Pragmatism, Idealism, and the Great Political Party Reversal

I’m not a political historian (and am fairly young) so I welcome feedback from anyone who has studied (or remembers) the past 50 years of politics in more detail than I have, but it seems to me that a dramatic role reversal has occurred between our two major parties and has not gotten any mainstream media attention. It used to be that the Democratic party was the party of the Utopian ideal and Republicans were pragmatists with a suitable modesty about the actual power of government to transform society.

LBJ and The Great Society is probably the best example of domestic idealism in liberal policy. While it launched several programs that are effective in combating poverty and remain highly popular today, it was an incredibly ambitious and idealistic project. More recently the struggle for single-payer health care and carbon emissions controls in the 1990s were also examples of democrats striving for a perfect society. But since then it seems that Democrats have been willing to compromise and take pragmatic solutions. The Affordable Care Act and Cap and Trade both started as Republican ideas, and are now universally opposed by Republicans.

Part of this policy reversal is just politics, as any opposition congress is wise to put up at least nominal obstacles to the President’s agenda in order to be in a better bargaining position. But if that were all that is going on, Republicans would have shown an actual willingness to bargain. Afterall, if they can have both a payroll tax cut (something they would normally want but verbally oppose in the interest of bargaining leverage) and even a minor concession from the administration then from a policy perspective they’re essentially getting two things they want and giving up nothing. From a political perspective they would perhaps aid Obama’s re-election chances, but they would also aid their own re-election chances and the past year of obstructionism has hurt the Republican Congress’s favorable ratings much more than it has hurt Obama’s.

So there’s a chance that Republicans simply hate Obama more than they like their own jobs, but I don’t think this is the most likely explanation. I think there has been a reversal in the parties. The Democratic party has become the party of pragmatism and compromise, willing to achieve its aims through market-based mechanisms (both cap and trade and the ACA are means of accomplishing Democratic goals through market-based incentives). The Republican party has become a party of purists and pledges. As The Economist notes:

Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians”, to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished.

Much has been written about the parties becoming more extreme, but I’m not sure that is an adequate explanation for the great role reversal of pragmatism and idealism. A party can take on more extreme views without surrendering pragmatism or insisting that every candidate agree to their ideal stance on every issue. Reagan was clearly extremely conservative but remained a pragmatist willing to cut deals to raise taxes and grant amnesty to immigrants.

I’m really quite curious about this interplay between the basic left-right spectrum of politics and the dimensions of pragmatism and idealism that I’ve tried to note in this post. I haven’t been able to find much research or writing on this, so I’d be delighted to hear what you think or be directed to anything you might have read.

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One thought on “Pragmatism, Idealism, and the Great Political Party Reversal

  1. Hey Nate,

    Just wanted to say that I (still) love you blog and also contribute a little more complexity. While I agree that Democrats used to be the party of idealists, old Goldwater and Reaganite Republicans also had some of that same idealism. Or, at the very least, they had what Jon Huntsman called yesterday on Morning Joe “big, bold ideas.” He lists Eisenhower Interstate vision, Nixon’s dealings with China, and Reagan’s ending of the Cold War as examples.

    You’re right of course that Reagan was a pragmatist. Given his record as president but especially as California governor, there’s no arguing that. But still, I think the line between pragmatism and idealism was more blurred in years past. Republicans shared some of that same idealism; in many ways, they were seen as the guardians of the “true” American Dream–a decent, living wage for all and an emphasis on family values–while Democrats were just a hair better than the Soviets. That said, if the line was blurred for much of the 20th century, the reversal has been completed. One needs to look no further than the Bush Doctrine or the current contraception debacle for evidence.

    Thanks for posting!

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