What are the essential principles of America’s political parties?
Paul Krugman seeks enlightenment. But I think he looks in the wrong place. He looks in the works of German Charlie from Trier:
Partisan Classiness: “Many people in the commentariat are utterly committed to the view that the two major parties are mirror images of each other…:
…despite vast evidence to the contrary. But until Harry Enten directed me to… Grossman and Hopkins, I hadn’t really registered the extent to which the same assumption of symmetry is often made by political scientists…. Grossman and Hopkins… document the very real differences in the two parties’ structure… in terms of how they work….
The Republican Party is the agent of an ideological movement, while the Democratic Party is best understood as a coalition of social groups.
The next question, which they really don’t answer, is why. And I find myself thinking about Karl Marx…. Marx declares… the three great classes… defined in part by shared economic interests. But he identifies a problem…. The Democratic Party looks kind of like the class system Marx said was wrong, without ever getting around to telling us why. It’s a coalition of teachers’ unions, trial lawyers, birth control advocates, wonkish (not, not ‘monkish’ — down, spell check, down!) economists, etc., often finding common ground but by no means guaranteed to fall in line. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has generally been monolithic, with an orthodoxy nobody dares question. Or at least nobody until you-know-who, which is why the establishment keeps imagining that ‘But he’s not a true conservative!’ can make the nightmare go away.
Better, I think, than German Charlie as a guide is St. Grottlesex Dean:
60-some years ago, Dean Gooderham Acheson laid out his version of how American politics and political economy worked.
Acheson had been at the center of American politics from the progressive era before World War I into the age of Eisenhower. He had been FDR’s ‘s acting Secretary of the Treasury. He had then resigned on principle because he found the New Deal too radical, and based on legal authorities that were too shaky to support such bold actions. He had returned to the FDR administration on the eve of World War II, working for Cordell Hull in the State Department. There he had helped launch the Marshall plan and the cold war. He ended as Harry Truman’s Secretary of State–and, along with his boss George Marshall, the first of what would become many Democratic cabinet members served up by cynical right-wing Republican pundits and politicians themselves engaged in profoundly un-American activities.
In his A Democrat Looks at His Party, Acheson described American politics thus:
- The Republicans are the party of wealth and enterprise–of those who have made or are making it, of those close to the fire. It thus celebrates and is held together by an ideology of opportunity and achievement.
- The Democrats are the party of everybody else–all those left out to varying degrees, all saying: “Hey! What about me?” It is a coalition of left-out interest groups.
- The contestation of, tension between, and alternation of these two parties is, broadly, very healthy.
From the very beginning the Democratic Party has been broadly based… the party of the many… the underdog…. The many… have many interests, many points of view, many purposes to accomplish, and a party which represents them will have their many interests, many points of view, and many purposes also…. The base of all three opponents [Federalist, Whig, and Republican] has been the interest of the economically powerful, of those who manage affairs…. This business base of the Republican Party is stressed not in any spirit of criticism…. It is altogether appropriate that one of the major parties should represent its interests and its points of view. It is stressed because here lies the significant difference between… the single-interest party against the many-interest party, rather than in a supposed division of… conservative… against… liberal….
The [Democratic] South…. We tend to see men like Watson, Tilman, Vardaman, and Huey Long chiefly in terms of their bellowings about White Supremacy. But if we drain this off–and the if is admittedly of major importance–what we should see is that the mass support of these men was formed by the dispossessed…. The Southern racist belongs to the same political party as the New York supporter of the FERC… [for each] speaks for the dispossessed, whether in his rural or urban form….
A party which represents many interests and is composed of many diverse groups must invariably know that human institutions are made for man… [that] government [is] an instrument to accomplish what needs to be done…. This is not so easy for those who are persuaded that human behavior is governed by [the] immutable laws… expounded in the Social Statics of Herbert Spencer or those in the Das Kapital of Karl Marx…. It was those whose interests were suffering under the impact of new forces who looked to government… to manage the thrust of forces in the interest of human values. Now… this… takes… brains…. so the Democratic Party is hospitable to and attracts intellectuals. It has work for them to do…
What would Acheson say if he were to rewrite his book for today? He would say:
Gradually, between the political end of Nixon in 1974 and the ascent of Gingrich in 1990, the Republican Party transformed itself from the party of those confident who feel they have a lot to gain into the party of those scared who feel that they had something to lose. Whether they fear civil rights that would take their race privilege and assorted economic advantages, feminism that would take their gender privilege and assorted economic advantages, social democracy with its progressive taxes that would eat away at their wealth, new technologies or new people or simply change itself it would in some way disrupt and a road what they had, even if what they had was not much–they all fear, and they all ally together.
The Eisenhower-Acheson-generation Republicans–and also the Hoover-Coolidge-generation Republicans–worshipped at twin altars: that of equality of theoretical opportunity, and that of accomplished wealth which was the due and proper reward of enterprise and hard work. The Gingrich-Trump Republicans fear even equality of theoretical opportunity. The big trouble with America, they feel, on the economic side is that some hungrier, cleverer immigrant or minority member might outcompete you; and on the cultural side is “political correctness”–that there might actually be some social-cultural blowback: that one might be judged a loser for saying racist or sexist things.
In the difference between the party of those who like property and feel that they have everything to gain from enterprise and change and the party of those who like property but fear that they have everything to lose from enterprise and change—that is, I think, the difference between the old Republican Party and the new one, the one that has reached its culmination in our era of Gingrich, and that was the product of the twin curses of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.
America can, I think, make good use of a party of enterprise and creative destruction—and of the property wealth that that generates.
But what need does America have for and what use might it make of a party of fear and stasis—and of property wealth that is above all else scared that somebody might take it away.
From Dean Acheson (1955), A Democrat Looks at His Party: p. 23 ff:
From the very beginning the Democratic Party has been broadly based… the party of the many… the urban worker; the backwoods merchant and banker; the small farmer… the large landowners of the South, who saw themselves as being milked by the commercial and financial magnates gathered under Hamilton’s banner; the newly arrived immigrants… the party of the underdog…. The many have an important and most relevant characteristic. They have many interests, many points of view, many purposes to accomplish, and a party which represents them will have their many interests, many points of view, and many purposes also. It is this multiplicity of interests which, I submit, is the principal clue in understanding the vitality and endurance of the Democratic Party….
The base of all three opponents [Federalist, Whig, and Republican] has been the interest of the economically powerful, of those who manage affairs…. The economic base and the principal interest of the Republican Party is business…. This business base of the Republican Party is stressed not in any spirit of criticism. The importance of business is an outstanding fact of American life. Its achievements have been phenomenal. It is altogether appropriate that one of the major parties should represent its interests and its points of view. It is stressed because here lies the significant difference between the parties, the single-interest party against the many-interest party, rather than in a supposed division of attitudes… conservative… against… liberal….
At the end of the [nineteenth] century there was a lesser, but serious, missed opportunity for Democratic leadership in President Cleveland’s failure to grasp the significance of the Populist and labor unrest… and in his cautious and unimaginative approach to economic depression. The unrest… did not spring from a radical movement directed against the established order… or the constitutional system. It grew out of conditions increasingly distressing… on the farms and in the factories. Its purposes were the historic purposes of the Democratic party… to keep opportunity open, opportunity not merely to rise from barefoot boy to President but for people to find in their accustomed environments useful, respected, and satisfying lives…. The conditions and popular response had many points of similarity to those of the 1930s.
Grover Cleveland… followed the right as he saw it… through a conservative and conventional cast of mind. The agitation seemed to him… a threat to law and order…. Coxey’s Army was met with a barrage of injunctions and… the Capitol police…. The Pullman strike was smashed by federal troops who kept the mails moving, the union leaders imprisoned, and the union crushed. And the financial panic was dealt with through the highly orthodox and [highly] compensated assistance of Mr. Morgan.
The underlying causes… were neither understood nor dealt with… an opportunity was missed…. If, to take one of them, the problems arising out of the concentration of industrial ownership had been tackled when they were still malleable and subject to effective treatment, we might have been spared some aches and pains that are still with us.
But with all this, Grover Cleveland holds an honored place…. When the Congress showed signs… of declaring war on Spain, Cleveland put an end to the business for the duration of his administration by saying… that, if the Congress did declare war, he would refuse to direct it as commander in chief….
[T]he Democratic Party is not an ideological party…. It represents too many interests to be neatly labeled or to be imprisoned…. It has to be pragmatic…. In the Democratic Party run two strong strands–conservatism and pragmatic experimentation…. [T]he difference between our parties has not been and is not between a party of property and one of proletarians, but between a party which centers on the dominant interests of the business community and a party of many interests, including property interests…. They believe in private property and want more and not less of it. This makes for conservatism.
American labor is now known throughout the world for its conservatism…. the whole stress on seniority grows out of this. Pension rights are property interests of impressive value…. [W]hen a particular kind of property descends in the hierarchy of importance, its owners more and more turn for the protection of their interests to the party of many interests. The owners of land–the farmers–are the most crucial…. Small businessmen, also, are apt to find concern for their problems and welfare lost in the party of business on a larger scale….
But perhaps the strongest influence toward conservatism comes from the south, where for historical reasons all interests… are predominantly Democratic…. Southern conservatism is an invaluable asset. It gibes the assurance that all interests and policies are weighed and considered within the party before interparty issues are framed….
The South also faces us with an equal and opposite truth. It is that some of the most radical leaders of modern times have come from the South. We tend to see men like Watson, Tilman, Vardaman, and Huey Long chiefly in terms of their bellowings about White Supremacy. But if we drain this off–and the if is admittedly of major importance–what we should see is that the mass support of these men was formed by the dispossessed. Huey Long’s “share-the-wealth” program was aimed explicitly at the Southern Bourbons….
The tragedy of the South has been that racism has corrupted an otherwise respectable strain of protest and experimentation in the search for economic equality…. For all the apparent contradiction in the fact that the Southern racist belongs to the same political party as the New York supporter of the FERC, the inner logic that holds them together is that each speaks for the dispossessed, whether in his rural or urban form. What enables the Democratic Party to contain both elements is the fact that the party since the Civil War has made the Legislature the special province of the Southern Democrat, and the Executive the special province of the Northern Democrat….
Entwined with the strand of conservatism in the Democratic Party is the strand of empiricism. A party which represents many interests and is composed of many diverse groups must invariably know that human institutions are made for man and not man for institutions…. Such a party conceives of government as an instrument to accomplish what needs to be done….
This is not so easy for those who are persuaded that human behavior is governed by immutable laws, whether they are the laws expounded in the Social Statics of Herbert Spencer or those in the Das Kapital of Karl Marx…. [T]o the Manchester Liberals the Factory Acts ran squarely counter to economic principles and could end only in disaster. The “forgotten man,” in the phrase invented by William Graham Sumner… was the producer whose wealth was tapped by the government to bear the cost of the social programs for those whom Sumner regarded as weak….
In the last century the economically powerful have stood to gain by the doctrine of laissez-faire…. It was those whose interests were suffering under the impact of new forces who looked to government… to manage the thrust of forces in the interest of human values.
Now… this… takes… brains…. so the Democratic Party is hospitable to and attracts intellectuals. It has work for them to do…