Parties aren’t arbitrary collections of interest groups either
In one way, I agree with Mark’s post. There is nothing inherently liberal in the Democratic Party, and nothing inherently conservative in the Republican Party. All of the most common ideological terms – conservative, liberal, reactionary, progressive – are at best, convenient descriptions of pluralities of Party members at this particular point in history. Useful in casual conversation, but frustratingly contradictory for anyone who thinks about it for more than 5 minutes.
But where I disagree is with the idea that outside of ideological coherence, you’re left with concluding that political parties are: a) a coalition of interest groups; or b) a vehicle for gaining power. My own take is that political parties have their own philosophies, quite separate from the ideological groupings that count today, and that, while those groupings can and will evolve into, form, join, or co-opt other parties, there will still be room for the voters who have always been Democrats or Republicans, and, if you dropped them into any point throughout American history (at least after each party was formed) would have then also been members of the same party they claim today. In other words, they’re realignment-proof.
This is actually one of the things that always bugs me with the debate between the assumed progressive base of the Democratic Party and the “Clintonian (or New) Democratic” wing. Until about a century ago, Progressives were more closely associated with the Republican Party, most famously Teddy Roosevelt. Until about 55 years ago, the Clintonian Democrats – who I would describe as optimistic, future-focused, market-oriented moderates – were also most closely associated with the Republican Party; Dwight Eisenhower, in this case. So, the back and forth between who *actually* forms the nucleus of the Democratic Party today is basically hashed out between two factions that would’ve called themselves Republicans anytime before, say, 1912.
Fifty years from now, progressives may have moved back into the Republican camp, may have joined the Green Party, may have formed their own Party, or may have stayed with the Democrats – but whatever happens, they’re progressives first, partisans second. The same can be said of New Democrats (though admittedly, they might have to change their name), the libertarian-Right, libertarian-Left, religious-Right, religious-Left, or yes, even (maybe) my beloved Populists.
The marriage between ideology and Party has always been a marriage of convenience, and it shouldn’t be shocking to us when the partners move on in search of a new love, or when, with a wink, Party leaders in one part of the country allow fellow partisans in another region to flirt with another ideology. But when an ideology switches its partisan allegiance, the Party it leaves doesn’t just become an empty shell waiting to take on the identity of its next suitor.
I was thinking about this recently when I read a couple of articles on Democratic Party factions and other ideological groupings, and I noticed a couple of weird patterns about the descriptions of “conservative democrats” and “moderate democrats.” Intuitively, it would make sense to imagine the Democratic Party as a line between conservatives and Progressives (or liberal, if you prefer), with moderates in the middle. Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but it would stand to reason that conservatives are to the Right of moderates who are in turn to the Right of progressives.
But in the Pew survey, the Conservative Democrat “corresponding typology” is New Dealer. By contrast, according to the wikipedia article, the New Democrats (generally lumped in with moderates) promote “neoliberal fiscal issues.” And, also in the wikipedia article, it is argued that:
“Conservative Democrats are distinguishable by staunch liberal views on economic issues (a populist orientation setting them apart from conservative Republicans and explaining their continued allegiance to the Democratic Party), with their moderate to conservative views on other issues.”
So this implies that conservative Democrats are basically Reagan Democrats – the once solidly Democratic, stereotypically rust belt grouping who started breaking away from the Party in the late ’60s, while moderate Democrats are the formerly Republican, professional class voters who began voting Democratic in the ’90s, but never felt particularly comfortable with the protectionist or class-conscious wings of the Party.
If that’s the case, then it makes more sense to imagine the conservative-moderate-liberal Democratic factions as a triangle, each sharing some issues with another faction and differing on others. If it’s a triangle, then there’s no reason to imagine some sort of continuum that would lead into Republican territory: conservative Democrats would be no closer to Republicanism than moderate Democrats or progressive Democrats.
I also found it interesting the way the passage distinguishes between conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans – the two are very different, despite sharing their conservatism. Parties matter, independent of any modifying ideology. The same shorthand can be said of liberal – or, “Rockefeller” Republicans.
Over the past 40 or so years, the ideological grouping has gained importance while the partisan grouping has diminished, so it has become second nature to put the emphasis on the first word – liberal Republican, conservative Democrat to the modern ear is virtually the same as saying Democratic-leaning Republican or Republican-leaning Democrat. Again, if politics is viewed as a continuum, there would be little, if any, difference between those two particular groupings.
But intuitively, we know that there is a major difference between Reagan Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans. Trace it back to the farm and labor roots of the Democratic Party and the business and civic roots of the Republican Party, if you want. I don’t know – good an explanation as any, I guess.
So getting back to Mark’s point, I just don’t think that the fact of differing (and sometimes opposing) ideologies within the same Party is proof of some overall arbitrariness in the Party system. I’d say this is especially true when it involves an issue like crime – something that really can’t be given a partisan home.
None of that is to say that parties shouldn’t be exlusionary to some extent (former Senator Bob Kerrey has referred to himself as a “Hamiltonian Democrat,” something I’ve always found too contradictory to make any sense). But being exclusionary in terms of progressive-conservative ideology is itself pretty arbitrary and completely denies the ancestry of each Party.