By Joe Campbell
March 24th, 2010
David Brooks, yesterday, in the New York Times:
For the past 90 years or so, the Republican Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism. For a similar period, the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security. Over the past century, they have built a welfare system, brick by brick, to guard against the injuries of fate.
As usual, Brooks’s column was thoughtful. But I had a bit of a problem with his summary of each party, even acknowledging he means each party at its best.
It’s always hard to come up with a thumbnail sketch of each party – because there are always things which contradict what you say. Each party can be said to contain multitudes, even though a casual glance almost always reveals just enough to confirm whatever stereotypes you might have.
To my mind though, the real difference between the Republican Party and Democratic Party, even only on domestic matters and with each party taken at it’s best, is not fairness versus freedom and economic dynamism versus economic (or family) security. The difference between the parties is not primarily determined by what positive things they seek to provide: I wouldn’t say that Republicans value fairness less or freedom more for example. Rather, the difference can best be summed up by either looking at what each party views as a more legitimate way of achieving social ends or by looking at what each party sees as the bigger threat to citizens.
There are going to be counterexamples and such to this summary, but I think it reveals deeper truths than Brooks’s.
Legitimacy: Republicans attack the idea that government can legitimately be used as a tool to achieve broadly agreed upon ends. They look to private institutions to guide the course of society – the invisible hand even; this means private capital markets, private corporations, and religious organizations. Democrats accept these institutions, but they see the government as legitimate tool as well.
Threats to Citizens. In area of domestic policy, Republicans see the biggest threat to citizens as the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security. In the area of domestic policy, Democrats see the biggest threat to citizens coming from corporations, unchecked by the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security.
Alternatively, the version of Republicanism becoming more dominant today sees the biggest threat to citizens as coming from an ideology called liberalism – which brainwashes citizens through the media and seeks power anywhere it can – churches, corporations, the media, the government. This view sees politics as a cultural battle.
I’ve tried to make these non-judgmental and descriptive – and I think it is evident which approach makes more sense. Neither political party seems to me to have a very different view of what they want America to look like: They both support personal freedom and fairness, economic dynamism and family security. America has established a complex system of tradeoffs between these values – and few in either party seek to overturn that. They seek slight modifications this way or that – it’s just a matter of rather small degrees of difference. The bigger difference is in how each party sees the path forward – what is sees as the legitimate ends to achieve the necessary changes, and how it diagnoses the problems that need to be changed.
Any alternate sketches of this difference – along the same lines – attempting to be non-judgmental and descriptive – are welcome in comments of elsewhere.
For what it’s worth, I would say the Tea Party and much of the energy on the left comes from those rejecting each of these frameworks – and who see both corporations and government as the problem. I’m not sure what countervailing force they propose though.
Check out an older post of mine for my view of the basic principles of liberalism.
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