Much of the American media coverage of political happenings seems centered around the groupings of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’ For the most part, Democrats are considered more liberal, while Republicans conservative.
Regardless of any American’s ideology, this categorisation is not only simplistic, but also inaccurate. And it’s high time we moved on from it.
First of all, let’s go back to the beginnings of each party. The Republicans, unsurprisingly, were formed from the guiding political philosophy of the United States itself: republicanism. This, as the term suggests, rejects monarchies and inherited political power, and – with its emphasis on liberty and unalienable individual rights – has fuelled the fable of the American Dream. It was in fact the Republicans who championed freedom of labour and freedom of movement, favourable to immigration and the end to slavery.
Formed in the 1850s and nicknamed the ‘Grand Old Party,’ or ‘GOP,’ the Republicans are however not the oldest party in American history: that status belongs to the Democrats, who can be traced back to the 1820s and opposed the Whigs and their belief in the rule of a minority over “majority tyranny.”
Meanwhile, the Republicans were still in many ways seen as progressive, campaigning on ‘pluralism’ for the benefit of many minority groups regardless of ethnic or religious background. Theodore Roosevelt, who many have argued held socialist principles, became president in 1901, and the Republicans supported trade unions and even the ‘New Deal’ of post-Depression Democrats led by that other Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Many supported health care and welfare spending with higher taxation, and a free market.
Here’s where ‘liberalism’ gets confused.
First of all, while many Democrats considered themselves fiscally conservative, and others were for greater restrictions on business, Republicans have long supported the liberalisation of the economy to allow greater freedom for businesses, and Ronald Reagan successfully ran for the presidency on the platform of “getting the government off your back,” meaning liberalisation of legislation and regulation, harking back to the GOP principles of individual freedom. Of course, by this time, this approach embraced the more Social Darwinist ideology of ‘survival of the fittest,’ where the government was to be so little involved in your life that you were left out on your own with hardly any support if you fell on hard times. (Democrat Bill Clinton continued the trend.) Similarly, the Republicans have usually been extremely liberal on gun controls; it’s almost always Democrats calling for stronger regulations on firearms.
It’s not just on guns where the Democrats are hardly ‘liberal.’ On welfare and overseas military campaigns, for example, the Democrats have been far from hippie liberals wanting to sit in circles, hand-in-hand, singing ‘Kum ba yah.’ But when they appear progressive, they’re still very comparable to Britain’s Conservatives (and not Britain’s ‘liberal’ left-wing Labour) on many issues – hardly ‘leftie’ peaceniks by any stretch of the imagination.
Yes, the Democrats are today often considered the American option for more socially liberal policies on gender, sexuality, and race – but in a developed Western nation that still doesn’t have universal health care, where inequality is high, and where, let’s not forget, the right-wing Republicans are the comparison, who are they going to brag to about that?
Although it isn’t necessarily an empirical study, the Political Compass website is very useful as demonstrating how being ‘liberal’ doesn’t mean being ‘left-wing.’ This applies both ways:
First, being socially conservative doesn’t mean being economically right-wing – look at Communist Russia.
Secondly, despite recently adopting ‘state capitalism,’ China is today seen as maintaining a ‘state communist’ approach, and whatever you interpret its economic policy as, almost all agree the state itself is key there, yet few will argue that it isn’t exactly ahead of the game on social liberalism – far from it. This must seem confusing to those Americans stuck in a binary ‘liberal/conservative’ view of the world.
So, why do Americans continue to insist on speaking about their political options – particularly Democrats and Republicans – as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’?
Well, the answer can be found in the question. The United States has essentially a two-party system. Attaching each party to a single simplistic yet vague ideology creates the illusion of choice, when there is little choice at all, and little difference. Both parties are capitalist and economically right-wing, both are dominated by corporate influence, both largely accept conservative approaches to health care and welfare spending, both historically fail on social liberalism, and both accept a militarised culture of overseas bombing campaigns.
Therefore it can in fact be argued that there is, it turns out, no great ideological battle between conservatives and liberals in the United States. Both are economically liberal while being relatively socially conservative compared to many other countries in other parts of the world, such as Scandinavia.
No, there is only one ideological battle, and it is that between the economically liberal, socially conservative elites dominating the two-party system alongside the media outlets covering it – and the people.
The recent mass movement behind democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated an appetite for a break from these norms, and it can even be suggested that Donald Trump’s success was largely an albeit unpleasant by-product of the growing widespread cynicism towards the political establishment. The Democratic Party’s recent failures – much like those of Britain’s Labour Party until Jeremy Corbyn became its elected leader – have also arguably been a result of lacking a clear counter-narrative to a political status quo that has brought about inequality, financial crises, global instability, and climate change.
Unless viable, credible alternatives are offered to ordinary people, fascistic parties and politicians will sadly be the only ones offering the pitch and promise of radical change, and history has already shown us the danger presented by such openings.
So the idea that Republicans are the ‘conservatives’ and Democrats are the ‘liberals,’ then, is outdated, wholly inaccurate, and essentially a con designed to create the illusion of choice between these two very corporate, very right-wing political machines. As Naomi Klein has said, “Politics hates a vacuum – if you don’t fill it with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” The public discontent at this has begun to manifest itself in the form of more rebellious choices – and if the Democrats don’t provide more prominent platforms for more politicians such as Sanders, Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez, then expect the Republicans to offer more types like Trump. While there are many in the Democratic Party who would be just fine with more neoliberal Presidents such as the latter because they and their benefactors are too afraid of any significant redistribution of wealth, no less than the survival of our planet itself is what’s at stake.
It’s time to ditch the fake differences between the supposedly ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ political parties who got us in this mess the last century, and instead put forward genuine, progressive alternatives. Time is running out too fast to settle for anything less.
A community educator and lifelong anti-capitalist activist, Jay Baker (he/him) is the founder of SilenceBreaker Media and has written, produced, and directed documentaries in addition to writing for numerous newspapers, magazines, zines, and websites. His own website is at dukeofhardrock.com.