In a previous article in this collection (“One Party Rule”), we discovered that there is really only one true political party in the United States today, the Democratic Party. It meets the basic definition of a political party: it advocates a consistent set of policies that advance the interests of specific segments of the population and enjoy broad consensus among the party’s constituents.
The so-called Republican Party, on the other hand, does not meet this standard. Republicans do not advocate a consistent set of policies and the policies they do from time to time put forward often do not enjoy consensus across the party’s electoral base.
The Republican Party stands in opposition to the Democratic agenda. That opposition is its raison d’etre. Beyond that opposition, Republicans share little in common and therefore their so-called ‘party’ cannot put forward a consistent agenda of its own. Democrats propose, Republicans oppose! That is the American political dynamic.
For the most part, Democrats can easily achieve consensus because they mostly come from socio-economic groups that have a particular, well defined relationship to the ‘state’ (i.e. government and the other levers of political power). The Democratic Party supports the state and the state in turn advances the socio-economic interests of Democratic constituencies.
Democratic proposals consistently advocate a larger and more powerful role for government in the life of the nation. Bigger government inherently advantages certain segments of the population and those segments in turn form the Democratic Party’s electoral base.
It all sounds like one big conspiracy…but it isn’t! It is simply the natural outcome of citizens seeking their own self-interests and the common interests of their own communities. But this symbiotic relationship between Party and State is the hallmark of a one-party political system. As we shall soon see, party, power and privilege go hand in hand in hand.
In the 19th Century, philosophers coined a name for those constituencies that were advantaged by growing the power and scope of the state: “The Ruling Class”. The term applies today as well; but our 21st Century Ruling Class no longer consists of just one segment of society: hereditary aristocracy, landed gentry, bourgeois capitalists, or even Marx’ proletariat. Today, we need an entirely new way of thinking about the Ruling Class…and the revolutionary classes that might someday dethrone it.
Unlike ruling classes of the past, membership in today’s Ruling Class is by no means reserved for the economic elite. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, there is only a loose correlation between wealth and power. Ruling Class members are not so much rich as they are comfortable. They are people who, on balance, feel advantaged by the status quo and by government policies that seek to preserve and protect that status quo.
Where do we find such people? In civil service, in labor unions, in academic communities, among the beneficiaries of various entitlement programs, and among the very wealthy. These constituencies perceive that their interests are best served when the size and reach of government expands. They form the new Ruling Class.
How do they rule? By advocating enhanced power for the state while ensuring that the policies of the state continue to protect the status quo. And how do they do that? By controlling the nation’s only true political party, the Democratic Party.
Consider just one example. Fifty years ago, a college professor was a respected but arguably underpaid member of society. Teaching salaries were low because tuitions were relatively low. Colleges could not charge more because people could not pay more.
As a result of low tuition, many American families could afford to send their sons and daughters to college, not without sacrifice, but often without financial aid. In order to ease the burden on those families and enable more students to attend college, Democrats (with some Republican support) created the various student loan programs that dominate the higher education experience today.
In less than two generations, tuitions have risen from less than $2,000/year to more than $40,000/year. Now almost no families can afford to pay the bill. Instead, students are forced to borrow much of their tuition. As we all know, these loans are extremely burdensome to young graduates: they are a lien on spendable income, they impede household formation and they discourage home ownership and entrepreneurship.
Student loan balances have become a major national crisis. But not everyone is feeling the pain. Rapidly rising tuitions coupled with larger college enrollments mean more employment opportunities in higher education and rapidly rising salaries for professors and other university professionals.
This is a prime example of how government enhances quality of life for one group (the university class) at the expense of another group (young graduates). The academic community is part of today’s Ruling Class; and not surprisingly, it is a core Democratic constituency. The university community strongly advocates the expansion of government and members of that community almost monolithically support the party of government, the Democratic Party.
The current political landscape is not dissimilar to the landscape in mid-19th century Europe. Then too, there was a Ruling Class; everyone else was powerless: factory workers, peasants, shop keepers, intellectuals, etc…
The revolutionary writers of that time encouraged those disenfranchised classes to recognize their common interests and to use that new awareness to craft a common agenda, a ‘revolutionary’ agenda. The details of these proposed agendas (various tactical programs and visions of the future) differed widely from writer to writer and faction to faction. But virtually all shared two tenets in common: disrupt the status quo and undermine the determination and ability of the State to protect the Ruling Class.
How does this relate to our situation today? Many of the 19th century revolutionaries (e.g. Karl Marx) advocated the formation of a political party that would represent the interests of the powerless. In the United States today, we have only one true political party, the Democratic Party, the party of government, the party the Ruling Class. But we also have a party-in-waiting with the potential to transform itself into a true political party representing the interests of the disenfranchised classes. I speak, of course, of the Republican Party.
For that to happen, the Republican Party would need to commit itself to a Five Step Program:
(1) Embrace its role as a revolutionary force in American society.
(2) Identify its natural constituencies.
(3) Encourage those constituencies, not always comfortable bed fellows, to recognize their common interests.
(4) Persuade those constituencies to put aside their cultural differences, as Democrats have largely done, and focus instead on their shared economic and political interests.
(5) Develop and advocate a set of policies designed to promote the common interests of those constituencies.
Who are these natural constituencies? The young, the economically disadvantaged, inventors and entrepreneurs, small business owners, and folks who seek to live outside the socio-economic mainstream. Just as the Democratic constituencies are made up of those who feel they have more to lose than to gain from socio-economic change, Republican constituencies will be made up of those who feel they have more to gain.
What are the common interests of these Republican constituencies? Fewer government mandates, looser restrictions on economic activity, and lower taxes.
What are the policies that would promote such common interests? I have my ideas, but they fall outside the scope of this essay…and of my brief. It is for the constituencies themselves, working together under the Republican umbrella, to develop specific policy proposals.
I can say, however, that Republican policy initiatives would need to conform to Four Principles:
(1) The revolutionary Republican Party may advocate fierce enforcement of border security…but it cannot be anti-immigrant.
(2) The revolutionary Republican Party may insist on a strict meritocracy…but it cannot be racist.
(3) The revolutionary Republican Party may defend the role of religious values in American society…but it cannot seek to impose a moral code.
(4) The revolutionary Republican Party may advocate enterprise as the preferred method for overcoming poverty…but it cannot abandon America’s long standing commitment to a social safety net.
Here is where the clash between the Democratic Party and revolutionary Republican Party will be fiercest. Both parties will claim to be the party of the poor…and both will be right.
The Democratic Party will continue to the party of choice for those who seek to alleviate the all too real hardships of poverty primarily through government assistance; the Republican Party will become the party of choice for those who seek to overcome poverty primarily through economic activity.
The challenge for the Republican Party will be to move past its traditional ‘bootstrap’ attitude toward poverty to develop policy proposals that will truly empower meaningful economic activity at ever socio-economic level.
Should today’s Republican Party decide to embrace the Five Steps and the Four Principles, we could yet find ourselves with a true two party system in the United States.