The Fault Line In American Politics

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time. There have been many musings about what’s been wrong with the Democrats, and why they seem to be unable to win elections (without pretending to be conservative). But I haven’t seen anyone get to the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that the Democrats believe that they are on one side of the fault line in American politics, and that the Republicans are on the other. In fact, the Republicans are straddling both sides of the American fault line (libertarian small government on the one hand, and Christian inspired big government on the other), and the Democrats are off to the sideline, trying to peddle programs that very few Americans want.

Michael Barone gets to the heart of the matter in his column today:

The Democrats’ problem is that they have proceeded for years with a goal of moving America some distance toward a Western European welfare state. Just how far, they have not had to decide. But Judis looks at Europe and sees a failing model: high unemployment, stalled economies and the welfare state in retreat. Nor is raising taxes on the rich a sound strategy: Democrats did that in 1993, and Republicans won control of Congress in 1994.

Democrats in power can make small, quiet moves toward redistribution, like the expansion of the earned income tax credit in the Clinton administration. Out of power, they can focus on policies for which arguments can be made by vivid anecdotes, like prescription drugs for seniors. Or they can obstruct change and wait for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to gobble up larger shares of the economy. But that will take time.

For now, Democrats are facing the fact that general arguments for a larger welfare state just doesn’t seem attractive to most voters.

1989 was a significant year for the United States. It was the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And what followed that seems to have gone unnoticed by most Democrats. Prior to the fall of the Soviet block, academics and extreme liberals would argue that the Soviet Union is closed because we in the west have been belligerent to them, that behind those walls there’s a socialist utopia in action, a land where everybody has free health care, nobody goes hungry, and nobody ever gets laid off because there’s no unemployment. The more mild mantra that came from the left was that the United States and the Soviet Union just had different ways of doing things, and that one was no more right than the other. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of those sentiments became instantly false in the mind of the American electorate.

The American people could see the poverty in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and they could see quite clearly that when given the free choice, that the people living under these regimes embraced capitalism, and often to a degree unseen even in the west. I remember how clearly it hit home for me, when a Russian naval ship had docked in Boston Harbor when I was in college, but home for summer break. Citizens came by the ship for a meet and greet with our former foes, and what they saw shocked them: the Russian sailors were starving, literally malnourished. Aghast at what they saw, the Bostonians ran home and to stores to get food and bring it to the sailors, so that they could eat on their voyage home. To an honest person witnessing this, there can be but one conclusion:

Socialism doesn’t work.

And almost instantaneously, the fault line in American politics vanished. No longer were Americans debating how much socialism was the right amount in their economy. Instead, they were wondering what to do with their socialist infrastructure and how to reduce its size without hurting too many people who had grown dependent on it. As evidence, witness the election of Bill Clinton on a platform of nationalized healthcare (he had to not call it socialized health care), turning around in a few short years to declare to congress and the nation that “the era of big government is over”. Couple this with the fact that the American economy grew during the 1980’s and 1990’s far faster than the Western European semi-socialist economies did, the dissolution of the American fault line that had held really since the 1930’s became a fait accompli.

Finally, consider the following poll data:

  • 73% believe “the federal government is much too large and has too much power.” (Luntz, November 9, 1994.)
  • 67% believe “big government is the biggest threat to the country in the future.” (Roper, 1994.)
  • 63% think “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” (Times Mirror, July 12-27, 1994.)
  • 60% “favor a smaller government with fewer services.” (Times Mirror, June 12-24, 1993.)
  • Only 22% “trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time.” (CBS/New York Times, November 1, 1994

Faced with a turning tide, liberals attempted a number of strategies. The politically savvy ones attempted to become trojan horse socialists, attempting to sneak their agenda in the back door couched in phraseology that makes it sound like something else (such as “increasing our investments” as a euphemism for increasing government spending). Many of the ideological types gave up on ideology altogether, and instead spouted a return to tribalism, ethnic tribalism specifically. Commonly called “political correctness”, this anti-ideology of sorts has lead directly to the current “booklessness” among the left so aptly complained about in The New Republic recently. The remainder doubled down on their efforts, starting the Green Party and eventually backing the Dean candidacy and running, international A.N.S.W.E.R. and other fringe type organizations.

I remember listening to NPR sometime in the midst of the Clinton administration. It was a talk show of some sort, and a liberal called in, bitterly disappointed with Clinton for not espousing the types of socialist programs he wanted espoused. That mindset, that need to be heard, is what drove the Dean candidacy, and is what is driving the party today. They are simply incredulous at the position they find themselves in, and their feelings often erupt to the surface in the form of rage.

Which brings us to today’s foreign policy. The New Yorker has a great article on the dilemma facing Democrats seeking the presidential nomination today. It’s essentially an extensive interview with Sen. Joe Biden, but the following paragraph sums it all up nicely:

Kennedy and Boxer—and Dean—are to the left of the Democratic center [among Democrat politicians] on foreign policy, but their views are shared by many of the Party’s active constituents. According to a recent Pew poll, seventy-four per cent of Democrats believe that it was wrong to go to war; twelve per cent of Republicans opposed the invasion. (The country as a whole, including independent voters, is evenly split on the issue.) Eli Pariser, the executive director of, the antiwar group that helped propel Dean’s campaign for President, told me not long ago, “I don’t see how Bush can create a state of fear in our country, and go off in a reckless rush to war in Iraq, and then take credit somehow for exporting democracy, which is a bizarre term, anyway, because democracy is about self-governance.” In an e-mail to MoveOn members after the election, Pariser wrote, “It’s our party. We bought it, we own it and we’re going to take it back.”

There’s the dilemma. The modern left activist type is staunchly against the war but the American population is moderately in favor of it, so to win in a primary one would have to be a radical, but to win in a general election one would have to be a moderate or some form of a trojan horse ideologue. The question is, why is the left anti-war, and how does this relate to the fault line in American politics?

I found the answer in a conversation with a liberal lawyer (friend of a friend). In the run-up to the war, we were discussing the justifications for going in, and in particular, how we all believed at the time that Iraq had WMD’s. She asked, unbelievably enough, why it was that if the U.S. could posses WMD, why Iraq couldn’t? I tried to explain to her that the United States was a country that was governed with the consent of those governed, while Iraq was a bloodthirsty dictatorship that had no moral right to govern. But what was most astonishing to me was that this woman, a lawyer, even had to ask the question, that it wasn’t self evident to her. It was as if she’d never read the Declaration of Independence.

Or perhaps, as if she didn’t really believe in it.

And I actually do think that’s the case. The Democrats have shown themselves to be remarkably undemocratic as of late (prompting many on the right to refer to them as the “Democrat Party” instead of the “Democratic Party”). Witness Christine Gregoire out in Washington State, or the recent Supreme Court ruling on capital punishments for minors, or even the Massachusetts SJC ruling regarding gay marriage. There seems to be an ends justifies the means sensibility to the left these days. Couple that with frustrated socialist dreams, and complete relativism of political correctness and you have a part of the electorate that can’t tell right from wrong when available for plain view on the world stage.

So where is the political fault line in American politics today? And what can the Democrats do to bring that to light and stake out a position on one side of it?

I think that the place to begin to look is the famed purple maps made up by Robert Vanderbei. What Vanderbei shows is an interesting correlation between population density and Democrat voting. If population density is driving Democrat voting, how does that illuminate the American political fault line?

I think that the answer is straight-forward enough. With communism and socialism swept away, what we’re left with, in essence, is the Scopes Monkey Trial. Or, to put it differently, the role of religion in our public life. People who live in more densely populated areas are used to more diversity around them, and tend to want to keep religion out of civic affairs. They’re also more cosmopolitan and care less about pornography or foul language than rural types do. Rural people live in more homogeneous settings, where the rise of evangelical christianity has caused them to spout off about God ad nauseam. These people are also under the mistaken impression that the constitution was written after a Bible study group, and that it was modeled after Biblical principles. This fault line informs people’s views about homosexuality and gay marriage, creationism vs. evolution, school prayer, and a host of other social issues. It does not particularly inform people’s economic views.

But then again, Americans have largely concluded that socialism doesn’t work anyway, so why should we be having heated debates about it? Both sides of that divide largely agree.

As evidence of this, I would point you to the conversation that Bill Clinton reportedly had with John Kerry during the campaign. Clinton apparently suggested that Kerry take a number of more moderate positions, a trojan horse type of strategy, and Kerry was generally receptive. But when Clinton suggested that Kerry come out against gay marriage, Kerry interrupted, and said he couldn’t go against his principles like that.

In other words, the driver was the libertarian social issues, and not the economy or the war or much else. I tend to think that it is also the driver behind most of the people who voted for him (, A.N.S.W.E.R. and party apparatchiks aside). They were urban types who look askance at the incessant talk of religion on the right, and vote for the donkey to keep the Republicans in check, knowing full well that the socialist trojan horse has no hope of being implemented.

So what is the Democrat Party to do? I think that to find the answer, one has to look at what the Democrats did just prior to the civil rights movement. Correctly sensing that the old defense of southern segregationism (ala Woodrow Wilson and southern Democrats) was no longer acceptable, the party began to excommunicate and/or quarantine it’s then lunatic fringe. Some were sent packing to the Dixicrat party, and others were basically told to shut up (Robert Byrd, etc.) By excommunicating their segregationists, they were able to position themselves for 40 years of dominance, something that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, unless the modern Democratic Party can quarantine the Ted Kennedy’s and Barbara Boxers of their party, and become something of a Howard Stern libertarian type of party, the party itself will be doomed to extinction.

Sometime in my lifetime, I believe that either one of two things will happen. That the Democrats will wake up and eject the socialists from their ranks, or that they will die away, and the Republican Party will become top heavy, and the libertarians there will break away from the Christian conservatives to form a new two party system. I think that that debate will be more heated in social issues, but far less heated in foreign policy and economic policy. But it’s a long term development either way.

Only time will tell.


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