THE reverberations of the shock decision of Vermont Senator James Jeffords to abandon the Republican Party are still being felt on Capitol Hill, where the Democrats have now, as a result, taken over the leadership positions reserved for the majority. Political defections are rare here, amusingly enough for an Indian observer – after all, in our country, politicians switch party affiliations as readily as a Bollywood actress swaps costumes (Ajit Singh, for instance, has changed parties 13 times in the last 15 years). But what really struck me as a foreigner was the widespread lament in America, in both news coverage and analysis (and in letters to the editor) that the Republican party was losing its liberal wing. Without exception, every commentator in the mass media seemed to think it essential that each party embrace all points of view.
What Americans seem blissfully unaware of is that that is what most foreigners think is strange about American politics. Foreign intellectuals have long tended to regard the United States as a country which has substituted Hollywood for history and picnics for politics: the contest between Democrats and Republicans is difficult for them to take seriously. Even the names of the two main parties are carefully unideological labels which blur into interchangeability (after all, every Republican is a democrat and every Democrat a republican). The populist consumer advocate Ralph Nader likes to charge that they are really a one “Republicrat” party. I remember the 1960s British revue Beyond the Fringe making the same point. “The Americans, like us in England, have a two-party system,” Dudley Moore explained to Peter Cook. “They have the Republican party, which is like our Conservative party, and they have the Democratic party, which is like” – pause – “our Conservative party.”
No wonder so many abroad saw the last election as a case of “Bush versus Gore, Bore versus Gush, what’s the difference?” Indeed, in comparison with the ideological gulfs that still divide the main contenders in other democracies, America’s Democrats and Republicans seem to disagree only tangentially on questions of importance. The French political scientist Maurice Duverger once explained that politics in India involves conflict over basic principles and in Britain conflict over subsidiary principles, whereas in the U.S., party politics amounts to a conflict without principles. For both parties agree on most things: liberal democracy, free-enterprise capitalism, low taxes, superpower status abroad. And where they disagree – as on how much to tax whom, on social values, on economic interventionism – the disagreements cut across party lines. From 1966 to 1978, Massachussetts was represented by two Senators, Edward Kennedy and Edward Brooke, who voted identically on virtually every issue, stood for the same sets of beliefs, and were elected to office by broadly the same political constituencies – except that Kennedy is a Democrat and Brooke was a Republican.
But why do Americans see this as a virtue? Wouldn’t it be far healthier for American democracy to have a real choice between parties that are vehicles for ideological competition? Some on the right have certainly tried to portray themselves that way. The late Republican Senator Sam Hayakawa, who switched (as did his mentor Ronald Reagan) from the Democratic party, justified himself in a memorable metaphor: “if a man is drowning 50 feet from shore, a Democrat would throw him a 100-foot rope and look around for other good deeds to perform; a Republican would throw him a 25-foot rope and ask him to swim the other 25 feet because it is good for his character”. The implied thesis: the Democrats are big-spending do-gooders, the Republicans principled votaries of self-reliance.
Sure, Republicans tend to believe that the rich are the engines of prosperity for the nation as a whole, while Democrats think the rich should be taxed to help the poor, the old, the disadvantaged. But the continuing presence of conservatives in the Democratic Party and liberals in the Republican demonstrate that both are essentially loose coalitions held together by little more than tradition, habit and convenience. Their Presidential candidates last time were both unideological centrists whose main differences were defined by their personalities – what one comic called Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. Americans are proud that they are beyond ideology.
And yet there are real ideological differences. Historically, both parties may, in Marxist terms, represent the interests of property, but they have evolved in a way that makes the Republicans espouse the larger and the Democrats the smaller propertied interests. It was a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery; but his stance well served the need of the rising business-industrial class for mobile labour. As that class became more powerful, egalitarianism came to be associated with the Democrats, who took in waves of immigrants and claimed for themselves the mantle of “the party of the little man”.
Thus “big business” goes mainly Republican at election time, while the corner storekeeper usually votes Democratic. The Democrats’ demagogic 1896 nominee, William Jennings Bryan, declared openly that “the sympathies of the Democratic party are on the side of the struggling masses”; outraged New York businessmen threatened to secede from the Union if he won. Running for the third time in 1908, Bryan incorporated into his party platform the assertion that “the Democratic party stands for democracy; the Republican party is the party of privilege and private monopoly”. Such views led to the forging under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s of the modern Democratic coalition – a Depression-spurred alliance of labour unions, racial minorities, Southern rednecks and Eastern intellectuals, all united in their need for State intervention in the nation’s economic life in order to survive. The process came to a peak in the “New Frontier” and “Great Society” social programmes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s.
But the Democrats were victims of their own success. The American economic miracle made too many have-nots into haves, with little interest in seeing their tax dollars spent on the still- unfortunate. Further, Americans began to contend over social issues, notably race, sexuality and abortion: a society that does not have to worry about starvation can afford to argue about sex. The emotional arguments about the right to life and the legacy of the Confederacy have actually changed American politics. As Northern Democrats took the party in a liberal direction, conservative Southerners found a more congenial home in the Republican party; before Jeffords, the last four Senators to switch parties had all gone to the Republican side. The Republican Richard Nixon won the Presidency twice with a “Southern strategy” that wooed the traditionally Democratic South by appealing to its equally traditional conservatism. The elections of the 1980s saw the emergence of the “Reagan Democrats” – normally Democratic voters who felt their social and economic well-being was safer in the hands of a Republican President than in those of a liberal Democrat. That faith has been shaken by the success of the Democrat Clinton in pulling the U.S. economy out of recession and into boom and surplus, so the parties are now arguing whether to spend the surplus by cutting taxes (a Republican favourite) or save for the proverbial rainy day which the Democratic party expects will come.
Though both parties strive for the middle ground, each knows where the greater internal pull comes from. In the Republican party, the threat to the uncontroversial centre comes from the right, in the Democratic party from the now-silent left. The Jeffords defection has suddenly put a premium on the “centrist” figures within each party, whose wooing is widely deemed essential if the two parties are not to become, quite simply, Conservative and Liberal, a prospect most Americans seem to find appalling.
Yet polarisation over principles, though still largely seen as un-American, is gaining ground. The golden middle is still the ideal; neither party wants to be defined solely by the convictions of its ideologues. But if the Jeffords defection marks the beginning of a move to put all the liberals in one party and all the conservatives in another, American politics might become even more interesting for the rest of us to follow. After all, that is the way it is everywhere else in the world.