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The Chieftains and the Church

An Intellectual Audit of the Democrats and the Republicans
January 20, 2004 |
The American people deserve better -- and they know it, to judge by the legions of self-described "independents."
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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the rivalry between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Ever since 1854, when the implosion of the Whigs paved the way for the birth of the Republican Party (twenty-six years after the emergence of the Democrats), this rivalry has dominated and even defined American politics. Although the reign of these two parties has endured for well over half the life of our republic, it would be a mistake to assume that either party has remained consistent -- or even recognizable.

Quick -- which party stands for small government, states' rights, and laissez-faire economics? Which favors an activist federal government, public infrastructure projects, and expanded civil rights? Today the answers would be Republican and Democratic, respectively. Yet each party was founded on precisely the principles now associated with the other. And consider that the South, originally a stronghold of the Democrats, is now the anchor of the Republicans. But the most dramatic inversion in partisan identity is this: the Republicans in recent years have emerged as revolutionaries, while the Democrats have relegated themselves to defending tradition and the status quo.

The 150th anniversary of their rivalry provides an occasion for an intellectual audit of these two ever changing parties.

The Party of the Church

Let's begin with the Republicans, who under President George W. Bush have become the party of big ideas. There is no denying the range and boldness of their initiatives, from privatizing Social Security to institutionalizing a doctrine of preventive warfare; from eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends to pulling out of numerous international treaties; from encouraging school choice to remaking the Middle East. This boldness is in itself an anomaly for a party that in past decades has tended to revere inherited norms and institutions, but it is just one of the signs that this is not the Republican Party of George W.'s father. Indeed, its identity seems to have no clear lineage.

The modern Republican tradition is usually thought to have originated with the firebrand rhetoric of Barry Goldwater, which ultimately paved the way for the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan revolution was built on three unifying principles: anti-communism, social conservatism, and limited government. The sudden end of the Cold War left the Republicans with only two of these principles around which to organize. But most Americans let it be known that they were not particularly interested in fighting domestic culture wars, much less in turning back the clock on newfound personal freedoms. The Republican Party's anti-government agenda, meanwhile, culminated in the Gingrich revolution of 1994, which sought to downsize all sorts of federal programs. To Newt Gingrich's surprise, the majority of Americans didn't really want a dramatic cutback in government programs and perceived his agenda as extremist.

George W. Bush is the first Republican President to recognize that the constituency for the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich anti-government crusade is dwindling -- inspiring him to try to reposition his party. Although Bush calls his new and improved governing philosophy "compassionate conservatism," a more accurate description might be "big-spending conservatism."

Unlike Reagan, who shrank nondefense spending considerably and vetoed a number of spending bills in his first three years, Bush has so far increased total federal spending by a dizzying 20.4 percent and has yet to veto a single spending bill. The contrast is all the more dramatic when Bush is compared with Bill Clinton, who declared the end of big government, who in his first three years increased total government spending by only 3.5 percent, and who actually reduced discretionary spending by 8.8 percent. Clinton's Republican successor is quietly reversing course with a vengeance, leading the libertarian Cato Institute to accuse Bush of "governing like a Frenchman."

The President's reason for engineering this reversal, apparently, is to overcome the budgetary obstacles to parts of his agenda. For example, he seeks to privatize public services and enhance individual choice -- school choice, retirement choice (through private Social Security accounts), and medical choice (through private health insurance instead of government-run programs). But moving from one-size-fits-all government programs to more-flexible privatized ones may require more public outlay, not less, than simply preserving the status quo. As the price for bringing competition into Medicare, for instance, Bush enacted a prescription-drug benefit that represents the largest expansion in entitlements since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And moving to private Social Security accounts would entail funding two entirely separate systems during the transition period.

Fighting the war on terrorism, too, is expensive. But rather than adjusting his agenda accordingly, Bush has pushed through three huge tax cuts in as many years. In the process he has fatally undermined the coherence of his overall program. Fusing vast new spending with deep tax cuts, Bush is locking into place long-term structural deficits whose costs to both our nation and the Republican Party would be difficult to overstate.

To understand why the Republican majority in Congress is playing along with the President, it helps to think of today's Republican Party as a theocracy; call it the Party of the Church. Under Bush the party is guided by a core ideology that it pursues with a near religious fervor, regardless of countervailing facts, changing circumstances, or even opposition among the conservative ranks. The President and his inner circle not only set the canon but demand -- and usually get -- strict compliance from Republican legislators in both houses of Congress. The two central tenets of Bush's orthodoxy are tax cuts and regime change in Iraq. He has staked the success of his presidency on them.

In the Party of the Church the theologians' role is played by hundreds of conservative scholars in think tanks, at publications, and on radio talk shows. That the academy is missing from this list is not an accident: conservative scholars could not find comfortable perches within university settings. But being banished from the academy served the Republican theologians remarkably well, because it enabled them to cultivate a style of argument and writing far better suited to reaching -- and converting -- both the public and politicians. The infrastructure of conservative thought is as well financed as it is complex; it includes seminaries in which to train conservative young scholars (the Heritage Foundation even has special dormitories for its interns), and what might be thought of as separate "orders," each upholding a slightly different school of thought -- from the libertarians to the social conservatives to the neoconservatives. This sprawling idea machine produces not only policy innovations but also the language ("welfare queens," "the death tax") with which to sell the party's agenda.

Not surprisingly, the Party of the Church is highly moralistic. President Bush tends to frame issues in terms of ethical absolutes: good and evil, right and wrong. Moralism may or may not make for good politics, but it rarely makes for good policy, because it substitutes wishful and parochial thinking for careful analysis. Its ascendancy reflects a broader shift in the Republican Party -- a shift away from an identity that was secular, pragmatic, and northeastern toward one that, like the President himself, is more evangelical and southern. Nowhere is this more evident than in foreign policy, where Bush -- reviving what the historian Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian tradition -- is turning his back on both the realpolitik of Richard Nixon and the conservative internationalism of Reagan and his own father, making pre-emption rather than containment the central organizing principle and favoring unilateral action over multilateral diplomacy. In doing so Bush has discarded hundreds of years of international law and decades of American tradition. The most immediate cost is that the United States has alienated much of the world in the name of making it safe.

"Supply-Side Keynesianism"

When it comes to economic orthodoxy, the Party of the Church is no more consistent with traditional Republican principles. Although the Republicans claim to be devoted to free markets, most of the big economic interests identified with the party are surprisingly dependent on federal subsidies, protectionism, or both. The most obvious examples are southern growers of cotton, sugar, oranges, and peanuts, and midwestern producers of grain. The Administration is so committed to shielding these interests from global competition that it elected to let the Cancun round of trade negotiations collapse -- dealing a significant blow to the prospects for expanded free trade -- rather than pressure Congress to reduce U.S. agricultural subsidies. In similar fashion, the Bush Administration supports lavish federal subsidies for a wide range of extractive industries (including oil, gas, and coal) and for cattle ranching.

No assessment of the modern Republican Party would be complete without a discussion of the elaborate mythology of supply-side economics, whose logic has been strained to the breaking point under Bush's watch. The basic supply-side argument is that tax cuts increase the incentive to work, save, and invest, which boosts economic growth. During the Reagan years such logic was used to argue that slashing tax rates would actually increase tax revenues, by producing additional growth -- but this has long since been dismissed by mainstream economists and shown false by the record of history. The party also uses supply-side economics to justify tax cuts that are disproportionately skewed in favor of the well-to-do, on the grounds that they are the most likely to save and invest. This argument has always been suspect, and it is even less credible in the aftermath of the technology bubble; the economic woes of the past few years have been due not to lack of investment but, rather, to an excess of capacity.

By sticking with the old supply-side formula -- cut taxes as often as possible, especially for the wealthy -- Bush has delivered a particularly costly and inefficient stimulus package to help the nation out of its economic downturn. And the Administration seems to recognize as much, given that it has hedged its bets by marrying large supply-side tax cuts with equally large demand-side spending increases, yielding an odd hybrid that might be called "supply-side Keynesianism." This contradictory policy suggests that not even Republicans still believe in the magic of their standard fix. Yet they are not about to abandon the myth. It is far too sacrosanct and convenient an article of faith in the Republican canon.

A major risk in combining moralism and policy, evidently, is that dogma often trumps intellectual honesty. This is particularly clear in the case of official claims that the Administration's overall economic agenda is aimed at helping middle-class families. A more candid articulation of its domestic-policy vision appeared in a June 2003 Washington Post op-ed article by Grover Norquist, one of the most influential of conservative strategists. "The new Republican policy is an annual tax cut," Norquist wrote; he predicted that Bush would proceed step by step to abolish estate and capital-gains taxes altogether, to exempt all savings from taxation, and to move the nation to a flat tax on wages only. Implicit in this vision is not only a grand contradiction -- cutting taxes while raising spending is unsustainable -- but also a significant shift in the burden of taxation from the wealthy to the working class and the poor. Apparently the contemporary Republican Party does remain faithful to at least one old conservative belief, which Clinton Rossiter, in his book Conservatism in America, described nearly fifty years ago as "the inevitability and necessity of social classes."

The Party of the Chieftains

For its part, the Democratic Party suffers from a different sort of incoherence: plagued by constant squabbling among the interest groups that make up its base, it cannot agree on a clear message or purpose. The sheer breadth of the Democratic coalition is remarkable: it includes organized labor, teachers' and other public employees' unions, environmentalists, racial minorities (especially African-Americans), Hollywood, trial lawyers, the gray lobby, the gay lobby, civil libertarians, pro-choice activists, and a good bit of Wall Street. Although this breadth might seem to be an asset for the Democrats, all these groups are veto-wielding factions when it comes to their respective chunks of the policy turf. This can be downright paralyzing.

If the Republicans are now the Party of the Church, then the Democrats are the Party of the Chieftains. They treat an election almost like a parade: groups that otherwise have little in common come together every year or two, only to return to their niches afterward. The multiplicity of purpose is all the more evident when the party is out of office. During his eight-year presidency Clinton relied on his political skill and charisma -- and the benefits of a growing economy -- to keep most Democratic factions happy and essentially reading from the same playbook.

When Bush took office, however, the deep tensions among the Democrats resurfaced. For instance, take the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street. Under the New Deal, when U.S. industry was little challenged by competition from abroad, workers and owners of capital managed to reach common ground on a number of issues, from workers' rights to basic benefits. But the subsequent globalization of manufacturing and services led to the collapse of this alliance. Thus whereas Wall Street and some high-tech firms favor financial liberalization, copyright protection, balanced budgets, and a strong dollar (to make imported goods less expensive), working-class Americans want curbs on job flight, tougher international labor standards, strengthened safety nets, and a weaker dollar (to boost exports of the goods they manufacture). The fiercer the global competition, the fiercer the tension between these traditional Democratic camps. The party is just as torn on social issues: Hollywood, members of minorities, and civil libertarians favor identity politics, social liberalism, and political correctness, whereas this agenda tends to offend the sensibilities of working-class white men.

In the run-up to this year's primaries, the tensions among the Democratic Chieftains have culminated in an all-out struggle for their party's soul, with one camp claiming to represent the "Democratic wing" and another claiming to represent the "electable wing." Although the feuding is over style as well as substance, at least three issues clearly divide left and center: the left is resolutely against the war in Iraq, whereas the center defends it (though averring that it should have been conducted in a more multilateral fashion); the left wants to repeal all Bush's tax cuts, whereas the center favors repealing only some; and the left is wary of unregulated free trade, whereas the center embraces free trade and globalization. In many ways this is a battle over the Clinton legacy. Clintonian centrists fear that the party's new image on welfare, crime, free trade, foreign policy, and fiscal policy -- which they worked so hard to establish -- will be undermined by a nominee from the party's left.

Fiscal responsibility is another major source of tension within the Democratic Party. Ever since Clinton salvaged the party's credibility in this area, Democrats have tried to build on that new reputation. But those efforts produced two serious problems for the party, one short-term and one longer-term. Over the past three years, while the economy was weak, it may have been a mistake for the Democrats to hew to a policy of fiscal rectitude -- especially when it prevented them from thinking creatively about a temporary stimulus package. Maintaining fiscal discipline over the longer term, however, is truly important. Yet it is unclear whether the Democrats will be able to do so given all the programs the various Chieftains are demanding. The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has thrown this conflict into sharp relief. All the contenders cite fiscal prudence as grounds for repealing some or all of Bush's tax cuts -- but all then propose to spend the money thus recouped on everything from expanding health insurance to improving schools. From a budgetary perspective there is no difference between decreasing public revenue through tax cuts and increasing public spending through new programs. The Democrats could argue that theirs is a more compassionate form of fiscal irresponsibility (it's better to have health insurance for children than tax cuts for the rich), but they can't argue that they're being any more fiscally responsible than George Bush.

Regardless of who emerges as the Democratic nominee or which camp he hails from, the bulk of his agenda may be disturbingly predictable and backward-looking. Given the power of the Chieftains, it is almost a certainty that the Democratic candidate in 2004 will be against school choice (to appease teachers' unions) and Social Security reform (the gray lobby), and in favor of affirmative action (minorities) and employer-based health care (organized labor). In these and other ways he will be a defender of the status quo. As Al Sharpton recently put it, approvingly, the Democrats are now the true conservatives.

Trapped in the Past

In its legitimate desire to preserve the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society, the Democratic Party has become trapped in the past, routinely defending antiquated industrial-era programs even when these no longer serve their original ends. George Santayana once defined fanaticism as redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim. Democrats are no fanatics, but they are increasingly guilty of confusing ends and means. Consider employer-based health insurance. The link between health insurance and employment was an accident of history, devised in a bygone era when spending one's working lifetime with a single company was the norm. Now that most Americans change employers every couple of years, does it make sense to rely on a system that forces one to change insurers -- or, worse, risk losing coverage -- every time? And when it comes to protecting Social Security, the Democrats are waging a battle against immutable demographic forces: a program that originated when working-age Americans far outnumbered retirees cannot remain essentially unchanged in a rapidly aging society.

Underlying this abdication of new thinking is a still more troubling liability: the Party of the Chieftains does not trust the American people to make responsible choices for themselves. Although the Democrats are known as the "pro-choice" party, the kinds of choice they are most eager to defend are in the private realm -- reproduction and lifestyle. When it comes to the public sphere (where your child goes to school, or how to invest your Social Security contributions), the Democrats tend to oppose expanding individual choice, largely because some of the leading Chieftains fear that it would weaken their own influence. The Chieftains' reluctance also derives in part from a fear that public programs with more options would undermine equity; but it's possible to devise creative new programs to enhance flexibility and fairness at the same time. Regardless of their reasons, in resisting the expansion of individual choice, a sine qua non of any successful information-age politics, the Democrats have positioned themselves on the wrong side of history.

This inability to advance creative policy solutions hints at yet another problem for the Democrats: the Party of the Chieftains is so busy playing defense that it has forgotten how to play offense. When the Republicans were in the minority during the early Clinton years, they introduced one bold proposal after another -- never expecting that these would pass in the short run, but hoping to galvanize the party and set precedents for the future. To a considerable degree this worked. In contrast, the Democrats have spent the past three years turning timidity into an art form, allowing President Bush to set the terms of the debate and confining themselves to criticizing his agenda rather than venturing one of their own. This is the case even in the foreign-policy arena: other than vague calls for multilateralism and diplomacy, it's unclear how a Democratic grand strategy would differ from the President's.

In short, the Democrats have failed utterly to replenish the intellectual capital on which any party's success ultimately hinges. Whereas the Republicans can turn to large, multi-issue think tanks for guidance and inspiration, the Democrats have mainly single-issue groups -- environmentalists, civil-rights activists, women's-rights activists -- with neither the capacity nor the incentive to forge a greater whole. The flimsiness and Balkanization of the Democratic intellectual infrastructure owes much to the proclivities of progressive philanthropies, which are far more likely to invest in grassroots demonstration programs than in the war of ideas, and which tend to award grants that are strictly limited to particular subject areas, thereby discouraging cross-pollination. Lacking other options, most liberal scholars therefore gravitate to the academy -- which actually inhibits them from shaping the public debate. As academic disciplines become ever more specialized, professors are encouraged to publish in esoteric journals -- whose only audience is other professors -- rather than in the popular press. Whereas conservative scholars have influence far out of proportion to their numbers, liberal scholars have numbers far out of proportion to their influence.

Not only is the Party of the Chieftains at a loss for new ideas, but it lacks a language for defending its core values. In part this is because the Chieftains like to describe their respective constituencies as victims in order to secure concessions from a party that tends to root for the underdog. Republicans, in contrast, are likely to address citizens as if they were all just around the corner from becoming millionaires. This creates a perception that the Republicans are the party of winners and the Democrats the party of losers.

During the Great Depression, when it was painfully obvious that citizens were vulnerable to forces beyond their control, it was easier for a Democratic leader such as FDR to craft a message of collective well-being -- that all Americans would be better off if each American were given a helping hand by the government. Nowadays American culture increasingly emphasizes the opposite message: that individuals are to blame for their own problems. Yet the profound dislocations caused by globalization and technological change make the need for an overarching vision of a better society just as urgent as it was in FDR's time.

"The success of a party," Woodrow Wilson claimed, "means little except when the nation is using that party for a large and definite purpose." By this standard both the Party of the Church and the Party of the Chieftains are failures. The Republicans are handicapped by an ideology holding that it is somehow possible to pursue big-spending conservatism at home and an interventionist military program abroad while cutting taxes repeatedly. The Democrats, meanwhile, are paralyzed by the micro-agendas of numerous feuding factions. Both parties wear straitjackets of their own design.

The American people deserve better -- and they know it, to judge by the legions of self-described "independents." Fortunately, our major parties are mere vessels; the principles, agendas, and coalitions they contain can vary dramatically from decade to decade. It is just a matter of time, history suggests, until both parties are reinvented. Let us hope they will improve.

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