“The purpose of the Democratic Party is to make good Republicans of us and, conversely, the purpose of the Republican Party is to make us all good Democrats.”
---From the “Quotations of Chairman Joe”
In the ebb and flow between conflict and consensus that has been our collective history certain patterns reveal themselves. It is perhaps no small coincidence that the rise of the capitalist economic order roughly coincided with the emergence of the liberal democratic state. In fact both the American Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” appeared during the very same year of 1776. The former was the world’s first full-throated declaration of human rights; the latter the first theoretical formulations of the Free Market. It is, perhaps, worth noting that the Founder’s reference to the rights given every man by his creator was not so much an articulation of religion generally or Christianity in particular as it was a boldface attempt to wrest control of political legitimacy from European monarchs who held that they ruled by ‘Divine Right’. Similarly, the emerging marketplace of Adam Smith in which each acting in narrow self interest would collectively as if by some ‘invisible hand’—perhaps the hand of god himself-- act in the common interest. Theology has always been relied upon in times of uncertainty.
The point is that the laws of supply and demand are no more immutable and the Capitalist order is no more eternal than our own Republic and, since they came into being contemporaneously, it is no surprise that the greatest example and advocate of the Capitalist order is the liberal democratic state as it first emerged in North America. Following the schematic laid down by Smith, Ricardo, Say, Malthus and others the emerging professional and industrial class unleashed, as they gained power, the magnificent productive force that has been the modern Capitalist-Industrial state.
These forces were mutually reinforcing in that the growing economic power of the early industrialists, merchants, and professionals led to reforms which freed labor from the old guild system and agriculture from the bonds of the middle ages. This led to the creation of economic interests that demanded representation that could not be met by the crown or a landed aristocracy. In America these economic interests were represented by the emergence of a large agricultural ‘middle class’ of ‘yeoman’ farmers. No matter what the intent, no matter the number of experiments at recreating the European feudal order on these shores, the shortage of labor and the vast expanse of cheap land prevented the Europeans from transplanting their order in North America. This put the emerging United States ahead of the historical curve for we did not have the weight of the ancient regimes to cast off in order to unleash the modern age. In that sense, the American cry for human rights was produced by a novel pre-capitalist economic order. In Europe it was quite different. Either through a long process of Revolution and Restoration and then middle class political reform as happened in France or the kind of political reform in England with the Reform acts of 1832 and 1836, and the ‘corn laws’ which displaced whole segments of the population forcing them into the emerging factories, the forces at work proved much harsher in the old countries. In the United States similar reforms throughout the 19th century extended the franchise and created a growing segment of the population of middling means that grabbed and held power but not without hardship and suffering. As any student of 19th century American urban history will attest the conditions of the working classes while not as prevalent were nearly as scandalous as those in Europe. While the historical forces of the emerging democratic order coincided with, were interrelated to, and mutually reinforced those of the emerging Capitalist order it did not follow that all was well in Shangri-La.
“If Eden existed, it certainly never existed here”….James Baldwin
It is not often pointed out that as we emerged from the old bonds of the landed aristocracy and began to create new economic formulations that the idea of “Corporations” was viewed with suspicion. Originally a Corporation was a city or a company—like the East India Company—which was incorporated as a monopoly to do business for the Crown. Smith and his disciples—in the early Republic these were primarily the Federalists—introduced the new concept of incorporation into the United States in which they were no longer monopolies but had legal rights and limited liability with the additional advantage of the emerging assets being wholly portable. This unnerved large parts of the community and many—including Jefferson—were deeply troubled that the idea of unfettered wealth would create new combinations, a new aristocracy threatening the foundations of the New Republic. Accordingly the first laws authorizing the creation of corporations were passed with a view of fettering the emerging capital so as not to create unhealthy combinations. Jefferson saw these developments—usually taking place in growing cities—as deleterious to the prominence of the large yeomanry of middling means that had succored the New Republic.
If the emerging capitalist economies gave rise to larger and stronger economic interests capable of transforming the old political order-- the growth of those economies continued to fuel the rise of the modern middle class—it was not without difficulty. The problem is that unfettered the new order tended to concentrate greater wealth into fewer hands threatening, as Jefferson had feared, the foundations of the Republic. Therefore, at seeming regular intervals, an age of ‘consensus’ would give way to conflict as the constituent elements of the Republic would re-align and reign in the excesses of economic power.
So in 1800 with the election of Jefferson, the yeoman farmer made his first appearance as a reforming factor in controlling the Eastern interests. In 1824 Andrew Jackson brought the ‘Jacksonian’ frontiersman to the fore. Declaring war on the National Bank—the “eastern aristocracy” (a theme which would reverberate down through American history) and introducing the ‘spoils’ system the Jacksonian movement put the machinery of governance into the service and the hands of the citizen. In 1860 Lincoln forged a new coalition that ended the slavocracy—a plutocratic remnant of old Europe to be sure—but an economic order that had been given new life with the industrialization of cotton through the introduction of the cotton gin. In the 1870-90’s the yeoman farmer once again organized creating the “Greenback Party” challenging the gold standard of the eastern bankers, as well as the “Grange” movement—a virtual prairie fire—that swept the heartland and shook the emerging oligopolies of the ‘Trusts” to their foundations. Finally in the early decades of the last century these movements came together to extend the franchise to women, institute direct election of Senators, the petition, recall and referendum on state ballots, anti-trust legislation, the income tax and a host of other reforms in an attempt to reign in on the abuses of economic and political power of the ‘Gilded Age”. After a period of prosperity in which main street was uninvited and with the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, the New Deal instituted, in a similar vein, a host of reforms designed to fetter—some would say civilize—Capital.
Then came the Great Society. President Lyndon Johnson—an old New Dealer whose first administrative experience was as a young man directing a massive employment program for young adults in Texas—understood that the fruits of our society, the fruits given so many by the New Deal, were not reaching everyone. Those so abandoned tended to be persons of color. And so in the early and mid-60’s the Johnson Administration passed landmark legislation enabling those left behind to vote, buy homes, gain employment, get health care and nutrition. Then came the “white backlash” in the congressional elections of 1966, and the emergence of Richard Nixon and the new conservative governance in 1968.
Broadly speaking then the history of the democratic experiment is closely linked to the periodic disruption of political consensus by conflicts resulting from the propensity of the economic order—if left to its own resources—to reconfigure wealth into fewer and fewer hands. The democratic society threatens to become a plutocratic society; the Republic threatens to transform itself into a Banana Republic. To prevent this, our ancestors were periodically, and all too frequently, required to take political action in the name of the middle class and social justice to balance the scales. As Kevin Phillips has pointed out—he the former card-carrying Republican author of Nixon’s 1968 ‘Southern Strategy—the age of the “Robber Barons” and the “economic royalists” would be superceded by reform. Ages of excess brought on by conservative Federalist, Whig or Republican Administrations and policies were brought to heel by the salve of Democratic Reform. There were exceptions—Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But let’s face it: both were liberals and, if alive today, would be Democrats.
Seen from this light, one can easily agree with the Chairman. The Republicans, if allowed to walk the corridors of power for any length of time, will undo the reforms, remove the regulations, and unfetter Capital. The problem is that Capital, so unrestricted, will do what, by universal observation, it always does when so free—it concentrates wealth into fewer and fewer hands. For instance, we have had near four decades of such rule and the middle class now controls less a percentage of the economy than it did before the Great Crash. Revolt ensues, and through political action reforms—usually, but not always, in the form of Democratic remedy—the balance is restored. One can then conclude, with the Chairman, that the purpose of the Republican Party is to impoverish the rest of us and in so doing make us Democrats; the purpose of the Democratic Party is to increase the wealth of the rest of us and in so doing make us comfortable and Republican.
Only a society that is lean and hungry feels the necessity of Liberalism; only a society that is comfortable and secure can afford the luxury of Conservatism. George McGovern once said that “conservatives are worshipers of dead radicals”. He might more accurately have said that “conservatives are worshipers of dead liberals”. Listen as the Republicans speak fondly of Harry Truman or Reagan of John Kennedy or Teddy Roosevelt—notice they never look to Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge or Warren Harding or Richard Nixon. Like a parasite conservatism can only live off the liberal host: if one kills the host, the underlying health of the economic and political order, then the parasite itself must die—or else degenerate into some form of fascism.
Liberalism gives birth to conservatism for without it we could not afford the folly.