There are some who say the the two main political parties are no different, that both have been captured by the capitalistic forces of business enterprise. (Never mind that capitalism is the economic system we’ve chosen to compliment our political system of republican democracy, or that capitalism itself is the most liberal economic system there is.) In this you have the disaffected Democrats of the Obamacrat years, and the Paulbots of the GOP, as well as a scattered group in the middle. Folks who subscribe to this point of view, however, miss the entire point of our republican democracy as it was envisioned by the founders, who laid out our values in the Declaration of Independence, and set the rules in our Constitution. The purpose of our government is to meet the compromise of the mainstream, to deliver what it is the middle wants while accommodating the extremes on both sides. This argument that the parties are the same does not resonate more broadly because it is false.
Recently, the parties have been subject to a realignment process. Democrats have adopted a New Conservatism, while Republicans have adopted a New Liberalism. The Democrats’ change has centered around the development of orthodoxy and dogma, as I outlined here. The Republican’s changes are of a more dynamic variety, bringing a much needed opening up of the stale Republican focus of the past. Once a staunch Democrat myself who was poised, like so many, to buy into the orthodoxy and dogma of the Democratic Party, I have spent four years evolving my thinking and having a series of revelations about the nature of politics and the changes happening within it.
But what has changed? Is it me, or is it Republicans?
The short answer is both. Yes, I’ve had many “click moment” in the last four years, moments where I questioned my own assumptions as all critical thinkers must do. While others have returned to the progressive borg, effectively unseeing what they once saw (so much for that theory), I have continued to forge ahead with clear eyes and more thinking, leading to those continuing revelations. And what I have seen coming from the Republican Party in those years has been a radical shift from what they were about in the 1980s, 90s, and much of the first decade of the new century. The adjective “radical” is employed deliberately, for it is the nature of this action that allows me to ascribe the other adjective, “liberal,” to their side. In their case, and in contrast with Democrats, it is both the ideas and the methodology that have changed. Before we start, let’s get a couple of definitions down on this one, too.
The broad definition of liberalism, according to Wikipedia, is as follows:
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is a broad political ideology or worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally liberals support ideas such as capitalism (either regulated or not), constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free press, free and fair elections, human rights and the free exercise of religion.
The first things likely to jump out at you as you read that is that capitalism is the first idea in the constellation of ideas, and free exercise of religion is last, and that neither of these are tenets of what we today call progressivism. So again we’re getting a look at how the leading forces within the Democratic Party are abandoning liberalism in the broad sense. But there are other, more defined definitions of liberalism, and since I will be referring to them, it’s important to get an understanding of them.
Classical liberalism is a political ideology, a branch of liberalism which advocates individual liberties and limited government under the rule of law and stresses economic freedom. (Source: Wiki)
Modern American liberalism is a form of liberalism. It includes Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. It combines social liberalism with support for social justice and a mixed economy. (Source: Wiki)
Neoliberalism is a label for economic liberalizations, free trade, and open markets. Neoliberalism supports privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of markets, and promotion of the private sector’s role in society. In the 1980s, much of neoliberal theory was incorporated into mainstream economics. (Source: Wiki)
It is in the employment of these more specific definitions that things get tricky. It is the first, Classical Liberalism, that defines much of the shift happening in the Republican Party. But there are roots of the third definition as well, as suggested by the last line. These ideas about deregulation and free markets were espoused throughout the second half of the 20th century and gained a full head of steam during the Reagan years in the 1980s. They penetrated so deeply that by the time the 1990s rolled around, even President Clinton was willing to sign a bill like The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which effectively repealed The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.
The second definitions is particularly intriguing to me, because of what it suggests about the modern Democratic Party. Here we clearly see a couple of things. One is that Teddy Roosevelt pops out as the bridge between the subordination of the old Republican Party, the one that fought and won the Civil War, and that the ascendency of the Democratic Party that has been shaped by the formulaic foundations laid by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which he himself learned from his distant cousin, Teddy. It was then codified by the forces of marketing, as suggested by the related rolling names of various Democratic presidents’ “New” and “Great” programs. These are akin to the heraldry of the ascendant Democratic ideas of the 20th century.
What I see happening with the Republican Party, then, is a hybrid shift of liberalism and libertarianism taking hold.
Republican leaders recognize the pattern of success of the 20th century Democrats, and they seek to capture that ground for the “New American Century,” the name of a now defunct “conservative” think tank, which was founded on the idea of agreement and a unified vision of global leadership for America. This is the old neocon faction within the Republican Party, which saw its heyday during the Bush years. That it is now defunct suggests something about the power of these ideas and this group in the Republican Party today, but it is important to remember that the foundations here echo in the new model of the GOP.
But where are the liberal and libertarian shifts most noticeable? What comes to mind first is the Tea Party. This revolutionary movement within the Republican Party has forced a conversation change from social issues to economic deliberations. The first person of leadership within the GOP to articulate this change was my governor, Mitch Daniels, who has also provided, incidentally, a model for the new economic reforms sweeping through the party of Lincoln. Because it was necessary to forge this truce without alienating the critical Christian constituency, the argument was articulated with a “big-tent” frame. This is one obvious pointer to the emerging liberalism of GOP ideas and methods. They now see a “big tent,” a traditionally Democratic Party idea, as necessary and desirable for winning elections going forward. And they are correct in this calculus. But this is no mere calculation; the ground troops within the Tea Party are fairly demanding this.
We are told that the Tea Party is largely white, largely male, and largely driven by social issues and characterized by racist attitudes. Democrats are well steeped in the currency of racism, and have been since Lyndon B. Johnson shrewdly used race to turn the Democratic Party on a dime in the mid-1960s. As I suggested in a 2008 essay called Eyes on the Prize, they have even used the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to seed a mindset in the young to respond to their cultural dog whistles on this issue. But forget what the Democratic Party-biased media has told you about the Tea Party. This obvious marketing campaign to discredit the movement could not be further from the truth.
No radical outlier as this Gallup poll clearly suggests, the Tea Party was born of a fight against the authoritarian policy of Obamacare, specifically the mandate, and conceived during the bailouts of Wall Street. I recall those bailout days so well. I knew they would lead to something radical happening in the electorate, and they were the first sign that I saw that a shift was happening. The bailouts unified Americans of both parties over the growing frustration toward a corrupt Washington D.C. and the GOP read the frustration correctly, refusing to pass the bailout in the House. It was Democrats who pushed that monstrosity through Congress, using immoral tinkering with our Constitution to do so. Plenty of moderate Democrats disagreed, even some progressives, but as usual, progressives were concerned only with winning, so they pushed until they got what candidate Obama (and President Bush, it must be noted) wanted, which was the bailout.
Obama’s downfall for a second term was planted and nurtured through the bailout period, not only because he rushed back to Washington in the midst of campaigning to broker the deal, but because what it meant was that Main Street would suffer for the follies of Wall Street. And that is just what has happened. Anybody paying reasonably close attention can see that the treasury was raided to provide corporate welfare to undeserving entities at the expense of national prosperity. It is in this way a mirror of what social welfare itself has done to America, sowing attitudes of entitlement among poor people and cutting short their ability to envision a way out through hard work and personal responsibility. It exposed the failure of both corporate and social welfare.
Sensing this frustration, Occupy Wall Street was born. In this movement the concept of breaking up the big banks was taken to a new level, and that may be the only positive thing to come out of that movement. Like health care reform, this was an area where constituencies of both sides could agree. The idea of opposition to Barack Obama’s idea of health care reform was a Tea Party-driven idea, and even though plenty on the left also disagreed with the reform, they could not get over the hype sold to them by a corporate media, pushed by the Obama administration itself, over what the Tea Party actually was. It is a mainstream movement. Occupy Wall Street, not so much. This dynamic is as clear a sign as any of the realignment happening. One side is closed down and will try to shut down debate, the other welcomes and provokes it.
We see this with a sudden and clear shift within the right over the banks themselves. For a long time I have thought there was a conservative case to be made about breaking up banks and avoiding bailouts based on free-market ideas. And lo and behold that idea is now being articulated, by Erick Erickson of Red State no less. I’ve heard it before from the mouths of common GOP voters, but to see it elevated to the level of discourse on the internet is new. I can virtually assure you that OWS or anyone else on the left will never ever take advantage of this point of agreement to ensure that actual change does happen. They can’t; they’re too consumed with their dog whistles. They missed their chance with healthcare reform, and they will miss this chance, too.
But Mitt Romney is surely listening. He recently said that if he is elected, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke will be out of a job. If that happens, the free money window he keeps open, which has devalued everyone’s dollar while it has contributed to Wall Street escaping the consequences of their bailout at the expense of Main Street, will close. This is one of many signs that Romney is on board with the idea of actual free-markets, not government-messaged markets. This is also a shift in the GOP trajectory we saw emerge under President Geo. W. Bush. Bush, like Reagan before him, was perfectly okay with busting budgets and messaging markets while paying lip-service to small government and fee markets. Romney marks a shift that aligns perfectly with the mainstream ideas now emerging among the party faithful themselves, and the moderates and independents who are the silent audience. Romney actually believes in and promotes smaller government and free markets.
As I said in The Case for Mitt Romney, this is what he does. It’s been his record for the whole of it.
In his inaugural address, he said he’d bring a “lighter, more agile bureaucracy.” And he did. When he took office, the state faced a $3 billion budget deficit. Over his tenure, he eliminated $1.5 billion in debt via cuts and fee increases.
As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney submitted three balanced budgets in his final three years in office, trimming a total of $500 million in spending. […] [J]udging by his past record, you can expect he will attempt this behemoth task without raising taxes, by increasing fees, and by cutting spending.
As governor, he was no friend of Wall Street. They were subject to the same consequences as any stakeholder in the game during his tenure. That’s because while he has made a fortune playing the markets and reforming business practices, he has not bought into casino mindset of the stock markets. He does not hedge his bets. He makes them straight and profits accordingly.
Coincidentally, there is also a traditionally modern liberal case to be made for smaller government, built on the notion of corporate welfare and the frustration many Democrats have with the prioritization of how our tax dollars are spent, as well as the corrupt nature of political influence peddling. But again, you will not see Democratic Party thought-leaders make this argument, because to do so would be to expose their ideas to the “cooties” they believe the GOP has.
It is in these areas–the nullification of a social-issues-based agenda, Tea Party-driven economic reforms and opposition to corrupt styles of neoliberal reform of the Democratic leadership, as well as the libertarian inclinations evolving in the mainstream in the wake of economic suffering–that the GOP is transforming itself with a healthy dose of classical liberalism. This should be music to the ears of the left, longing as they say they have been to drag the Republican Party kicking and screaming into the modern age. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth; they are not interested in modernizing the GOP, they are rather interested in keeping it in the cave they’ve assigned it to with their own rhetoric. Or at least keeping the illusion that the GOP is the party of cavemen and women.
To add a final point to my argument, even in the realm of gender the Republican Party is quickly transforming, and catching up. Because of their willingness to take risks in offering women in the ranks of elected leadership, and because they have successfully articulated an argument for prosperity being an issue that women will respond to in the midst of an economic crisis, women are erasing the long-standing gender gap. This was evident in the 2010 elections, especially in traditionally red states, and I expect that trend will be even more pronounced this year, moving solidly into blue states.
I also expect it won’t be long before the GOP challenges the long-standing racial preferences as well, which will work, because POC are some of the most conservative constituencies in the Democratic Party, by social beliefs, anyway. They will join the GOP as the shift continues to happen, attracted by the pro-life stance of the Republican Party and the gay marriage issue, even as the GOP transforms its own stance on that issue. The bright line between accepting gays and opposing gay marriage will be imminently attractive to these constituencies.
The signs of realignment are evident in both parties–in how they promote their ideas and even in the evolution of those very ideas. This is most evident in the selection of Chairpersons to the parties, where Debbie Wasserman-Schultz continues to spout the traditional Democratic arguments, now with a fear-and-guilt-based frame rather than the old positive “big-tent” one, while Reince Priebus puts forth his new vision of the GOP in polite, well-spoken arguments.
Obviously the Republican Party is on the cutting edge now of so much cultural and political change in our nation. We see it most in the Midwest where a new breed of Republican leadership is emerging as seen in the governorships of Mitch Daniels, Mary Landin, and under the tutelage of Priebus (himself a Midwesterner), Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Susanna Martinez. The party needs only to see the election of one of these new kinds of Republicans to the presidency to seal the changes for decades to come. Mitt Romney is that Republican candidate.
One might question that on the face of it, seeing Ron Paul as the standard-bearer here, but Paul is all libertarianism, and purity like that cannot and will not take hold of any American political party because of the nature of our political structure. In America, the people get to choose, and they will not choose the kind of conservative brand of anarchy that is the logical conclusion of pure libertarianism. It is the American habit to take what is useful and slough off what is not.
To return to the beginning, our parties are very different, especially in their approaches to solving our main problems, and that’s why realignments happen. The people agree what those problems are in our system of government, and the parties compete to offer solutions. The similarities those folks who subscribe to the no-differences ideology see then are the problems the people agree need addressing. They are mistaking these problems for the goals of party leadership, and they are mistaking party leadership for the sum total of the parties.
But parties are comprised of both leaders and constituencies. Such simplistic thinking as the parties are the same will never resonate with the public at large precisely because it is demonstrably a false argument, and often offered in lazy terms with little explanation and few examples. A third party cannot be built on a negative ideology; it must be built on a positive one. Those who seek to create an ascendant third party should remember this, ere they end up like the new dinosaurs on the left, or the old ones on the right.