The Republican Party has pulled off a remarkable marketing feat. It has convinced panicky liberals like Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair to perpetuate the party’s sales pitch to its base — the notion that the GOP really is a radically right-wing party hellbent on rolling back the welfare state and shattering the status quo. You would never imagine such a thing from looking at the record of the most recent Republican president — who added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and did not, in fact, “privatize” Social Security — but it’s thrilling for liberals to pretend they’re about to be ravished, and it serves the GOP well to be thought of as a party of change and, for Americans who want smaller government, hope.
Why do so few outlets call attention to the obvious: that the GOP out of power campaigns as one thing — a party of cut-government-to-the-bone libertarians (God-fearing libertarians, of course) — but once in power practices a feed-the-base style of welfare politics little different from what the Democrats once perfected? Military budgets, particularly for bases in the South, are subsidies, and whatever Marvin Olasky may have intended with his talk about compassionate conservatism, in practice Bush’s faith-based initiatives were a way to channel federal money to religious organizations, rewarding Republican churches and aspiring to buy off urban ones (which received the lion’s share of the funds). Medicare Part D was explicitly aimed at shoring up the senior vote for the party. The GOP campaigns on a get-government-off-our-backs platform because Democrats are ideologically resistant to taking that line, but in practice both parties are the party of big government. You cannot look at their governing records and come to any other conclusion.
Purdum is closer to the mark when he notes that “the connecting tissue between the parties has disappeared. … An analysis by National Journal of roll-call votes in the 111th Congress, which ended last year, found that, in the Senate, the most conservative Democrat was slightly more liberal than the most liberal Republican, and nearly the same was true in the House.” They may both be the party of big government, but they have different emphases in their vote-buying, they hone their rhetorical differences to create some kind of brand distinction in voters’ minds, and regional quirks are ever less allowed to impede the branding. What Purdum might be less comfortable admitting, however, is that this polarization is a triumph of liberal universalism: it’s a corollary to the decline of regional identity and interests in American politics. It’s also a sign that the old dams and harbors of our politics have been broken down — as Americans have been disaggregated from their localities and recombined in a national mass — allowing ideological currents to sweep freely from end to end of the country.
Centralized power plus rivalry between incommensurable abstractions, all misreported by a media that takes political marketing more seriously than governing reality, is not a recipe for deliberative self-government. But it’s a reasonably good one for Caesarism.