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A Snippet of American Political History: A Discussion
Hi Mike Russo! How's it going?
Thank you for the following question: "Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. Mike Pence is a Republican Socialist, what is different?
You go on to write: "The right wing propaganda machine was quick to jump on Bernie Sanders and call him a Communist because he calls himself a Democratic Socialist. Mike Pence is a Republican Socialist and no one says a word about it. What is the difference and why the double standard?"
I think it is useful and important to slow down and back up a little. Let's start with first things first.
Question: In the United States of America, what is the basic origin of the Republican and Democratic parties?
Answer: They really come out of the post-revolutionary debate between the two major political thinkers of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
American politics grow out of the unusual political-economy of post-revolutionary America (Thirteen Colonies), which was "half-free" (the North) and "half-slave" (the South), as it were. After the successful American Revolution of 1776-1783, the basic question was: Where does America go from here? What is our future going to be? Which path will bring us the prosperity, power, and longevity we desire as a nation?
Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian, believed that America's future lay in the lifestyle he himself was personally most familiar with: He believed that the newly independent nation should focus on agriculture, as both the focus of production and as the basic way of life for its citizens.
Jefferson thought that every free man ought to have his own patch of dirt to call his own, over which he could basically be master of all he surveys, lord of his personal dominion: his family, his farmhand employees, his servants, his slaves. The Jeffersonian ideal romanticized slavery as part of a humane, patriarchal complex of social relations---again, in which slavery was only one component. And even slaves, in this idealized notion, got what they deserved: food, clothing, medical care, shelter, religious instruction and moral training, care in their old age in exchange for loyal service to their masters, and so on and so forth.
In this Jeffersonian scenario, a relatively uninvolved and weak central government was ideal (lots of local, "state's rights" control) so that every free man could be his own lord of the manor, "King of His Castle," to use the euphemism, and so on and so forth.
Thomas Jefferson was inspire the "Jacksonian" Democrats, the modern Democratic Party.
Alexander Hamilton was born and raised in the West Indies; and he entered American public life with a very different perspective.
Hamilton believed that America's future lay in the full-throated embrace of industrial capitalism. Plantation-style slavery had no place in this conception of America's economic future. Hamilton's vision called for the adoption of mechanized production. This vision saw renewed, cordial ties with Great Britain as extremely important for the country moving forward.
America needed to be a country of sophisticated banking, high finance, and international trade. What was needed, too, was a first-rate transportation and communications infrastructure to facilitate all of this. Another imperative was the organization of an efficient and centralized means of repaying the national war debt.
Hamilton's vision could not be realized without a relatively powerful, engaged, proactive central government. Hamilton's vision would inspire the Party of Lincoln, the Republicans, the modern Republican party.
The Democratic and Republican Parties in the Nineteenth Century
Question: What does all this have to do with Democratic Socialism and Republican Socialism?
Answer: I am coming to it, but historical context is necessary.
The Democratic Party in the Nineteenth Century
- Relatively race-reactionary (proslavery party)
- However, Jacksonian Democratic politics always tended to be relatively class-progressive; there was some concern for the "little guy," albeit within the white population; recall Andrew Jackson's various crusades against the Bank of the United States, for example.
- The party that idealized small, weak central government, in favor of local, "state's rights" control (anti-federalism, if you will)
The Republican Party in the Nineteenth Century
- Relatively race-progressive (abolitionist party)
- Relative class-reactionary in that the Republicans were always the pro-business party
- The party idealized a relatively large, powerful central government (federalism, if you will)
Oh, and I should have mentioned that there was a time in American political history, when an entity known as the Democratic-Republican party existed as a single party. The issues I'm talking about caused its split into two separate parties.
By the way, for people who call for a "third party," tell me: What "third," basic, fundamental point of view actually exists to be taken up?
Where does "socialism" come in?
First of all, what is "socialism"?
Well, I think that there are very, very, very few people in the United States of America who actually have a clear understanding of what the doctrine of socialism proper, entails. I include myself in this doctrinal ignorance.
This does not stop us from using the word. When we say the word, in America, what we mean by it is something like this: government giving away a bunch of "free" stuff.
Therefore, if we are all agreeable, that is the definition I shall use. "Socialized medicine," after all, is what Ronald Reagan called the very concept of a single-payer, universal system of national health insurance, for example.
In terms of government-given-support, the Jacksonian Democrats and Lincolnesque Republicans wanted different, shall we say, affirmations?
Jacksonian Democrats wanted "support" (if you want to call that "socialism") for white male landowners of various "classes"----not women, not blacks, not Indians.
Lincoln Republicans wanted "support" (if you want to call that "socialism") for industry, banking, finance, manufacturing, international diplomacy, government workers----not women, not blacks, and not Indians, per se, as groups---but to the extent that segments of them could contribute, at least as hourly workers, to the edifice of industrial capitalism.
Tariff duties to protect burgeoning domestic industry are always a useful tool to help a new country modernize---if you want to call domestic industry-protecting tariffs "socialism." (Lincoln Republicans)
Subsidies for farmers are always useful in helping a nation's farmers sell their produce abroad, cheaply yet profitably---if you want to call these subsidies "socialism." (Jacksonian Democrats)
We're not done yet!
The amazing thing about American politics is the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties had effectively engaged upon two ideological swaps.
Let me say that again: The Democratic and Republican parties carried off two ideological swaps.
- The parties swapped effective ideologies on race.
- The parties swapped ideologies on governing philosophy
- This party went from being relatively race-progressive (abolitionist party) to being relatively race-reactionary. I am not saying the party is racist, but the GOP, since the 1960s, did make the conscious decision to use racism (so-called "white racial resentment) as an electoral strategy---what Ian Haney Lopez calls "dog whistle politics" (1). This occurred with the migration of Southern Democrats into the Republican party, as they came to resent the national Democratic party's increasing commitment to civil rights.
- The party went from being advocates of a relatively powerful, involved central government to one of "state's rights" advocacy.
- The party's pro-business commitments remained the same.
- This party went from being relatively race-reactionary to being relatively race-progressive.
- The party went from being advocates of a small, relatively weak central government, favoring "state's rights" local control to one that advocated a powerful, engaged, active central government---the "New Deal" administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt being an exemplar of the new Democrat approach. It was also needed to enforce civil rights judgments.
- The party became diversely multiracial.
- The party's working class/poor commitments remained the same.
Let's take a pause here.
The first point to make is that all self-respecting, sovereign governments in the world have some "socialist" features.
The corollary to that is the fact that no self-respecting, sovereign government in all of the world is a pure, undiluted, capitalist entity. Not one!
The operative word, of course, is sovereign. If you want some idea what it looks like for a third world country forced to endure pure, undiluted, relentless capitalism----I would recommend a book by the Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky (2). Its about what happens to a country that has what is called structural adjustment imposed on it, by the World Bank and IMF, for debt repayment (oftentimes the debt was generated under very odious conditions, under rather odious strongmen and dictators who overthrew previously democratically elected governments).
Stay with me for this second point. Here is the second point:
Since nobody in the United States of America knows what actual "socialism" is, actual socialism is not---and I can't stress this point too strongly---what we are talking about, when we invoke the word in American political discourse.
Does that make sense so far?
Good. Stay with me!
The word "socialism" is a slur used to attack---wait for it---Liberalism. As I said before, Ronald Reagan famously attacked the very idea of a European/Canadian-style, single-payer national health insurance system as "socialized medicine."
That is a definite attack on Left-Wing Liberalism.
When the political left speaks of "corporate welfare," or "socialism for the rich," or "the socialization of risk and the privatization of profit," that is a definite slur against and attack upon Right-Wing Liberalism.
That's right, there are two kinds of functioning liberalism in the United States of America.
What is liberalism?
You may not think you know what it means, but you really do. If you have ever gone to the drug store and bought a bottle of lotion, you know what liberalism means. The directions for use on the back may say something like: Apply liberally as needed.
What, then, does "liberal" mean in this context? It means that you should use just as much as you need, just as often as you need it. You need not necessarily hold back, as it were; and the product is safe to use, so that it is unlikely that you can do yourself harm by using the product in abundance.
Now let's simply apply that understanding to the political economy. But first, we need to understand the difference between the political left wing and the political right wing.
What does it mean to be politically left-wing?
What I mean by the term is this: It is someone who believes that the problems faced by minorities, women, children, the LGBT community, the American Indigenous, and the poor, as individuals, families, and communities have institutional and structural causes and, therefore, require institutional and structural remedies. Those institutional and structural remedies can only be provided by government.
The peak of the left-wing political ideal can be considered to have been expressed, by the 1964 Presidential campaign of Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, which stated as a goal the elimination of poverty in America, in a generation. His campaign pledged to try to do that as part of the Johnson platform.
I might also add that someone who is politically left-wing tends to believe that organizations such as large corporations, law enforcement, the military face problems that are, largely if not solely, of their own making; and that, therefore, the focus needs to be on disciplining, restraining, and controlling these entities, rather than helping them.
Side note: I don't want to come off as anti-military or anything like that, but my own left-wing liberalism forces me to acknowledge an unpleasant fact about our American military: that women are in greater danger from their fellow American but male soldiers than they from Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Isis combined----you know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the ongoing epidemic of sexual assault (3).
What does it mean to be politically right wing?
A "right-wing" political philosophy, in the United States of America, believes that the problems faced by the business community (both industrial and financial), law enforcement, and the military have institutional and structural causes and, therefore, require institutional and structural remedies. Those institutional and structural remedies can only be provided by Government (4).
The right-wing philosophy generally sees the problems faced by minorities, women, the LGBT community, undocumented workers, and the poor, as largely if not wholly self-created. The right-wing philosophy sees private charity as a viable means of delivering social services for people in need, as opposed to excessive government spending.
The right-wing philosophy believes that minorities, women, the LGBT community, undocumented workers ("illegal aliens") need to be controlled, disciplined, and restrained, not "coddled" in any way.
Let me say here that a true, full-blooded conservative should be against both forms of liberalism.
This is the reason why Dr. Noam Chomsky (activist, professor emeritus of linguistics, scholar, author, and public intellectual) has spent more than fifty years saying that in the United States of America, we do not really have "conservative" politicians.
For the most part, then, Republicans and Democrats, in the United States of America, believe in and effectively subscribe to one or another form of liberalism.
There is an entity in the United States that calls itself the Conservative Party that usually allies itself with the Republicans, in their mutual rejection of Left-Wing Liberalism; but they tend to part ways with the former's mutual rejection of but the latter's effective embrace of Right-Wing Liberalism.
Perhaps Representative Ron Paul of Texas is the closest thing we have---among all the nation's prominent politicians---to a full-blooded conservative.
The difference, then, at least in theory, between Democrats and Republicans, right-wing liberals and left-wing liberals----turns upon which groups you think need to be liberated and empowered (your constituency, in other words) and which groups you think need to be restrained and controlled (the other side's constituency, in other words).
Thank you for reading!
1. Lopez, Ian Haney. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press, 2013.
2. Chossudovsky, Michel. The Globalisation of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms. Zed Books (Third World Network), 1997.
3. (2014, December 5). Kime, P. Incidents of Rape in Military Much Higher Than Previously Reported. Retrieved July 19, 2016. (Military Times).
4. (2006). Baker, D. The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Retrieved July 19, 2016 (free online e-book); (2012, February --- updated) Domhoff, G.W. Who Rules America? (free online e-book). Retrieved July 19, 2016 --- particularly read the first section: The Class-Domination Theory of Power.
A discussion about the centrality of a powerful state to economic development from, say the 1780s to today, can be seen interspersed throughout the volume put out by historian Sven Beckert: Empire of Cotton: A Global History. 2014