Friday, June 16, 2006
So, a fellow blogger asked me a few weeks ago, apropos of the various ways in which we are mutually unhappy with today's Republican Party: why are you (that is to say, me) still a Republican?
Which set me to thinking: why indeed? Why should I affiliate in any way with a political party or organization? Why not support candidates I like and oppose those I dislike, with my vote and/or my contributions? On the big-picture things, the things that matter most to the life and health of a nation, can one say that there actually is any identity to the two parties, or are they both mere collections of more narrowly-focused constituency groups? And if the latter, why not limit my affiliation to single-issue constituency lobbies with whom I have more or less affinity?
Well, it so happens that I do think the parties have an identity on the big-picture issues, an identity that goes all the way back to the origins of the parties and that has survived the two parties' (and the country's) massive demographic transformations over time.
Moreover, each party's identity can be represented by three simple words, words that, when connected, form an Iron Triangle that defines that party's identity for all time.
I should stress that these identities are not absolute or exclusive. The things that each party stands for are good things; there is no party of light nor a party of darkness (nor, some might say, a party of life and a party of death). The differences between the parties are one way of framing an argument about the meaning of America, an argument that will never be concluded because both sides have a point, but that needs to be continued *as an argument* if our civilization is to remain vital. To the end of continuing the argument "for the sake of heaven" it is not a waste of time to investigate what, in the deepest sense, the parties stand for.
Here are the two Iron Triangles of terms that define America's two major parties:
Nation === Liberty === Virtue
People === Equality === Merit
When Republicans speak, they address the Nation. Nationhood posits a kind of organic unity based on a shared culture, territory, language, history. Because blood-and-soil nationalism doesn't make much sense in the American context (the land being ours *before* we were the land's) the nature of American nationalism and the American nation has always been subject to debate. Republicans, because they speak to the nation, are the ones who find this debate most significant and most worrisome. By the same token, because they are *nationalists* from their very beginning (whether you date that beginning to Lincoln or Hamilton, it doesn't matter), the absorption of the Southern conservative tradition of regionalism and localism into the Republican Party has been and will remain incomplete. One risk in speaking to the nation is that you begin to think that those who do not harken are not part of the nation; in that regard, it is notable that the Republicans, when they speak of "America" increasingly seem to identify it with Dixie, to make a regionalism into a nationalism. Among the other problems with doing this, it won't work.
When Democrats speak, the address the People. The people are an abstraction no less than the nation, but a different kind of abstraction. Both the nation and the people are conceived of as unities, but that doesn't make either an undifferentiated mass. The difference is that the nation, though unified, may have a vertically-articulted structure, whereas the people, though unified, may have a horizontally-articulated structure. The people can be composed of many peoples, but it is conceived as a single *class* and therefore can speak with a single voice. The Democrats, from their origin (whether you date that from Jefferson or Jackson, it doesn't matter) understood themselves to be the party of the people, and they have retained this identity even as, in many ways, they have lost the people. Just as the idea of the nation is predicate to the ideology of nationalism, so the idea of the people is predicate to the ideology of democracy, or at least democracy as Rousseau understood it, as an expression of the people's will. Again, this is an abstraction and a construct no less than the nation is - indeed, more so; people feel they are part of a nation because of their allegiances, whereas feeling yourself to be part of a general will is the kind of thing we associate with fascism, not democracy. Nonetheless, it is a democratic myth, and fundamental to the Democratic party.
Above all other values, Republicans stand for liberty. Liberty is what our republic was founded to secure, after all. In good old undergraduate fashion, we can identify a degree of opposition between liberty and equality, and sure enough I've assigned equality to the Democrats as their top value. Both liberty and equality can be conceived of as negative values - that is to say: valuing liberty may simply mean not interfering in someone's exercise of his liberties, and equality may simply mean not treating people differentially in any formal sense, as equality before the law and an absence of formal class distinctions. But each can also be construed more robustly. If liberty is the highest value then we should value more the person who makes the most of that liberty, structure our society so that it favors those who thrive on independence. The cult of the entrepreneur certainly partakes of such an attitude. By the same token, valuing equality above all may mean placing a high degree of concern on whether there is actual equality in society, regardless of whether a formal equality exists. Even if one doesn't go so far as to assess the justness of society based on whether classes exist at all, one may demand that a just society truly give everyone the opportunity to achieve their potential, which may require substantial interference with individual liberty (progressive taxation, forced busing, etc.) to achieve. I think it's safe to say that particularly in this more robust sense of each value system, there is a real difference between the parties.
The third word in the Iron Triangle defining each party relates to the conception of who properly leads society. We are not a direct democracy nor, properly, could we be (nor, pace the most extreme proponents of the General Will, should we be). We are a republic or, if you prefer, a representative democracy. Who, then, is fit to rule, to be the governing elite? For the Republicans, the most important determinant of fitness to rule is virtue - or, if you prefer the contemporary term of choice, character. For all that Republicans have been afflicted over and over with scandal, particularly financial scandals, they have from the beginning (again, going back as far as you like - Henry Clay had a lifetime of trouble from Whig bluenoses because he was a drinker and a gambler) conceived of themselves as the party of virtue, and their opponents as the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion. Indeed, the Republicans not only have historically understood virtue to be the key factor in whether someone is fit to govern, but have also historically been more inclined than the Democrats to schemes for the promotion of virtue in the general population (e.g., Prohibition). When they treat the question of who is fit to govern, the Democrats, by contrast, emphasize merit, or, if you prefer, ability. Go back to Jefferson and the natural aristocracy (today we would say, "meritocracy") and trace the idea down through the Progressive era to our present day: the Democrats believe that those most capable of governing, whatever class they may come from, should govern. Moreover, they believe that such natural leaders can be identified and groomed for their predestined station. It is neither surprising nor accidental that as the ideal of meritocracy has spread through the American professional class, that class has trended more and more towards the Democratic party.
Again, I want to stress that while these are Iron Triangles, that is not to suggest that the individual members of the parties - or, indeed, the parties themselves - are quite so radically dichotomous. The metaphor is, rather, intended to suggest how enduring the distinctions are, and how in each case the three concepts are mutually supporting. It is, somehow, natural for a party that emphasizes equality to be more receptive to a meritocratic elite than to other kinds of elites, and to conceive of the population being governed as a people; the Republican triangle seems to me to be equally natural, though more complimentary than mutually-reinforcing in its parts.
In any event, because I do think these identities are profound and enduring, I think that your party affiliation should ultimately come down to which set of concepts speaks most deeply to you. Individual elections are a matter of choosing the best candidate; affiliation is a matter of identity. For myself, I can say that the Republican triad - Nation, Liberty, Virtue - speaks to me more profoundly than the Democratic triad, which is why, fundamentally, I am a Republican. I don't think that makes me *right* or that the Democratic triad is *evil* - it just means the Republican way of approaching things accords better with my own way of thinking.
I want to make two more points in closing:
First, it is not clear to me that either of the parties is necessarily "conservative" or "progressive" in orientation. Specifically, as alluded to earlier, I think the Southern conservative tradition makes a very odd fit with the Republican legacy, given that it is localist and the Republican tradition is nationalist and it is fundamentally communitarian and traditionalist while the Republican tradition is more libertarian or, better, dynamist. "Liberal Republican" has come to be understood to mean "Republican who doesn't care about the whole 'virtue' thing" just as "conservative Democrat" once was understood to mean, "Democrat who defends segregation or is otherwise retrograde on racial matters." Both terms should mean something more; there should be a liberal wing of the GOP that is distinct in character from liberal Democrats, just as there should be a conservative wing of the Democratic party that is distinct in character from what conservative Republicans are all about. The fact that the parties are increasingly sorting into a European style party of the left and party of the right is a profound loss for America, and is not true to the history of either party.
Second, there is a clear interaction between religion and the triads above and between ethnicity and the triads above. It would be interesting to see how the demographics of each party changed, to what extent this reflected changes in the relative economic position of different ethnic groups, and to what extent this change in politics was also reflected in a change in religion, either actual change in denomination or change in the character of the denomination. I suspect some interesting patterns would emerge.