Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Shifting Sands of Party Politics and Ideologies

Fred Siegel has a review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy up at Slate (via Cliopatria) in which he question's Wilent'z attempt to cobble together a Democrat party narrative. Cliopatria's Ralph Luker wondered if Siegel had seen the Cliopatria symposium on Wilentz's work. (As do I. The title of Siegel's piece is "When History Meets Politics..." Sounds vaguely familiar...but I digress) Siegel is critical of Wilentz's partisan attempt to interpolate all of the positives from the Jacksonian Democrats to the modern namesake while diminishing anything that could be taken as positive--abolitionism, for example--from the Wilentz-proclaimed Whig forebearers of the modern Republican party.
. . . there is a problem with the idea that all good things can be found in one package or one party. Politics, as Isaiah Berlin never tired of explaining, is often a matter of compromising on even core principles. Liberty and equality, he noted, are necessarily in tension so that the debate over the trade-offs between them can be a matter of virtue vs. virtue. Wilentz the historian struggles with the Whigs' admirable position on slavery. But Wilentz the present-minded party polemicist has no need for such exertions; he's settled on a polarizing certainty that casts a retrospective shadow on his version of American history.
I took part in the symposium and also noted that Wilentz erred in attempting to divine such a one-to-one relationship between the Democrats of yore and the contemporary party. As I said in my critique, "we have to be careful when attempting to draw too fine a comparison between what was then and what is now."

Siegel also highlights the shifting ideological sands on which political parties sit. My recent post on the threads of conservative thought touched on the differences of those who claim to hold the same ideology (conservatism). While Siegel is discussing political parties, I find his analysis is also applicable to ideology.
Wilentz seems to suggest that there are historical plumb lines that, when dropped into the past, can place all that is admirable along a single alignment. But political systems go through refractory periods, like the run-up to the Civil War and the 1960s, when coalitions shatter and are then reshaped by losing old partners and political positions while gaining new ones. One unanticipated effect of the Dutton/McGovern reforms in the wake of the split over Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic Convention was not only to move feminists in and Catholics out, it was also to make support for abortion—which was traditionally stronger among Republicans—a cornerstone of the newly remade Democratic Party. What happened was that upper-middle-class Republican women shifted into the Democratic Party partly on the issue of abortion. The parties have sifted and sorted and resorted their constituencies and thus their issues time and again, so that attempts to read the past directly into the current political framework are bound to be problematic.
Hence, many of today's conservatives also call themselves classical liberals while many of today's liberals call themselves progressives, etc. The terms may be the same, but what they represent has changed.

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