Parties have broad differences

September 11, 2012


There was a time, not quite within the memory of Americans now alive, when the principal argument between the major parties was over the tariff. Democrats wanted a low one, Republicans a high one.

There were differences between the parties, but chiefly they were in perception. The Democrats were a more raffish crowd. They were said to enjoy themselves more. They were perhaps more foreign, sometimes talking in strange accents. On matters of patriotism, they were distrusted by Republicans, who had almost begun political life by “waving the bloody shirt” at Democrats for being sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

That last paragraph, portions of which I co-wrote with my reporting partner, James M. Perry, a quarter-century ago, once was true — but seems not so much quaint as antiquarian to our eyes today. Woodrow Wilson began the change, Franklin Roosevelt fueled it, Richard Nixon accelerated it and Ronald Reagan clinched the transition.

The charge that there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties — George C. Wallace’s proclamation in 1968 when he ran against both of them — now also seems antiquarian, though nothing about the Wallace of that period ever will seem quaint. Only from a European perspective, where it is sometimes argued that both Republicans and Democrats are hopelessly centrist captives of conventional mid-20th century capitalism, do these modern parties seem even remotely similar.

Biggest split since Civil War

Indeed, the two parties today are perhaps more different than they have been since the Civil War and the end of the reverberations over Reconstruction. They’ve swapped positions on the tariff — Democrats now want a high one and Republicans generally believe that higher tariffs mean lower productivity — and they differ about almost everything else.

One party generally believes in abortion rights, the other does not. One party embraces gay marriage, the other rejects it. One party would permit taxes to rise, the other would not. And though they both believe the nation is nearing a dangerous cliff on Social Security and Medicare, their prescriptions for avoiding the entitlements disaster are so different as to be irreconcilable. As we have seen.

They also differ in geography. The South is solid again, but today’s solid South is a deep Republican red. It used to be a Democratic blue — as blue and as seemingly permanent as the sky, even when viewed from the perspective of a pack of yellow dogs. The fact that almost none of the readers of this column ever has heard the phrase “yellow dog” in conversation seals my point.

This used to be a country of partisan contention but often of policy consensus. This was true as recently as 1960, when the two candidates, Vice President Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy, bickered a lot but differed little. Indeed, the only real disagreement anyone can remember from their classic 1960 debates was over two obscure islands, Quemoy and Matsu, not that many of us can remember precisely what the fight was about and how the candidates lined up. Except that Nixon vowed to be tougher.

In that year, Clinton Rossiter, the Cornell political historian, wrote that “there is and can be no real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, because the unwritten laws of American politics demand that the parties overlap substantially in principle, policy, character, appeal and purpose — or cease to be parties with any hope of winning a national election.”

Rossiter died in 1970, as cracks in the world he knew were becoming evident. Nixon’s Southern Strategy left the yellow dog mortally ill and Reagan killed him. It was in large measure race, which had created the differences between the parties in the 19th century, that rendered the parties different as the last century ended and the new one deepened.

First the Democrats became the party of civil rights. Then the Republicans became the party of patriotism, small government and social conservatism. These were wedges that forced apart the foundations of the American party system. The parties that Rossiter believed couldn’t exist unless they mixed ideologies became parties that existed only because they separated ideologies.

Extremes prevail

Which brings us to Campaign 2012. A generation ago, it would have been inconceivable that one party would nominate an African-American and the other a Mormon — and that both would have Catholic running mates. We’re over that; all those things happened in one year. But a generation ago, it would have been possible to postulate a white Barack Obama type who resisted his party’s left wing and a Christian Mitt Romney type with moderate views — and the two of them having no serious ideological disagreements.

Not today. The real Obama is portrayed as an American Mitterrand, if not worse, and the real Romney could not survive in his original incarnation, a late 20th-century version of his father, whom he worshipped but at whose altar of accommodation and moderation he dares not linger today.

What we once saw as monumental choices — Nixon versus Kennedy, Nixon versus Hubert Humphrey — were contests with barely a difference. Hardly anyone alive thinks Nixon was as inspirational a figure as Kennedy, but hardly anyone can draw distinctions between them (both were Navy lieutenants in World War II, both entered the House in 1946, both moved to the Senate in the early 1950s) that remotely approach the differences between this year’s candidates.

Elections stand out

Indeed, the elections where the differences were starkly drawn — Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon against George McGovern in 1972 — stand out because they are so different in character from the rest of the contests. It is also not a coincidence that in both elections the candidate from his party’s extreme wing lost in a landslide.

We live in a different world, one in which the phrase “yellow dog” demands to be defined. So before we close, a primer on this curious canine.

There are several etymological explanations for the term, but two will suffice — the notion that a Southerner would vote for a yellow dog before he would vote for a Republican, or the companion idea that a Southerner would vote for a yellow dog if he were the nominee of the Democratic Party. The yellow dog is dead. Dead with it, alas, is the golden age of political metaphor. We may not all mourn the death of the former, but we can all grieve at the demise of the latter.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

There are still a couple of areas of significant overlap between the two parties-- fealty in their service to Wall Street, and unflagging support for the military-industrial complex. But the latter is largely because Wall Street makes so much money off of it.

Fossick 5 years, 4 months ago

Bozo is wholly correct, as are the Europeans who believe that both American parties are centrist. They are. Both believe in nearly universal suffrage, both pay fealty to the Constitution, both turn over power without violence. Both believe in America's inalienable right to change the governments of other countries, neither wants to eliminate entitlements, nor completely free markets, nor completely control them. Neither party is truly socialist nor capitalist, but both are descendants of the original Populists and Progressives, who wish to control business though government and control government by pushing governance off to unelected boards like the Fed and the Kansas Barber board.

Given that in much of the world over much of history, parents were granted the unfettered right to kill their children until adulthood, the fact that the two parties argue over whether that right exists until three months of gestation or eight is not really all that meaningful. Nor is the faddish argument over gay marriage, which was unimagined anywhere 2 decades ago.

Given that the choice is a Republican former-governor of a very Democratic state or a Democratic former senator of a very Democratic state, the difference between the candidates is not likely to be all that large when considered within the framework of human political thought.

Fossick 5 years, 4 months ago

To be fair, there's another guy in the race, too. I just forget his name.

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

OR - poor performance, and high unemployment, and failed stimilus 1 and 2, and horrid foreign policy, and lack of leadership. Should we keep going ?

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

"Parties have broad differences."

But very few narrow ones.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 4 months ago

I like Bill Maher's take on this. The GOP has become the party of extreme right wing crazy, leaving all of the traditional political space to the democrats, who must the the liberal, centrist, and conservative party all at once.

This is a quite broad difference.

tbaker 5 years, 4 months ago

"Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

Frederic Douglass, civil rights activist, Aug. 4, 1857

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

Warning: Politically incorrect jokes to follow - apologies in advance to any who are offended.

The parties do have broad differences - R seem to prefer blondes, while D have wide-ranging tastes.

While we're discussing blondes, two blondes walk into a building...you'd think one of them would have seen it.

Rim shot - I'll be here all week, folks, enjoy your dinner :-)

Corey Williams 5 years, 4 months ago

dems are tax and spend, repubs are borrow and spend

classclown 5 years, 4 months ago

Of course the two parties have different women. How is this news? Duh!

classclown 5 years, 4 months ago

The biggest difference is that the broads of one party look a lot better than the broads of the other party. It's as if they care about how they look while the others don't.

Fossick 5 years, 4 months ago

"What we once saw as monumental choices — Nixon versus Kennedy, Nixon versus Hubert Humphrey — were contests with barely a difference"

And so the nation will see Obama/McCain and Obama/Romney in half a century. Objects in the mirror of time are not smaller than they appear; objects too close simply look larger than they really are.

JHOK32 5 years, 4 months ago

I saw Kirk Douglas on a late night talk show a couple of weeks ago. He had a stroke & labors to speak but what he said was profound & powerful; he said "We are no longer Americans, we are either red or blue or we don't care anymore." Very sad. Our country is in deep trouble.

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