt’s moral conservatives are a captive minority in the Republican Party. Many of them are uncomfortable with party leaders who have reverted to the old-fashioned Republicanism of individualism and big business. Some of them might even long for the return of the old pre-McGovern Democrats.

Today, neither major political party is ideologically coherent. The Democrats pose as friends of the poor and working classes while capitulating to the demands of their corrupt, wealthy backers and pandering to every special interest they can fit into the party tent. They have compromised on every issue but one – a woman’s right to abort her baby whenever and however she wishes – much to the consternation of many an old-line liberal Democrat. The Republicans, meanwhile, trumpet family values while facilitating the efforts of Madison Avenue to undermine those values in favor of an exploitive, individualistic consumer culture.

While Jonathan Haidt’s article gives valuable insight into the phenomenon of moral conservatism, I’m not sure how far it goes in answering the question its title poses. It might explain why some people vote Republican, but Republicans of that sort have declined in influence and waned in their loyalty to the party. In their view (or perhaps I should say our view), the Republicans might still represent the lesser evil, but in the era of Bush and Cheney, not always by much.

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