Reading a not so badly put together piece from Vanity Fair on the evolution of the two political parties the other day I continue to be amazed by the liberal fascination with attempting to explaining conservatives and the GOP in such a way we are portrayed as pariahs of society. Somehow conservatives are “radicals” and just do not want to accept what society has deemed as socially acceptable so Democrat just have to fight back any way they can.
This rewrite of political history is of course nothing new. Each side seeks to portray the other as the crazy party of the country. As many wise political analysts have said, “Your side is never the one not willing to move to the center, it is the other guys.” Liberals seem to take this saying to heart.
Let’s take a brief look at the political parties from the GOP’s founding in the 1850’s to the birth of the Tea Party today. Because this is not going to be as long as a novel it will be an extremely abbreviated history.
In the 1850’s the GOP was founded with the support of disaffected Democratic Republicans in the North and older voters of the then deceased Whig Party. The main tenant of the party was ending slavery. In 1856 the party was handed a sharp rebuke in the election, winning very few electoral votes, even in its home base of the North. But in 1860 that changed. Lincoln won the election which precipitated the Civil War.
After the end of the Civil War the country entered its first era of one party dominance. From 1868 to 1910 the GOP dominated presidential and congressional elections. For the most part the GOP at this time was the status quo party and let the country evolve geographically and socially at its own pace. In the early 20th century even as the GOP continued to dominate the WH and Congress they were content to let Democratic populists push for any number of rights.
That changed with the “New Social Contract” unofficially created by FDR in 1932. FDR’s massive expansion of government turned the GOP far more to the right then it had ever been before. Even at FDR’s death in 1944 and Truman’s subsequent election in 1948 the GOP was more a reactionary party, fighting against the dramatic changes FDR had brought to society. However between 1952 and 1980 GOP presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford were all wary of upending the new societal changes that FDR and his Congressional majorities had brought. Even more, with Democratic majorities in Congress between 1954-1994 the GOP presidents would have fought a losing battle, except perhaps on the Civil Rights Act.
Reagan’s election in 1980 changed that. The GOP’s transformation from the party of business and slow, steady societal progress shifted to one of social conservatism, fiscal conservatism and strong national defense. By the same token, in 1980 with the defeat of Southern Democratic President Jimmy Carter the liberal wing of the party took hold and established as its tenants FDR’s “New Social Contract.” These changes continue to be reflected in the parties political coalitions.
With the birth of the Tea Party in 2009 the GOP is claimed to have moved further to the right then ever before. Never has a political party ever done what the GOP has done, critics say. In some ways it is true. Certain Tea Party members have been much further to the right on mostly social issues then society. But the Tea Party in 2010 connected at some level with voters of all sorts of partisan affiliations. In 2010 its movement gave the GOP 63 seats in the House, 6 in the Senate, over a dozen of governorships (though the GOP did lose several of their own) and several hundred state legislative seats.
Since then many of these new members have tried to bring to light how shoddy business is done in DC and tried to push through actual fixes to the nation’s very serious problems. For this they have been labelled vulgar names such as “Teabaggers” and passion invoking terms such as “Racists” and “Radicals.”
Liberals and many Democrats contend that the Tea Party is yet another indication the GOP is moving ever rightward. They argue not even Reagan could be elected in the modern GOP (nevermind Romney is far more a moderate than Reagan ever was). They blame the Tea Party and by extension the GOP for the ever-increasing political polarization in Congress. Their examples range from not one Republican backing President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, Healthcare Reform, to Republicans opposing the Buffett Rule. “The GOP is purging its moderates,” is yet another refrain from the left to explain the GOP’s rightward lurch.
The truth probably lies somewhere between what partisan acolytes tell us. Both political parties have been moving way from each other since the days of FDR. Since 2006 however the trend has not changed only accelerated. Keep in mind that year may GOP incumbents in Congress were knocked out. Many of these incumbents represented moderate, suburban swing districts. In 2008 the same occurrence happened, only this time it gave the Democrats complete control of the Legislative and Executive Branch to enact their version of the “Status quo.”
Passing the Stimulus Package, Healthcare Reform, Cap and Trade in the House, Financial Reform, all without regard for GOP ideas put the GOP Caucus on the defensive consistently through 2009 and 2010. Newly elected conservative Democrats ideas were also pushed under the rug. In 2010 they were the unfortunate casualties of a liberal agenda that voters definitely did not like.
Let’s not forget the way the left handled President Bush since 2000 as well. The angry vapor hanging over his presidency, even after 9/11 could be seen a mile away. Bush’s concerted efforts to forge bipartisan agreements probably helped maintain the appearance the two political parties were closer on issues then they were. But even those efforts fell flat at times. His signature achievement, beyond creating the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the Patriot Act was his tax cuts. Not one Democrat backed the initiative and if not for some political manuevers by GOP leadership Senate Democrats would have never backed it for cloture.
Quantitive data also shows the GOP and conservatives cannot be blamed for the political polarization that has hit our system. Recently, political scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, in their new book “It’s Even Worse Then It Looks” argue “The Democrat have become the more status-quo oriented, centrist protectors of government, willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits in order to maintain the government’s central commitments.” They do not say such flowery things on the GOP’s behalf.
Their qualitative arguments can be debated for quite some time. Afterall, the GOP under Bush passed Medicare Part D, created the DHS and passed SCHIP. Somehow that does not fit the description of being radical anti-government Tea Partiers. It is there qualitative arguments that stand out however in terms of analysis.
Using a system known as DW-Nominate they point to the fact that the most conservative Democrat in Congress was actually more liberal than the most liberal Republican in the 2009 and 2010 Congressional sessions. Crossover votes for either side were virtually non-existent. This is used, along with their qualitative arguments, to say the GOP is at the root of the nation’s troubles.
Without going into too much technical detail this is an absurd argument to make using the DW Nominate system. The system does not operate on the premise of a liberal or conservative vote and what constitutes it? Instead the system simply records votes and ranks them in regards to how other partisan members vote. For example, in 2010 if Tom Coburn (R) and Dianne Feinstein (D) voted the most opposite of each other in that session they would be the extreme polls other votes would be between. So the system simply ranks how members vote in relation to members of the opposite party. It does not take ideology or political context into account. This likely explains why Mann and Ornstein rely more heavily on their qualitative arguments then quantitive arguments to say the GOP is extremist.
In closing liberals always seem to be trying to explain the GOP’s and conservatives movement to the right over the years. But like a blind man trying to find water they are fumbling in the dark to find explanations for why. The Vanity Fair Piece is a perfect example as is Mann’ and Ornstein’s arguments. Politics has always been at its roots blaming the other side and getting what you want; not finding compromise and cooperation. As liberals seek to continue to explain why the GOP is the “radical” party it is today they would be wise to remember this fact and maybe do a little self-discovery of their own.