Hoover Daily Report

Variety and Vulnerability in American Party Politics

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The 2004 election's map of blue coasts and red hinterland proclaims two distinct Americas. But this gives a false impression of unity within the contending camps.

Disagreement among conservatives in the United States is acute about which beliefs, practices, and institutions are essential and which are most in danger of being lost or degraded. Social conservatives are anxious to constrain America's larger liberalism by protecting traditional morality from the corrosive effects of untrammeled personal freedom and the disruptions of a healthy, churning economy. In contrast, libertarians seek to preserve the legal framework within which personal freedom can be enjoyed and the market can operate most efficiently. Neoconservatives—typically more at home with liberalism than social conservatives and more at ease with traditional morality than libertarians—are committed to protecting America's liberalism from its own excesses by preserving habits of heart and mind that support freedom.

To command a national majority, the Republican Party requires the support of all three kinds of conservatives. But the fault lines in the coalition run deep. Social conservatives view abortion as an evil and oppose same-sex marriage as a threat to an institution they regard as central to civilized life. Libertarians, at least early in pregnancy, would leave the decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy to the mother and prefer government to stay out of the marriage business. Neoconservatives support an ambitious and idealistic foreign policy, with its hallmark the promotion of democracy abroad. Social conservatives, worried about the reach of liberalism at home, are skeptical both about liberalism's appeal abroad and about the United States' interest in promoting it. Furthermore, libertarians oppose the growth of government spending—even as social conservatives want to increase spending on domestic programs to shore up traditional values and neoconservatives want to increase spending on military and foreign aid.

Serious fault lines also run beneath the progressive camp. United by the priority they give to making America a more equal and inclusive society, progressives divide over the role that government, market mechanisms, courts, and the institutions of civil society should play in achieving it. Perhaps the most ominous tension within the progressive coalition arises from the conflicting economic interests of the party's two main constituencies. Once the party of the working class, today's Democratic Party is increasingly divided between highly educated, upper-middle-class professionals, who identify with its secular social and cultural outlook, and the poor, the sick, and the elderly, who want the party to increase government assistance.

Both parties face formidable challenges in keeping their vulnerable coalitions together while reaching out to centrists to assemble a national majority. The spectacle is enough to inspire in an old-fashioned liberal—one who follows John Stuart Mill in believing that liberty depends on a robust contest between a party that makes conserving a priority and a party that makes progress a priority—pride in American democracy and hope for the future.