That Good Old Grand Old Party

I am a yellow dog Democrat. Is this phrase still current? It refers to a voter who would vote for a yellow dog as long as it was running on the Democrat ticket. I inherited this religion from my Mom, who was a union and party stalwart in New York back in the day, and a classic FDR adherent. She told me I should always vote D because the Democrats were for the people and not the rich guys, and so I did and do to this day. The strange part of this is that, after finding my way into government work at the local, state and federal levels, I ended up spending nearly my entire career working for Republicans. That I could do this successfully is itself a demonstration that these people were not anything like current Republicans. A couple of them thought it was sort of cool to have a liberal Democrat on their staff, rather in the way that it was once a la mode among Fifth century barbarian chieftains to have Christian advisors. At the time, I was a policy guy and speechwriter and so most of my work was putting their often vague ideas and instincts into words that would make stuff happen in the government agency involved, or communicate to various interests what the agency was about to do.  They had no ideology besides a (perhaps naive) patriotism and retained their optimism about the future of the country. They considered themselves problem solvers; their philosophy was pragmatism. If they were religious, they did not intrude their religion into policymaking. They were law-abiding and decent in language and manners.

They believed that capitalism was by far the best system ever devised to advance the prosperity and freedom of humanity and they believed that its excesses and defects could be cured by sensible government policies. They were by and large well-off and wanted everyone to achieve what they had, and thought it was really possible. They didn’t, as far as I could see, resent paying their fair share of taxes, and were enthusiasts of public works and improving legislation. (Lefties occasionally forget that this is the party that gave us the transcontinental railroad, the land grant colleges, anti-trust legislation, the regulation of food and drug safety, Pell Grants, the interstate highway system and the EPA.) They were in general supporters of civil rights although they hated identity politics. They were historically the party of good government and supported the Civil Service. They thought that the leaders of big corporations were essentially honorable people who wanted to do the right thing. They prized rationality, and suspected ideology on both ends of the political spectrum. They were good customers for analysis and scientific discovery.

We disagreed a good deal. I thought they had been too insulated from the depredations of American capitalism. Like most people raised in private comfort, they had not had to contend much with the public squalor that America has always accepted, or the injustice that its citizens who were not middle-class white males had always endured. They could tend toward self-satisfaction; Babbitt was never far away. They didn’t quite get that nice folks in positions of corporate power sometimes arranged things so that citizens died or had their lives ruined.  Well, as they say, only two cheers for capitalism. If the essential issue of American politics is the extent of state control of economics, then these guys were willing to get down in the debate. They didn’t say that government was the problem; they were interested in governing and they were good at it. I believe all of them were shocked and dismayed when the Dixiecrats and money cranks and religious fanatics stole their party, which now, somehow, seems to include actual Nazis.

I believe that American politics can’t right itself until something like this vanished party is re-constituted. Every good thing the US government has done has been the result of a dance between the center right and the center left.  Without a dancing partner, the left inevitably strays into factionalism and an unforgiving search for purity. It loses the ability to govern, just as the current gang of reactionary bozos has lost the ability to govern. 

As I say, I am not of this party so I don’t have a sense of how to accomplish this task. But I believe there are lots of Americans who would find a real center-right party attractive. At the very least, there must be many decent Republicans who are appalled at the way their party has moved in recent years and many independents who might join a revival of the classic GOP big tent. Here’s a final irony. The political ancestors of these guys invented the primary system as part of the Progressive reforms established around the turn of the 19th-20th century, because they thought it was better for voters to select candidates than leave it to political bosses. That primary system was what destroyed centrist Republicanism by making it possible for tiny minorities of the electorate to decide who got to serve in government. These minorities chose a group of increasingly reactionary, weird, intransigent, ignorant people who try to promulgate policies that the majority of Americans don’t want. As the president would say, sad.