Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Democratic Political Mush Vs. GOP’s Three Branches and a Twig

Which factions will dominate the two parties as 2016 approaches?

Donkeys vs. ElephantsCredit: Cowardlion | Dreamstime.comPlacing either of America's two big-tent parties into a single ideological box misses historical and contemporary cross currents that buffet Democrats and Republicans to the left, to the right, and back toward the center. In the second decade of the 21st century, there are at least two wings of the Democratic Party, and three branches, plus a twig, of the GOP.

Divisions in each party help define their ideologies-of-the-moment. Political historian James MacGregor Burns, who died at almost 96 in July, described them as the congressional and presidential "parties" in his 1963 classic, The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America.

A partisan Democrat in the Progressive Era tradition, Burns himself reflected how fluid ideology can be in American politics. Progressivism was an outgrowth of the late 19th century reform wing of the Republican Party, embraced by Democrats under Woodrow Wilson.

In our politics, if you can't beat 'em, co-opt 'em!

Burns' "four parties" recognizes we elect presidents separately in our non-parliamentary system. Narrow slices of the electorate choose legislators, focusing on base voters. Would-be presidents address independents and partisan leaners, to cobble together an electoral college majority.

In addition to the congressional and presidential factions, there are others:

(1) Institutional parties—organized committees and officers;

(2) Parties in the electorate—rank-and-file voters, some intensely interested, others weakly aligned, often organized as identity groups;

(3) Parties as ideology—liberal, conservative, libertarian, centrist and rump groups, like the Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Streeters, with adherents sometimes focusing on only one, or maybe two, of the three elements of public policy in which they are most interested: economic, social and foreign (e.g., "anti-war Democrats," and "religious conservative Republicans;" and

(4) Parties within political geography—national, state and regional, e.g., the once "Solid Democratic South" or the "Rocky Mountain West Republicans."

Each party is sometimes divided into only a few factions, as a function of sustained winning and the spoils and unity fed by hubris. But often a party has multiple warring wings, from prolonged periods of defeat, which—for survival—eventually focus attention in the manner described by Dr. Samuel Johnson: "...when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

The (recently) winning party, with the presidency and at least one house of Congress, indeed shows signs of big government liberalism. But Democrats also have a pragmatic branch, the "New Democrats," spawned by losing in the 1970s and 1980s and who then paid more attention to their pollsters and media consultants than to any "old time (liberal-Progressive) religion," to cobble together victories. Bill Clinton did so by co-opting conservative positions like welfare reform, strong defense, and crime control.

In the various state Democratic parties, where social issues like gay rights cut in different directions, New Democrats have been tolerant of candidates with views differing from "national Democrats." The military-industrial complex's K Street lobbyists seduce both "liberals" and New Democrat legislators, trumping the non-interventionism of Democratic leftists in the electorate. And investment bankers often buy-off both congressional and presidential Democrats, while statist activists man the ramparts at "Occupy Wall Street" rallies against the "one percent."

These intra-party relationships are "complicated," as they say on Facebook. But I would argue there are two basic factions now in the Democratic Party:

(1) The Progressive Era throwbacks: big government, statist liberals, in denial about failures of the New Deal and Great Society, who gave us Obamacare, ironically with its sell-out to Big Insurance and even Bigger Pharma. This faction also includes anti-war, non-interventionists in the electorate, and social-cultural liberals in the congressional and presidential wings, as well as in the electorate.

(2) Centrist, but not-so-New (anymore) Democrats: they tilt interventionist in foreign policy, much like the Warrior Princess, Hillary Clinton, who mutters phrases like "America, the indispensable nation." Centrists are less anti-business, and in fact many are allies of Wall Street crony capitalists, not friends of free markets. Most New Democrats now fall in line with social-cultural liberalism, since Democrats won the culture war.

The GOP's three branches and a twig

The three branches and a twig factions of the GOP are right now much more interesting, because the GOP has been on the ropes, at least nationally, and is fighting internally for what is sometimes called the "soul of the party," a rallying cry of losers, who want to claim theyand only they—have the formula for getting the party back on track.

Photo Credit: Cowardlion | Dreamstime.com

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The "Progressive Era throwbacks" he's talking about should be better classified in terms of their support for Barack Obama.

    They're anti-war--unless it's Obama's war. They'll rail against anyone who opposes gay marriage--except when it was Obama who opposed gay marriage.

    Contemporary progressives are to Barack Obama the way Progressives in the Republicans Party were to Theodore Roosevelt. ...and when Barack Obama is gone, their venom will be subsumed by pragmatists.

    Progressivism is a charismatic movement. The American people are still instinctively very religious, it's just that so many on the left have substituted faith in politics for faith in organized religion.

    Global warming, ObamaCare, etc., these are articles of faith progressives believe in--like Adventists, Mormons, and Christian Scientists have things they believe in. But in a charismatic movement, it's about the person behind it all...

    They don't believe in Barack Obama because of his stance on things like global warming; they believe in global warming becasue it's the stance of Barack Obama. Let's stop putting the cart before the horse.

  • ||

    It's sort of like this:

    Barak Obama(or replace with democrat potus of choice): "Puppies are evil, we must kill all puppies now!"

    Minions: Grabs pitchforks and chases puppies through the streets.

    It really is just that simple.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I'm not sure he could get them to do something totally against their nature, but he's basically a charismatic television evangelist, who can get them to send him their money.

    His speeches are like sermons.

    It's public policy preached as if it were a religious revival.

    American history experiences "Great Awakenings" periodically, and I think we're still prone to that kind of thinking. It's just that the religiosity is different. It isn't faith in God or the Bible that people reawakening to...

    They want to feel a sense of purpose. They want to believe in something greater than themselves--and be a part of it! They want a common enemy. They want to feel like there's a purpose to their lives, and that the future is going to be bright because of the things they're doing today.

    Barack Obama gives them all of that like religion used to--and he takes away all of their uncertainties about right and wrong, too. The rednecks are evil, racist, and wrong, and you absolutely know you're right if you agree with believe in Barack Obama.

    Abolitionism, Prohibition, and other movements all took that revivalist religiosity and projected into political objectives. MLK did the same thing with the civil rights movement. That shit works because our culture is primed for that, and modern "progressives" work like that, too.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I remember writing a comment here at Hit & Run the night of Obama's keynote speech in 2004. The Democrats in the press were completely swooning over this Obama guy. I pointed out at the time how people from the South see that kind of speech every week at church.

    I guess these Democrat opinion columnists never go to church?

    Anyway Barack Obama is an extremely successful, Charismatic, evangelical preacher--he's just not preaching religion. And when he disappears, his movement is going the way of every Charismatic movement. There will be some residual kernel left behind, but the progressive movement he leaves behind is not bigger than he is. It won't be much without him.

  • ||

    'm not sure he could get them to do something totally against their nature

    Their nature is to follow dear leader in blind faith wherever that leads, so I'm not so sure about that.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Well, all he needs them to do is vote for him, support him and his policies, and keep sending him their paychecks.

    It doesn't have to go that far.

    He's the antidote for uncertainty to these people, for sure. What scientists say about climate change is confusing. What economists tell us about how the economy thingy works is confusing, etc., etc.

    What Barack Obama says about these things is NOT confusing. What Obama says we should do about these things is NOT confusing.

    You don't have worry about trying to figure out what the truth is anymore. The truth is that the world is an uncertain, hard to understand place. Just listen to what Barack Obama says, and the world becomes a lot less scary...

    Obama wants to love you, Hyperion, but first you have to let him into your heart. Once you do? You'll never be lonely again, and you'll have millions and millions of friends to support you. And Obama will support you, too. Because he loves you.

    I don't see this kind of "ideology" accounted for anywhere in this article, but it's the difference maker. It's the thinking that drives a critical part of the progressives' support right now, and it's why Barack Obama is the president--and not someone else.

  • ||

    The Democratic party of today only has one wing. A left wing.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    It's the Hillary bucket at KFC. 2 left wings and 2 fatty thighs.

  • ||

    Or the Happy Hope and Change Meal, which comes with one murder drone replica and some play EBT cards.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    I bet it also comes with a voter registration form and a student loan application.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    Wow. I'm in a mood today.

    Reason meet up in less than 2 hours. I should start drinking now.

  • ||

    NOVA?

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    LA. The usual crew, minus Jesse. He was one of the organizers, and then he bailed to go on a date.

    When will he learn? Bros before bros.

  • ||

    I can't keep track of where all the libertopians are these days. Hopefully NSA and DHS can do a better job before more than 3 libertopians show up in the same place, and anarchy ensues.

  • Whahappan?||

    Bros before homos. Can't believe you missed that easy one.

  • ||

    I have to got to Walmart before I start drinking today, wife says so, we're out of 'stuff', that means 2 hours in the Walmart, ugh... ): and today is a beautiful day here in Murlan.

  • ||

    Well, off to Wallyworld and then the beer store...

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    They're the same store here.

  • Brandybuck||

    Hard to call what Wallyworld sells "beer".

  • userve32||

    Dude is not making a lot o sense dude.

    www.Crypt-Tools.tk

  • rogerfgay||

    Since at least Reagan, the RINOs have been trying to pretend that the first 3 should all be considered "conservative" and thus fit together in "the Big Tent". Obviously, that's not going to happen and the record of losses just keeps getting more impressive.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online