Placing 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 they—and only they—have the formula for getting the party back on track.
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