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 ri

Source: The Hindu