Americans are split along party lines more evenly and bitterly than in past decades. The divisive 2004 election only reinforced the perception of a yawning gap separating Republicans and Democrats. Everyone knows that commitment to one party or the other is a decisive, either-or choice. One side represents an aggressive foreign policy, tax cuts, and conservative social values; the other places a premium on diplomacy and dialogue, generous social programs, equal marriage rights for gays and abortion rights. At first glance, the difference couldn’t be more clear. However, this black-and-white contrast is not borne out by party history and ideology.
Still wearing off the hype of the last election, we too often forget that there is no direct ideological link connecting the first Democratic and Republican presidents to the current parties. When we say, “I am a proud Democrat” or “I am a proud Republican,” we must keep in mind that no consistent set of party beliefs representing a linear political tradition has existed in the course of American history.
It is important to face the contradictions of the parties’ histories and beliefs head on. Ignoring the elusive but unmistakable shades of gray that complicate the seemingly clear separation between red and blue oversimplifies the present and distorts the past.
Our standard association of the Republican party with states’ rights and the Democratic party with a more robust federal government bears little resemblance to their original ideological demarcations. The Democratic National Committee Web site claims that the party descended directly from Thomas Jefferson. In 1792, Jefferson created a party he called Republican, not Democratic (they later became the Democratic Republicans) that championed an agrarian society, states’ rights, strict constructionism, and opposed Hamilton’s economic conservatism.
As this breakdown indicates, nothing was as it is now. Jefferson, the claimed ancestor of modern Democrats, supported states’ rights and feared a strong central state — positions we associate with conservatism — while the conservative Hamilton argued for a strong federal government. Hamilton wanted a loose interpretation of the Constitution — traditionally a liberal position — while Jefferson supported strict constructionism, precisely what Bush now advocates. This only gives a glimpse at the original alignments and the groundwork laid for the creation of the current parties.
After Trent Lott’s veiled praise of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregation platform, the stereotype of the Republican party as the anti-civil rights party was only confirmed. Once again, however, it behooves us to remember that the first Republican president authored the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Civil War amendments, ending slavery and granting citizenship and equal protection were passed under the guise of Republican leadership. Only after the formation of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose party in 1918 and FDR’s New Deal did the party divisions arise as we know them today.
In foreign policy, too, the example of the current president reveals contradictory origins. First, George W. Bush reneged on his own 2000 campaign pledge that the United States will avoid nation-building. Second, his commitment to democratize the Middle East in order to spread freedom and thereby defend U.S. interests stems from Democrat Woodrow Wilson and his plan to extend the system of sovereign nation-states to non-Western countries.
It was a Republican, Warren Harding, who supported American political and economic isolationism as a response to the First World War. Bush certainly takes more from Wilson than Harding, because even though Bush is accused of unilateralism, our intense military commitment in Iraq, diplomatic tensions with North Korea and Iran, and expanding global trade and humanitarian assistance show vigorous involvement in the world community. Thus, a Republican president takes after Wilson.
This history is well known, but it is often brushed aside by modern party enthusiasts who think a complex set of political, economic and social beliefs can be neatly configured into a hermetic red or blue package with a sticker saying, “Made in 2004.”
Ralph Nader has joked that, “The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.” This is a sarcastic hyperbole, but it reminds us of the need to analyze the two parties in a more complex and challenging way and to stop pretending they are unchanging and unrelated opposites.
Over history, party ideology has changed substantially in reaction to various events. Neither side today should fear making daring, far-reaching changes in their platforms. Democrats have talked about revitalizing their party since Sen. John Kerry’s failed presidential bid. They may need to alter their positions to attract different voters, or select more persuasive, engaging candidates.
The Republican party, although victorious, cannot afford to gloat. The debate between isolationist conservatives and neo-cons threatens the party’s cohesion, as does the rift between pro-life, anti-gay-marriage Republicans and more socially moderate ones like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Today’s entrenched party breakdowns may need critical re-evaluation more than fervent defense. If done right, such re-envisioning is not a betrayal of party principles precisely because party history points to the need for such adaptability.
Mark Hanin is a sophomore in Silliman College.