On Political Realignment

~2000 words, ~10 min read time

Note: nothing I say here is particularly original. I’m mostly distilling ideas that have come to me primarily through/from historian Steve Davies. But, it’s been on my mind the past few days, so I’m writing it up again.

The Four Inclinations

In the US, there are basically 4 political inclinations. One might be tempted to call these “philosophies”, but that’s claiming far more internal consistency than they deserve. So, I’m going with inclinations, as, for most people, political thought tends to be more instinctive and tribal than reasoned. In any case, here are the four:

Conservatives – These are the “God and Country” folks. As an inclination, this inclination generally dislikes change, particularly if it’s rapid.

Liberals – Here (and throughout this piece), I use the term in the older JS Mill sense rather than the newer FDR sense. In modern parlance, “libertarian” comes fairly close to what is meant here – though I think libertarian has a slightly different usage. In any case, liberals emphasize freedom – free thought and speech, free markets, and free expression of individuality.

Progressives – Often confused with liberals nowadays (especially by the political right). Progressives are defined largely by their sense of using social institutions to push society toward some fairly specific ideal. Generally favorable toward the idea of elites/professional bureaucrats running things.

Populists – not particularly well-defined philosophically, but, in general, believe that society is divided between “the people” and “the elites”, and that society should be made to serve the people.

Of course, very few individuals are PURELY motivated by just one of these inclinations, nor are they monolithic internally. But, these are the general inclinations you see in American politics.

[Aside on “libertarian”: I generally think “libertarian” is just a synonym for “anti-State”, and one can get there through lots of inclinations. There are libertarian conservatives – who see the State as a threat to traditional cultural institutions, and there are libertarian liberals – who see the State as a violator of rights, and there are libertarian populists – who see the State as the vehicle by which the elites exploit the common person. Libertarian progressives are possible, if one believes that the State stands in the way of progress more than being a vehicle for pushing it forward. I suspect that in the US today, there are few libertarian progressives, but this might just be in the circles I run in.]

The Fading Alliances

Of course, with four inclinations and two major parties, the parties are naturally alliances of the various inclinations. Now, technically, all parties contain all inclinations to SOME degree – but it tends to be the case that two of the inclinations dominate one party and the other two dominate the other party. Through most of the 20th century the division was something like this:

Democrats = Populists + Progressives

Republicans =Conservatives + Liberals

The reason for this division was that economic questions were paramount, and this division puts natural allies together. Both populists and progressives are distrustful of markets, and so want some kind of intervention from the government to protect the common person. Thus, for example, you have Democrats being very pro-labor-union. Meanwhile, both conservatives and liberals value relatively free markets and low tax burdens.

However, these alliances have been fading for the past 20-30 years. This has happened for two reasons:

(1) A moderately liberal consensus on economic issues. That is, in the early 1900s, there was genuine debate about major structural questions regarding the economy – should the government centrally plan the economy or should markets play a key role? But, as the 1900s came to an end, the conclusion was clear: widespread central planning was a failure. So, a consensus emerged that markets should be the primary organizing method in the economy, but they should be regulated and some level of income redistribution (safety nets, welfare) was desirable. The only debate left was in the details. This led to what I’m going to call “liberal drift”. That is, liberals started drifting away from the Republican party toward the Democrats as the Democrats became more acceptable on economic issues and social issues – with which the liberals generally agree with the progressives in many ways – became more important.

(2) Following from (1) – the Democrats’ gradual abandonment of the populists. Strategically, this makes perfect sense. The labor unions were largely populist, but labor unions were dying during the last couple decades of the 1900s. So, it didn’t make much sense to put many eggs in that particular basket. The area I spent my childhood in was staunchly Democrat – filled with “conservative Democrats” who were Democrats because of labor union membership. I now recognize that “conservative Democrat” actually means “populist”.

Both of these have fed into a realignment.

The Realignment

With the emergence of the moderately liberal economic policy consensus being adopted by both parties, those with liberal inclinations are now divided. One group started to focus more on social issues, and so shifted to the Democrats, who were generally more freedom-oriented on that front. Another group was convinced that more could be achieved on the economic front, and so generally stayed aligned with the Republicans.

Also, this meant that economic issues became matters of technocratic wrangling (should the top tax rate be 35% or 47.2%?) rather than real debate with significant clash (should the government own all the natural resources?).

The “liberal drift” freed the Democrats to cut loose a sinking ship: labor union populism. Labor unions were clearly dying (25% membership in 1980 to roughly 10% now), and would be quite difficult – perhaps impossible – to revive. So, don’t rely on them.

This allowed for social issues to be a bigger part of the Democratic program. Populists tended to be in favor of protectionist tariffs, social safety nets, and progressive taxes (much like the progressives), but fairly conservative on social and cultural issues – affirming the importance of a “traditional family”, and being nervous about the cultural impacts of immigration. But, it didn’t make sense to play to either of these to much degree, with the liberal drift happening. So, the Democrats leaned into trying to attract the liberals by placing more emphasis on social issues – where the progressives tend to be more rights-oriented – and becoming more market friendly (especially in the area of international trade). This left the populists abandoned, and voter participation plummeted. (See 1996 and 2000)

Then, the Republicans started making a play for the populists. For example: GW Bush and his support of steel tariffs. Not a free market policy – but it wasn’t intended to be. It was a conservative/populist policy. Conservative in the sense that it was protecting American industry – and one with strategic significance, and populist because, well, populists love tariffs because they protect very specific, easy to identify, jobs. Bush wasn’t particularly successful with the play for the populist vote, but laid the groundwork for someone who would be: Donald Trump.

Pres Trump – I suspect to some degree by accident – masterfully combined conservative and populist rhetoric. His “America First”/MAGA message was designed to play to these mindsets, and his presentation style was populist through-and-through. For a while, I’ve described him as “common” as a speaker. But this isn’t quite right. Rather, he’s “unrefined”. His speeches have a very un-practiced feel (perhaps genuinely so…), and populists LIKE that. Simply saying what you think (or feel) strikes populists as honest, even if any factual claims aren’t literally true.

Thus, Pres. Trump has solidified the Republican Party as a conservative/populist alliance.

This also helps explain what has happened in Ohio over the past few years. Not too long ago, Ohio was pretty purple. Now, it’s turning red. Look at a map of the 2020 election, and you can identify every major city – they’re in the blue counties (one exception: Ohio University dominates its county in Southern Ohio). Go back to 2008, and there are several non-urban blue counties. (Even moreso in 1992.) One that stands out to me: Belmont County, where I grew up

About 20 years ago, Ohio was the land of the conservative Democrat and liberal Republican. We pretty regularly had the most conservative Democrats in DC and the most liberal Republicans – and the Republicans we sent were often more liberal than the Democrats. Why? Well, Ohio is largely composed of conservatives and populists. When these were in two different parties, Ohio was a swing state, and the need to get elected meant our Democrats tended to be populists, not progressives, and our Republicans conservatives, not liberals. This gave a very pragmatic/centrist flavor to our politics.

But no more. These two inclinations are both now united in the Republican party. So, Ohio is going to swing a lot less. (It’s for this reason that I registered Republican in our primary this year, since I strongly suspect the Republicans are going to sweep the State-wide offices.)

The Democrats, though, are still stumbling their way toward a new alliance. What that alliance is going to have to be is a blend of progressives and liberals. At the moment, there’s a battle going on for which of these two have dominance, as that will determine a lot of the overall approach of this party. One of the issues that has the potential to cause the most harm are issues related to free expression. The progressive/”woke” wing is perfectly happy to stomp out speech they disagree with since they tend to equate disagreement or disapproval with violence. In fact, even “silence is violence.” Probably more than any other inclination, liberals respect and value disagreement – probably because JS Mill’s 2nd chapter of On Liberty is in liberals’ bones. So, the idea that speech itself (or the lack thereof!) should be equated with violence makes it *very* difficult to get liberals on board. The question is really whether the Democratic leadership is going to be able to reframe cultural issues in such a way that Democrats can be seen as embracing diversity rather than imposing it. A general attitude of tolerance – including tolerance for disagreement – is necessary for this to work, and there is a very loud progressive wing that is fighting against this kind of tolerance. (Note: I generally consider any reference to “The Paradox of Tolerance” to be a pretty clear signal that this is the kind of person you’re dealing with.) Democratic leadership has to be careful, because “well, at least we’re not Republicans” will only work for so long, and there’s a real possibility that those of liberal inclination may just not vote at all, once the Republicans are less threatening/more boring.

[Aside: it is certainly true that the GOP has its own problem – with the fringier elements declaring the more moderate members “RINOs” and the like. This would tend to speed the liberal drift, but if the Democrats embrace a full-woke “Paradox of Tolerance” approach, the liberals will have nowhere to go. The Republicans adopting free-speech rhetoric has slowed this, and they’ve been helped by the progressive wing of the Democrats treating speech as violence.]

A Personal Note

As a kid, I proudly considered myself a conservative Republican. But, in college, Pres. GW Bush convinced me that I wasn’t actually a Republican, and my exposure to more libertarian thought led me to call myself libertarian.

Over the past couple of years, and especially after being exposed to this 4 inclination hypothesis, I’ve come to realize that I am, like Strephon in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, a “liberal conservative”. That is, I affirm the importance of individual liberty and traditional social institutions like faith and family. This meant that, during the 1990s, the Republican Party felt like home. It was a blend (though an imperfect one) of my major inclinations. However, now that populists are running the GOP and progressives the DNC, I have nowhere to go.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might convince me to think about politics less, and I suspect we’d all be better off if we did that.