Now that the presidential primary season has begun in earnest, it seems a good time to reconsider just what a political party is—what its purpose and essential nature are, and how we may recognize whether one is healthy or in a state of disorder and potential breakdown. As with most things political, it is highly useful to begin, here, with the words of Edmund Burke. For Burke, besides being the father of modern conservatism, also was a prominent member and intellectual leader among the Rockingham Whigs, a faction of what eventually coalesced into one of the first true political parties. Parties had existed for many centuries by the time of Burke’s writings in the late eighteenth century, but had been mere expressions and supports of dynastic concerns and/or formed only for brief times to fight out differences on some particular issue of the day. It was Burke who formulated a more coherent view of party as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
The principle that united Whigs in the late eighteenth century was, in essence, limited monarchy. All Whigs saw themselves as defenders of the settlement of 1689—the Glorious Revolution that replaced James II on the throne and imposed real limits on the extra-legal prerogative power of the monarch. Such a principle was too broad, however, to serve as the basis for any coherent party, and the Whigs were split into a number of often mutually hostile factions according to the interests and opinions of various important persons on commerce, imperial power, and other important issues of the day. Thus there were Whigs arguing both sides of crucial questions such as whether to tax the American colonies and prosecution of the war against the “rebels” there, reform of parliamentary representation, and how to respond to the French Revolution.
It was Burke who, often serving as a one-man brain trust for his mentor, Lord Rockingham, formulated a coherent vision of Whig theory. Rooted in the settlement of 1689, this theory emphasized limited, balanced government upholding the traditions of public life in Great Britain. Rockingham Whigs stood for moderate government that included all the interests of the realm—king, lords, and commons—in balance. The established church, central to British public life since Henry VIII’s time, was to be defended, but with extensions of toleration, including for the majority Catholics in Ireland. Reforms were to be limited, particularly in Parliament, to ensure that representatives would be able to retain their independence of royal power. The goal was stable, mixed, and balanced government protecting the fundamental institutions, beliefs, and practices of British society, along with opposition to overreaching policies that would centralize power through the use and abuse of peoples in America, Ireland, or India; nothing should be allowed to crowd out the little platoons of families and local associations at the center of any good life.
Despite the fact that they spent almost all their time in opposition and lost their leader, Lord Rockingham, to an untimely death in 1782, the moderate (or “Old”) Whigs maintained significant influence in party politics throughout Burke’s career. Then came the French Revolution. The French Revolutionary claim to be instituting the rule of “liberty, equality, fraternity” had a hypnotic effect, not just in France, but in Britain, where a number of Burke’s erstwhile allies looked to France for guidance for the future, right up until the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror and their launching of wars of conquest. Burke rejected the claims of Revolution as an armed doctrine of atheism and spent the remainder of his life arguing for vigorous opposition, combined with renewed dedication to British traditions.
The American party system often has been portrayed as consisting of two broad, non-programmatic coalitions of interest. Each party, it has been argued, traditionally has built a kind of base of varied ethnic and economic groups, then vied for voters in the vast middle ground of political independents. This analysis, never really true, began as a criticism from various progressive academics looking to encourage formation of a self-consciously social-democratic party. As the Democratic Party has shifted leftward to fill this very role, academics have shifted their own ground, decrying supposedly increased partisanship in recent decades and ascribing it to ideological intransigence (principally opposition to progressive programs) on the right.
In fact, the two major parties for many decades have been rooted in coalitions of both interest and principle. The Republican Party traditionally has been the party of commerce, supporting a national market (sometimes at the cost of local communities and principles of federalism) with relatively low regulation. Its roots have lain in main-street, largely Protestant America. The Democratic Party has been one of farmers, laborers, and immigrants. Originally more committed to local rights and rural as well as laboring interests, its coalition has stood for significant local variety, but also for greater governmental interference with economic markets in the name of fairness.
It would be wrong to see the recent party structure in the United States primarily in terms of class for the simple reason that in a democratic society the votes truly are in the middle—meaning among the large, broad category of those who consider themselves actually or potentially “middle class.” Republican commerce was the commerce of small businesses on main street, even as most in the Democratic Party were more connected with rural or small-town than with urban life. The great, dividing issues of industrialization divided the nation in more ways than are captured by most (progressive) historians. As important, from early on, big business, whether represented on Wall Street or, now, in Silicon Valley, always has been willing to cooperate with (or use money and influence to co-opt) either party in pursuit of policies that would stabilize markets and construct barriers to entry by new businesses.
Today’s party system is made up of an ever-more coherent Democratic Party ideology and seeming discord among Republicans. Among Democrats there seems to have developed a consistent ideology bringing together financial interests with organized labor (especially among public-sector unions) and various groups seeing the national government as their protector against economic need and various forms of potential oppression in local communities. Whether such a coalition can govern successfully in the long run seems doubtful for both practical and ideological reasons. But the spectacle of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, seeking to one-up one another in their commitment to “progress” through federal projects makes clear the core of consensus among Democratic elites and activists.
The Republican primaries, in which populists like Donald Trump, the conservative Ted Cruz, and a host of moderate “establishment” candidates are vying for pre-eminence, show a party in seeming disarray. In fact, the conflict playing out in the primaries is merely an extension and deepening of cultural contradictions within the party and especially a crisis of faith in party leadership. The Republican Party for decades has been led by people committed to fostering stable national markets and the prosperity they claim they bring. Now its leaders face dissension stemming from the “creative destruction” visited upon fundamental institutions of local life by their own policies. We are seeing the logical consequence of policies that value abstract ideals of economic efficiency and “fairness” above the needs of traditional families and local communities. Moreover, the commitment of party leaders to using federal monies and policies to subsidize the bottom lines of businesses seeking cheap input costs (including labor costs) at the expense of employees and entrepreneurs finally is producing a major backlash among party activists and disaffected citizens more generally.
The rise of Mr. Trump in particular rests, not merely on personality, but on a central issue of our time: immigration. The refusal of Republican elites, to this day, to take seriously the desire of most of their constituents to protect the character of their communities against vast demographic and economic disruptions has fueled Mr. Trump’s campaign and transformed that of Senator Cruz. Whether the youth (and inexperience) of Senator Marco Rubio, the dynastic claims of Governor Jeb Bush, or the pugnacious liberalism of Governor John Kasich attracts enough votes to keep the nomination within the mainstream of elite opinion, the breakout of Mr. Trump’s upscale populism (not that different from those of Ross Perot or Richard Nixon) has shown the weakness of the rather long-in-the-tooth corporate policies of the current Republican leadership. Senator Cruz, often derided as “outside the mainstream,” in fact represents the policies and attitudes—favoring traditional families, national defense of borders and communities, and commitment to both smaller government and freer markets—that constitute a coherent governing Republican tradition.
Mr. Trump’s victory would mark a significant shift in American politics toward a kind of liberal nationalism rejecting both limited government and internationalism. Mr. Cruz’s victory would mean a re-emergence of the so-called Reagan coalition, with its strengths and weaknesses. Victory for any of the other candidates would mean a continuation of the slow disintegration of the Republican Party into factions pursuing mutually contradictory ideals of economic efficiency defined in financial terms and various forms of populism and traditionalism increasingly opposed to policies coming out of Washington, DC. It should be an interesting primary season.
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