A Dime’s Worth of Difference?

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Now that the 2000 presidential election campaign is under way, many voters believe that the nasty, partisan environment in Washington reflects deep policy divisions between Republicans and Democrats. Not true! The state of American politics has changed strikingly since Ronald Reagan left office. Republicans and Democrats today hold more similar policy views than they have for about twenty years. A historically familiar pattern of convergence between the parties emerged during the 1990s, following a period of divergence during the Reagan years.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.
 

Bill Clinton has won two elections as a "new" Democrat committed to many of Ronald Reagan's governing principles and policies including, for example, less reliance on government and more reliance on individual initiative, the free market, and economic and monetary restraint. For their part, Republicans in 2000 are trying to recapture the White House by combining traditional conservatism with the Democrats' recently successful theme of compassion. Thus, while we watch Republicans and Democrats rhetorically slam each other as "dangerous liberals" or "callous right-wingers," the reality is that both parties are presenting themselves to the electorate in almost identical ways: as very caring, compassionate, moderate conservatives.

Why has this convergence occurred and how does it fit into the larger history of American and Western democratic politics?

An important part of the answer is that democratic free market electoral competition drives political parties to do what they must in order to win elections. This produces periods of divergence as well as the current pattern of convergence. Indeed, in 1932 and again in 1980, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan led their parties toward new and divergent policies that addressed national crises. Their consequent electoral successes in turn provoked the opposition parties to eventually adopt similar policy views in an effort to become electorally attractive again. That is what Bill Clinton has been doing, so that convergence is now firmly entrenched in the American political landscape and is likely to stay until a new crisis occurs, which will then cause one party or the other to lead us into a new era of divergence.

This process is not limited to the United States. In Britain, for example, the Conservative Party is struggling to figure out how to retake power from the enormously popular prime minister Tony Blair and his "new" Labour Party. The problem is that Blair and Labour have taken up the same principles and policies that Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative government championed a decade ago—but added what they describe as a "human face" to those ideas. Now British Conservatives are scrambling to imitate Labour, even going so far as traveling to Texas to learn about George W. Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism."

Thus, we can expect to hear the usual campaign noise during the 2000 campaign about great differences between the parties as candidates try to energize their supporters and bid for votes. But don't fret that the fabric of American politics is tearing apart. The differences are not great, and the Republic will be safe whoever wins.