It's all the Republicans' fault. Or is it?
I wrote about my reservations about the Ornstein Mann proclamation that it's all the Republicans' fault earlier in the week. I'm glad to see a few others have also seen the problem with their thesis.
Here's Kevin Drum:
Matt Steinglass catches even Ornstein and Mann not quite having the courage of their convictions. In the op-ed, they use a football metaphor to describe how the two parties have evolved since the end of the Reagan era: "While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post." But that's really not true:Exactly. And so my point was that if Democrats are as Ornstein and Mann says, "protectors of the status quo" they are protecting the right wing gains. The status quo is already conservative and gets more conservative every day.
The Democrats, as far as I can see, have moved from their 40-yard-line to midfield, or their opponents' 45. As recently as the Clinton presidency, Democrats actively pushed for gun control, defence budgets under 3% of GDP, banning oil exploration off America's Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a public option or single-payer solution to universal health insurance, and...well, Clinton-era progressive income-tax rates. Today these positions have all been abandoned. And we're talking about positions held under Bill Clinton, a "third way" leader who himself moved Democratic ideology dramatically to the right, the guy responsible for "ending welfare as we know it". Since then, Democrats have moved much further yet to the right, in the fruitless search for a compromise with a Republican Party that sees compromise itself as fundamentally evil. The obvious example is that the Democrats in 2010 literally passed the universal health-insurance reform that had been proposed by the GOP opposition in the Clinton administration, only to find today's GOP vilifying it as a form of Leninist socialist totalitarianism.And Matt doesn't even mention education policy, civil liberties, or crime, all areas where Democrats have also moved to the right since the end of the 80s.
This piece by Sandi Behrns wonders whether the Democrats' insistence on moving right may have actually pushed the Republicans:
If you’re going to represent the extreme right of the party, where do you go when the mainstream of the party has moved into what used to be the fringe? The bulk of the Republican Party now denies climate change (something they acknowledged a few short years ago.) Heck, for that matter, the norm in the party is now to deny science of any kind. And it’s not just science. Not too many years ago, the patron saint of the GOP, Ronald Reagan, implemented things like amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and tax increases — even engagement with Europe! Today, these positions are anathema to Republicans.The author points out that it's probably not a conspiracy because Democrat could never be that disciplined, which is true. But this chicken or the egg proposition is interesting.
What went so terribly wrong? Did the Republican Party move further and further right? Or were they pushed? The thing is, at the same time the GOP moved inexorably to the right, so did the Democratic Party. The center-right, which used to be populated by semi-reasonable Republicans is now the exclusive domain of “moderate” Democrats.
If one accepts that the two party system represents two warring tribes whose disagreements have as much to do with culture and identity as policies, the fact that the Democrats have consciously sought to appropriate the right wing's assumptions and rhetoric could have had the effect of making them more extreme. That's not an uncommon reaction in human nature and I suspect it's less uncommon among right wingers than others. Being "different" from liberals is fundamental to their worldview.
If this is true, I think it probably wasn't the desire to "moderate" the party that pushed the Republicans further right as much as it was the decision to sideline and demean their own left flank. When you're dealing with a Party that has an extremist fringe, you need your fractious faction to provide ballast. When the Democrats completely abandoned their relationship with the populist left and working feverishly to find "common ground" on the so-called culture war issues, they left the conservatives nowhere to run. These are not people who will ever "moderate." It's not in their nature. Trying to split the difference with people who never meet you halfway always ends up advancing their agenda.
This is not new. William Hazlitt wrote about this problem in his 1820 called "On the Spirit of Partisanship." I wrote about this a long time ago:
Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. "They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse."
The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer. "We"---i.e., the liberals, or the "popular cause," in Hazlitt's terminology---"stand in awe of their threats, because in the absence of passion we are tender of our persons.
They beat us in courage and in intellect, because we have nothing but the common good to sharpen our faculties or goad our will; they have no less an alternative in view than to be uncontrolled masters of mankind or to be hurled from high---Today, many Democrats are simply conservative/centrist trojan horses, doing the bidding of the moneyed elite from within the Democratic Party. That is why, if you think it's important that liberals hold some state power, it's important to wage the battle within the Democratic Party as well.
"To grinning scorn a sacrifice,
And endless infamy!"
They do not celebrate the triumphs of their enemies as their own: it is with them a more feeling disputation. They never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; they assume all that makes for them; if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs.
While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanité.
Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them---to treat them according to your own fancied dignity. They have sense and spirit enough to take all advantages that will further their cause: you have pedantry and pusillanimity enough to undertake the defence of yours, in order to defeat it.
It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest.