Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Brief History of Recent American Politics and Why It's a Huge Mistake To Go 'All In' on Either Major Party

For most of the 20th and 21st Centuries, the Democratic Party has been driven by two consistent ideological themes: socialism and secularism. Socialism is bad. Secularism is good. Being a Democratic politician during that period is basically an exercise in how overt you can be with your socialism and secularism and still maintain power, because the Democratic Party is always more socialist and secular than the country as a whole.

Over the same time period, and particularly since 1980, the Republican Party has lacked a similar unifying ideology and has essentially been a coalition party for those who believe they stand to lose if there's more secularism or socialism. For most of that period, this coalition included
  • Wealthy people
  • Business interests
  • Evangelical Christians (especially since 1980)
  • Conservatives (usually middle/upper class and white) with vested interests in traditional values and social structures
  • Principled free market, limited government supporters
Again, there's nothing essential that unifies those groups under the same banner. They're a coalition opposing socialism and/or secularism. 

Opposing socialism is good, and to the degree that one is motivated by that (e.g. the free market supporters and the overwhelming majority of wealthy people/business interests who acquired their wealth legitimately), it's good.

To the degree that one acquired one's wealth and power illegitimately, most commonly as the result of some government privilege that has been bestowed upon you that actually is a form of statist/socialist/fascist cronyism (a minority of wealthy people and businesses), it's bad and gives the legitimate people a bad name.

To the degree that one is motivated by opposition to secularism (evangelicals, conservatives), it's bad.

To the extent that one was in that coalition for good reasons, being in the coalition with people in it for bad reasons undermined your good positions, even if being in the coalition was a necessary evil.

Since at least the Clinton Administration, it started to become clear that demographic changes in the electorate were going to make it more and more difficult for the Republican coalition to gain and maintain power. The electorate is becoming younger and more diverse, which means more socialist and more secular.

Seeing this, the Republican Party adopted a well-documented and successful effort to achieve and exploit structural advantages that would allow them to maintain power and further their political objectives in spite of the changing electorate. This included working to gain control of state legislatures and securing state and federal judicial appointments. Doing this enabled Republicans to not only better enact their policy goals, but also to stack the deck in their favor in the face of changing demographics through things like partisan gerrymandering and voting requirements that made things more difficult for likely Democratic voters. Essentially, the Republicans adopted and continue to be on a project to establish and maintain long term minority rule.

In the midst of this, another group suddenly became ascendant as a political force: older, lower income white people who previously leaned Democratic but now increasingly felt like their interests were being threatened by the same demographic trends the establishment Republicans were threatened by. Crucially, these people tended to be culturally conservative (and therefore anti-secularist) but economically socialist- (or at least statist-) leaning, favoring protectionist economic measures and social programs that they believed benefited them.

These folks found a voice in Donald Trump and his populism, leading to a question of how the existing Republican coalition was going to deal with this emerging faction. In some ways, the Trump faction was an odd fit for the traditional coalition: unlike the coalition's base, it was blue collar and statist economically. And stylistically it was more populist and, particularly in Trump, vulgar than the traditional base. Also in the person of Trump, it stood in sharp contrast to the values of the evangelical faction in particular. At the same time, it was well-aligned with the traditional base in cultural attitudes, ethnic composition and needing to exploit the same structural advantages to maintain political power in the face of changing demographics.

In the end, the established coalition ended up embracing the Trump voters, but in a sort of bargain with the devil. In exchange for more voters and a commitment to take up common cause in advancing the long term minority rule agenda, the established coalition became beholden to Trump and his base. This is most obvious in stylistic and cultural ways: Trump (and to a lesser extent his base) are more vulgar, populist, nationalist (and white nationalist) and amoral than the established coalition would prefer (or at least would prefer to be perceived as).

But there's a less obvious thing the established coalition had to abandon in the bargain: the last remaining connections (and pretenses thereof) to free markets, limited government and genuine capitalism (as opposed to 'crony capitalism'). The Trump approach includes huge elements of protectionism and bestowing economic favors on preferred constituencies. It included support for leftist positions on issues like healthcare (including support for the essential features of Obamacare as long as you do so while attacking the 'Obama' part of it). It also included adopting a more overtly authoritarian tone and approach to government, which Trump personifies in an absurd sort of way. To be sure, elements of some of these things were always present in the Republican coalition, in which good views on economic issues were always in the minority and good views on cultural issues were even less present. But the good ideological bits of the Republican coalition (the better economic stuff) have now been rendered inert and replaced by protectionist, nationalist cronyism. And the sneaky, patrician, slow-burn approach to achieving minority rule is becoming ever more overt, authoritarian and rapid.

The Democratic party, given its underlying principled commitment to socialism, was never a great home for people who cared about economic and political freedom (it was, and still is, a better home in some respects for people concerned with certain political freedoms related to personal values, identity, autonomy and choice). So historically it was understandable that people concerned with freedom (especially on economic issues) gravitated to the Republican coalition. There really was no other choice if you wanted your views represented by people with actual influence in government. Similarly, the Republican party has never valued diversity, so someone strongly motivated by a concern for that value might understandably gravitate towards the Democrats.

But following the Trump takeover, both of the major parties' core economic and political approaches are hostile to freedom. Both parties have some isolated pockets where they are better on certain cultural issues, the Democrats more so than the Republicans at present, but neither is consistently good. In their essential features, neither party is currently a home for people who put a high value on freedom, in particular those who understand that political, economic and personal freedom aren't distinct things but are all manifestations of the same fundamental human need to live according to one's own choices and values, rather than under coercion.

The other thing that happened during this time period was people started treating political identity like sports team fandom. Rather than seeing political affiliation as a minor element of identity or a tactical choice, people decided that identification with and finding a home in a political tribe was very important.

Various factors contributed to this. The fact that our political system is a two-party one, including structural factors that confer official power on the two dominant parties in ways that are not appropriate to what ought to be private clubs, serves as a backdrop for this. It is hard to influence politics outside the two parties. But against that backdrop, lacking an actual underlying unifying theme, the Republicans could only really find common identity in one thing: opposing Democrats. 'Being opposed to Democrats' became what it meant to be a partisan Republican, which naturally perpetuated an 'us and them' mentality. Since Democrats believe in the righteousness of their secular/socialist core ideology, it became equally natural to cast anyone who didn't embrace it as an enemy. This 'identity politics' serves to drive people who might find common cause on particular issues or even more granular principles into adopting one party identity or the other, and increasingly to the inflexible, tribal extremes of those identities.

But it's important to step back and remember that party affiliation does not have to be part of one's core identity. Closely identifying with a party may be required for a politician, but it isn't for the rest of us. And that is a benefit to us non-politicians, because neither party is wholly or even largely good. Neither represents a consistent, logical and necessary grouping of principles or positions. Does allowing people to marry someone of the same sex if they wish require a single-payer healthcare system? Does a strict adherence to Christian doctrine entail strict border enforcement? Does a belief that native-born Americans deserve special privileges entail laissez faire capitalism? Do some of these even represent coherent packages of viewpoints or are they hopelessly contradictory?

Working with or within the present political parties may be a useful tactic in achieving one's long term political goals, but doing so does not have to involve finding a 'home' there or buying into the abhorrent positions or contradictions doing so requires.

In particular, it is a mistake to go 'all in' on a partisan political identity in this way if one's primary motivation is to oppose the other guys. Even if one (correctly in my view) identifies socialism as evil and (correctly in my view) identifies socialism as being at the ideological core of the Democratic Party, that does not justify fully embracing the mess of contradictions, bad ideas and (isolated) good ideas that constitutes a partisan Republican political identity simply because the Republicans are (nominally) the non-socialists.

Perhaps it's possible to work for change within one or both political parties to replace the current mixed- to fundamentally-anti-freedom core ideologies, bad positions and contradictions with something essentially good and pro-freedom. Perhaps it makes sense tactically to support one party or the other (or their candidates) at certain times or on certain issues in pursuit of a long term pro-freedom agenda. But to do so does not require one to don an elephant's trunk or a donkey's tail.

I sympathize with people who want to see a more secular, diverse, less cronyistic society but feel forced to accept a package deal that includes socialism if they want to find a political home in one of the two major parties. I similarly sympathize with principled, freedom-loving people who previously found common cause and even a voice within the Republican Party but now find their party lead by a vulgar, amoral economic nationalist. It can be jarring and dispiriting to feel like you have no 'home' politically. Even more so if one goes from having a 'home' politically to suddenly having none.

Especially with regards to the Republican Party, this last point is worth further attention because the turn for the worse was so rapid and so recent as to be disorienting. It always would have been a mistake to go 'all in' on the Democrats or Republicans, even if one or the other was better on certain (or the balance) of the issues. But it's an even bigger mistake to go 'all in' on the Republicans now that they've transformed into something that is, in its core principles and on the balance of the issues, at least as bad as the Democrats and is, arguably, the greater threat of the moment because they happen to be the party in power.

No amount of concern for positive values (such as freedom) or concern that the 'other guys' will advance negative ones (such as socialism) justifies going 'all in' on the Republicans. In fact, it's unclear that even allying with them tactically at present out of concern for those values is prudent since the recent shift in the party is precisely away from those values. It's unclear what can be accomplished by throwing one's lot in with such 'allies', other than inadvertently rewarding them for turning in the wrong direction. Of course, none of that is to imply that one ought to become a partisan Democrat instead. Joining a tribe -- or even accepting the idea that tribalism is required -- is far from the only alternative.

(A related error is to assume that because, e.g., nothing has changed on the Democratic side, the Republican side must still be the better alternative. But this is like saying 'The unpleasant odor is still present on the other side of the room, therefore I'm going to stay on this side even though it has suddenly become fully engulfed in flames.' Perhaps avoiding the bad smell was the right choice at one time. But maybe now it would be better to endure the stink. Or perhaps leave the room entirely.)

More fundamentally, it's a mistake -- though an understandable and easy-to-make one -- to fail to identify and accept the present reality of what both parties are. It's a mistake to support or hitch one's wagon to one party or the other just because one previously has, either uncritically, out of inertia or for failure to adjust one's evaluations in response to changing circumstances (even though it can be hard to process the changes and update the evaluation). And most crucially, it is downright dangerous to go 'all in' on fundamentally flawed parties in a way that implies one becoming or genuinely causes one to become a member of a political tribe whose core values and actions ultimately promote the destruction of one's values.

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