Right Opinion

The Republican Party Has No 'Bedrock Principles.' The Democratic Party Doesn't Either.

Jeff Jacoby · Sep. 19, 2019

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an op-ed column by Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld, the three candidates challenging President Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination. They expressed indignation over the decision by Republican parties in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina to cancel next year’s presidential primaries and award their convention delegates to the president without any input from the voters.

“Trump loyalists in the four states that have canceled their primaries and caucuses claim that President Trump will win by a landslide, and that it is therefore a waste of money to invest in holding primaries or caucuses,” the three Republicans write. “But since when do we use poll numbers as our basis for deciding whether to give voters an opportunity to choose?”

I sympathize with the challengers. They have every reason to resent the state parties’ maneuver, which denies them the chance to go before Republican voters and make their case that Trump should be replaced. But it was something else in their op-ed that caught my eye.

Sanford, Walsh, and Weld condemn Trump for having “abandoned the bedrock principles of the GOP,” and insist that “if a party stands for nothing but reelection, it indeed stands for nothing.”

Is that true? I would suggest that when all is said and done, major parties are primarily about winning elections — and that their “bedrock principles” are usually softer and more malleable than party members think.

Faithful Republicans and Democrats generally associate their parties with certain political values, and often imagine that those values go to the party’s essence. At the Massachusetts Democratic Convention on Saturday, Senator Elizabeth Warren exhorted delegates to remember that “Democrats have been on the front lines in the fight for social, racial, and economic justice.” In a speech to Republican lawmakers the day before, Trump listed the values that he said unite Republicans — they “defend the Constitution … stand up for heroes of law enforcement … reject globalism … respect our great American flag.” This is how most of us tend to think about parties: that they embody a core philosophy, which they win elections in order to implement.

But the opposite is closer to the truth: Parties strive to win elections, and over time adapt their views and ideology to do so.

In a forthcoming book, How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t), the respected political analyst Michael Barone observes that the Democratic Party (which dates from 1832) and the Republican Party (born in 1854) are among the very oldest political parties in the world. As he shows in fascinating detail, both parties’ basic values have changed dramatically over the generations. The only thing about them that remains constant, Barone argues, is the type of groups each appeals to: Republicans are the party of those considered to be “typical Americans,” while Democrats are “a collection of out-groups.”

Over time, the makeup of those categories has shifted enormously. In the 19th century, Republicans were apt to be northern, Protestant, town- and city-dwellers; in the 21st century, they are more likely to be married white, southern Christians. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has gone from being the 19th-century party of southern slaveholders and big-city Catholics to the 21st-century party of urban blacks and affluent major-metro liberals.

Yet even more striking is how each party’s “bedrock principles” have altered.

In the 1930s, Barone writes, the Democratic Party under Franklin Delano Roosevelt “stood for big government, deficit financing, and inflationary currency.” A century earlier, the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson “stood for pretty much the opposite.” From the 1850s through the turn of the 20th century, on the other hand, the GOP was the big-government party: It favored the imposition of uniform policies on the states, denounced racial segregation, championed protective tariffs, and passed laws against corporate monopolies. By the 1920s, however, Republicans had morphed into a party skeptical of activist government and more inclined to focus on economic growth and lower taxes.

Changes in the parties’ policy stands are often driven by the changing nature of their supporters. For example, the GOP was home to many liberals until the 1970s. They stayed Republican, Barone writes, because they detested the big-city machine bosses, the militant union leaders, and the segregationist southern politicians who were the Democratic Party’s dominant players. As those elements gradually disappeared from Democratic politics, the liberal wing of the Republican Party disappeared as well.

Something similar happened with Democratic conservatives. They stuck with the party long after FDR and the New Deal did away with the party’s Jeffersonian tradition of small government and laissez-faire economics. What finally drove them out, Barone writes, was not civil rights — a popular misconception — but foreign policy. Conservative Democrats were hawks, and the Democratic Party from Roosevelt through Johnson was the party of military action abroad, hefty defense spending at home, and vigorous Cold War anticommunism. But with the rise of prominent antiwar Democrats like Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, the party turned dovish — and more and more conservatives turned Republican.

The Democratic and Republican parties are always in flux. Their values, their rules, their powerbrokers, their supporters — all change over time. Only one thing remains fixed: the quest to win elections. That was true long before Trump showed up. It will be true long after he’s gone.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

Don't miss Jeff Jacoby and other great columnists. Subscribe today!

Click here to show comments

It's Right. It's Free.