Political Hay

Who Polarized Congress?

In their current position, it’s up to the Democrats to demonstrate it wasn’t they.

By 11.15.04

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The analysis of the coming changes in the makeup of the U.S. Congress, in yesterday's New York Times, has a certain amount of blather in it, but there is also much evidence adduced to support the conclusion that the Congress, which has become increasingly partisan (especially on the Democrats' side, I should note), will be even more so in the next session. Not a huge surprise, but an interesting phenomenon.

This is happening, of course, because the two major parties have increasingly divided along ideological lines as opposed to the ethnic and social-class coalitions built during the early years of the past century and solidified during the Great Depression, in which the Democrats set themselves as the party of the underdogs and the Republicans made themselves the party of social order. That is to say, the Democrats emphasized the pursuit of justice, and the Republicans pressed the pursuit of order.

Ronald Reagan and his opponents had a good deal to do with blowing those coalitions to pieces, as has been widely observed. But the reasons, I think, are rather different from what most analysts have given us. Reagan actually never shook off his core ideas of true (a.k.a. classical, Whig) liberalism. He never left the Democratic Party, Reagan always said, but instead the party left him; and just so, he never left liberalism, but instead modern liberalism left him. As a result, when Reagan ran for the presidency, he emphasized how much social disorder, economic stagnation, and social stratification harmed society's underdogs, taking up a traditionally Democratic theme and offering a highly plausible political alternative. As president, he acted on those premises, and was reelected overwhelmingly.

The Democrats, for their part, dug in their heels and continued to press the underdog button, citing especially the terrifying specter of rule by conservative, Southern, evangelical Christians (not coincidentally, a large part of Reagan's base, whom the Democrats judged they had to attack in order to retain their support among the wealthier class of so-called liberals).

The Democrats would have been smarter to try to woo the evangelicals back into the fold by acknowledging them as underdogs, which would have been an easy, logical move to make. But this would have involved jettisoning the antireligious, ACLU wing of the party, along with the rest of the intellectual class, which they were by no means prepared to do.

That decision, however, meant that the Democrats would openly become increasingly the party of the privileged classes, which would finally confirm the very role reversal the Republican had been trying to establish: the Republicans as the party of the search for ordered liberty, and the Democrats as the party of privilege, atheism, pacifism, and social and economic sclerosis.

BILL CLINTON MANAGED TO forestall this disaster temporarily, presenting himself as a formerly (and indeed often currently) oppressed southern Christian, and as a result, he and Al Gore were able to hold down turnout among evangelicals and induce a huge turnout among African-American voters in recent presidential elections, thereby winning a few Southern and Midwestern states the Democrats had been unable to wrest from the Reagan Republicans. The party's nomination of John Kerry in 2004, however, made impossible any outreach to southern Christians, especially given that the token Southerner on the ticket was such an obvious empty suit.

That left the Democrats with only modern liberals to woo, and the Republicans with the conservatives. (In actuality, the Democrats of today are the real conservatives, wanting to preserve the welfare state, sexual revolution, pacifism, and Court-ordered restrictions on individual liberty that were implemented during the past half-century. The Republicans of today are the truly liberal party, with their emphasis on creating an economically and socially dynamic "opportunity society.")

Hence the severe ideological divide of today, and the hardening of the nation into two camps along the lines noted above. The policy differences between the two candidates in the recent election, which played out in similar terms on the state and local levels, simply reflected and confirmed these divisions.

THIS APPEARS TO BE a largely salutary change, as it brings a certain amount of clarity to the political situation. It appears, however, to be an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party. The Republicans have their side staked out and seem fairly comfortable with it, despite some internal divisions-but the Democrats seem increasingly uncomfortable with theirs. African-Americans, suburban mothers, and union members, for example, do not share most of the values of the farther-Left side of their party. The three former groups adhere to the Democrat Party mainly for its traditional championing of the underdog, and they are by no means in it for a radical transformation of the American mind and society.

That tension seems likely to remain until these persons either leave the party or take it over.

These weaknesses of the Democratic Party also create a temptation for the Republicans to press their agenda beyond what is politically wise. The presence of two strongly plausible political parties, each with a serious respect for the pursuit of both liberty and order both within the United States and in the international environment, would surely be much better than the current situation.

It will be up to the Democrats, however, to change themselves sufficiently to make this happen. The Republicans, being in the driver's seat, have little incentive to alter their direction.

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About the Author

S.T. Karnick is senior editor at The Heartland Institute, associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute, and coeditor of The Reform Club.