As the Democrats wrestle among themselves over how to update their party’s packaging, a distressing, potentially disastrous phenomenon may be underway. If so, its implications for individual liberty and peace deserve some serious consideration. To start thinking seriously about 2008 may seem premature, but that never stopped the politicians from long in advance getting their gears moving and ideas flowing on how better to seize power. We know the Republicans are horrible, but do we have any way of postulating what will likely replace them?
First, let us rewind back several months when political thinkers across the spectrum began arguing over why the Democrats had lost to George W. Bush in the presidential election. All over we heard hypotheses on the trouble with modern liberalism, but the most frightening came from the right.
In particular, here is what Rush Limbaugh said shortly after Bush’s inauguration speech this January:
There was idealism in [Bush’s] speech, the notion that everybody can be free, the notion that we all can experience a better day tomorrow than the day we had today…. That’s not hubris. It may be hubris to them, because the left — you could argue that the left used to have a philosophical base that was based on idealism: No suffering, no pain, all of this. It was never realistic but at least they were idealists. They were almost Utopian idealists, which was their problem. But what the president did today was make the case for spreading human liberty, defending human dignity, which were once largely the preserve of liberalism. If you go back and look at FDR’s speeches and look at the number of times he mentioned God in his inaugurals. Go back to JFK. “We will fight any foe. We’ll go anywhere. We will do whatever it takes to spread freedom and liberty.” Hey, he couldn’t be a liberal Democrat today. JFK couldn’t be. Truman couldn’t be. They were committed to the triumph of liberty in the world, and that’s what this speech was about today, the triumph of freedom and liberty in the world — and it is now conservatism that is propelling this.
One important lesson in this is that today’s conservatism, even as described by one of its main leaders, is yesterday’s liberalism: the GOP has become thoroughly Democratized. Perhaps more important in the long term is what liberalism will become tomorrow.
Notice that Limbaugh chides today’s liberals for being insufficiently FDR-like. If you listen to enough right-wing talk radio, you’ll notice that this is not an anomalous critique among conservatives. Franklin Roosevelt — quite possibly the worst Democrat in American history — is upheld as a great model of American patriotism and wartime resolve, inadequately emulated by today’s "left-wing" (and, truth be told, far more benign) Democrats such as Jimmy Carter. Today’s Democrats would wince at nuking Hiroshima and putting Americans into concentration camps. This, more than their economic collectivism, is what conservatives say must be addressed for Democrats to succeed.
Seemingly following the advice of Limbaugh, the Democratic Leadership Council has quite recently asked its party to “recapture the muscular progressive internationalism of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy and convince voters that national security is our first priority."
This is bad.
Despite the conventional conservative wisdom, the Democratic presidents since Lyndon Johnson have probably been less harmful to liberty than the Republicans since Nixon, but the Democratic presidents from Wilson to LBJ — the ones who gave America its four biggest foreign wars (funded through inflation and fought by conscripted armies), its global empire, and its New Deal/Great Society regulatory-welfare state — you know, the ones from which the conservatives think today’s Democrats can learn a thing or two — were among the very worst presidents this country has endured.
Up until the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats generally opposed the consolidation of government power and State interventionism, economic and militaristic, at least compared to their political adversaries — the Federalists, Whigs and Republicans who more fervently embraced big-government, corporatism and war.
Wilson changed all this, and FDR changed it irreversibly. The Democratic Party of Jefferson, Van Buren, and Cleveland, once about as close to a classical liberal party as possible on a nationally successful scale, transformed dramatically in its program. Perhaps a continuity remained in the party’s constituency. The party of the people — the democratic party — had once been primarily interested in the true liberalism that would benefit average working-class Americans and protect them from the statist influences of monopoly. They championed the right of newly immigrated minorities to compete in a free market, and, at the end of the day, to have a drink, if they so desired. There was always a populism in the party, which at one time meant standing up for liberty.
At some point, between Wilson and FDR, the Democratic Party learned a new tune. Franklin Roosevelt effectively Republicanized his party, turning it into an engine of corporatism, privilege and big government — the precise type of program he accused Hoover of advancing in the 1932 presidential campaign, the last time a Democrat ran on a clear platform of shrinking government and reining in spending. Still relying on its populism, FDR’s Democratic Party substituted freedom from government oppression with entitlement to tax dollars; free markets with a regulatory corporate welfare statism; and a mainstream attachment to peace, which once united most Americans, with a nationalist faith in foreign interventionism.
Although many libertarians do not see it this way, the Democrats appear to have tamed down on many of these fronts in the 1970s and since. Watergate and Vietnam weakened the State’s grip on civil society, and it took Ronald Reagan to reform a mainstream populist movement with faith in the presidency and loyalty to the warfare state, but he did it on the right. Since then, the "extreme left wing" of the Democratic Party that we so often hear about — commonly associated with the fiscally moderate war skeptic Howard Dean — is more of a murky abstraction than the cadre of apocalyptic boogie men that conservatives and Republican-leaning libertarians are so eager to describe. As libertarians and Americans, we do not need to worry too much that the Democrats will come to power and abolish religion and private property. This type of tyranny will never excite or convince the American people.
The real threat from the Democrats is that they will reemerge as they existed before Howard Dean, George McGovern and Michael Moore. The real threat is that the Democrats will in fact bring the Democratic Leadership Council’s aspirations to life, and "recapture the muscular progressive internationalism of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy," — thus once again outshining the Republicans in militaristic arrogance and idolization of the State as a means to remake the world in America’s image — thus doing in foreign policy what Rush Limbaugh jubilantly prides conservatism for "propelling" so much better than today’s anachronistic Democrats.
Let us hope not. It is not too unlikely.
For the Democrats to succeed politically, they need to appeal to more of the American people than they did in the last election. The right in this country is encouraging the Democrats to become something supposedly much more palatable to the American electorate than universal healthcare, gay marriage, and admiration for the United Nations. In a sense, both the conservative pundits and the Democratic Leadership Council are on to something. Americans might be more willing to accept a warmongering big-government president like Harry Truman than someone more "left-wing" and yet in reality less belligerent toward liberty. Hillary Clinton’s recent posturing on immigration, school prayer, and family issues makes her a potentially strong candidate for 2008. A welfare statist but more importantly a warmonger with no principles, she indeed is moving toward becoming a more Republican-friendly version of a Democrat — and none of this is good for freedom.
The conservative movement has clearly abandoned any devotion, if it ever had any, to individual liberty, smaller government, and humility in foreign policy. When it calls on the Democrats to become more like they were at the very height of their hostility toward liberty and peace, we’re in trouble. When the Democrats listen, and prepare three years ahead to launch a campaign that moves to the right in all the wrong ways, our trouble is doubled.
The Democrats could have, of course, chosen a much better strategy in the last election, discarding their discredited social welfarism, embracing the market economy, and calling upon an end to the perpetual war and attacks on civil liberties, all on patriotic grounds. Instead, they chose a nonsensical strategy — an establishment bore as a candidate who promised only to raise taxes and be just a tad less bloodthirsty than Bush. Because of the nature of party politics, the Democrats will likely go down the horrible route of continuing hostility toward economic freedom all the while combining it with a slightly more conservative social agenda and far more aggressive foreign policy. Instead of giving up certain of its statist elements to win over support from red-state America, it will likely adopt new statist elements. It will likely Republicanize, just as it did in the 1930s.
The moral in all of this is that partisan politics is a failed approach to securing liberty, that both parties are committed to expanding their power as they merge and become increasingly indistinguishable. Neither party wants to give up power, so they both compete mainly by offering more government to snag the voters they do not yet have. For this reason, it has become a moot point which party is copying which: each has copied the other, for the worse, throughout American history. The liberals are right that the Democrats are too much like the Republicans; the conservatives are right that the Republicans have become too much like the Democrats. Statism unites both parties, and the Republicanization of the Democrats we now see only follows the Democratization of the Republicans from the Cold War to the second Bush regime, which similarly followed the first Republicanization of the Democrats in the early 20th century.
Americans who do love liberty need to stay focused in these times ahead. The answer obviously is not a Republican administration working with a Republican Congress. The answer is also not a Democratic Party that attempts to gain power by mimicking the Republicans on all their worst qualities. America will not be free and at peace until its people demand to be, until a devotion to freedom and nonviolence replaces nationalistic and jingoistic war fervor as the prevalent populist disposition. What we need more than a change of parties, or even a change within parties, is a significant change in the hearts and minds of Americans. Until that happens, Democrats and Republicans tapping into mainstream votes will feel free to do so through the popular politics of ever more bread, circuses, and imperialism.
Freedom will not come from conservative and liberal politicians. It will only be taken from them when the people want liberty above all else.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.