Once upon a time the Democratic and Republican Parties were big-tent organizations, trying to appeal to as wide a swath of public opinion as they could manage. Although the Republicans were generally conservative and the Democrats generally liberal, there was a huge area of overlap between them. They were divided, not so much by governing philosophies, as by somewhat divergent interest groups along with their pet issues. Big business tended to support the Republicans, while big labour was onside of the Democrats.
In those days there were conservative Democrats, many from the south, who championed the rights of the states over what they saw as an excessively intrusive federal government. Senator Strom Thurmond and Alabama Governor George Wallace exemplified this group. There were also liberal Republicans, such as the late Illinois Senator Charles Percy, who introduced legislation to encourage the building of affordable housing for low-income families. After the US Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, the two parties were internally divided on the issue, with pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats sharing the political landscape with pro-life Republicans and pro-choice Democrats. Even Senator Edward Kennedy initially considered himself pro-life.
When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, this was still largely the lay of the land, but no longer. In recent years the two parties have become increasingly polarized. Although there is still a dwindling number of pro-life Democrats, the party leadership has deliberately marginalized them. Those who persist in maintaining their convictions on this issue find themselves unable to advance within its ranks. Even Democrats for Life America is compelled to pose this question on its website: “Can you be pro-life in a pro-choice party?” Although Catholics and Southern Baptists were once integral components of the Democratic coalition, the current secularizing leadership has pulled the party in a direction that would have been unthinkable to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Sensing that the Democratic Party was moving away from the American mainstream, the Republican Party successfully reached out to these two core groups in the 1980s, thereby adding the so-called “Reagan Democrats” to its own support base. The Republicans looked set to establish their own dynasty for years to come, capitalizing on the missteps of the opposition. With the current administration’s attack on the religious freedom of faith-based organizations, this should be the Republicans’ year. But things may not turn out that way.
Although the libertarian component had always been part of the Republican coalition, it has gained more visibility with the Tea Party in recent years. As Mitt Romney was poised to become his party’s standard bearer last month, he chose as his vice-presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has Tea Party support. Ryan once professed to be heavily influenced by Russian-American author Ayn Rand, who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. An atheist and avowed opponent of altruism, she championed the individual over the community, as seen in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which have a cult following amongst North American libertarians. Rand’s preferred social ethic would see a minimal state at best, along with a strict laissez-faire economy. From her perspective, the welfare state is not just ineffective and expensive; it is immoral.
Sad to say, polarization has brought out the worst elements in both parties. The Democrats seem to be controlled by those who misunderstand the comprehensive claims of religious faith, narrowing freedom of religion to a mere freedom of worship. The Republicans appear to be flirting with social Darwinists who believe in survival of the fittest. Not a pretty picture.
Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Both parties accept the historic liberal preference for individualism and voluntarism. One defends the right of individuals to follow their own personal and sexual preferences, even at the expense of institutions with stricter internal membership standards. The other believes the individual should pursue his or her own economic goals, even at the expense of the commons. If Democrats and Republicans are indeed polarized, it is not, after all, over basic principles; it is over who has rightful title to those principles.
I will not presume to predict a winner in November, but I will predict that there will be no happily ever after.