In every major election, many independents and liberals like to purport that ‘Republicans and Democrats are just the same, really,’ dismissing Democratic candidates as too centrist to effect real change. In a country that largely has a two party system despite the theoretical existence of other political parties, these sentiments evoke a sense of hopelessness, suggesting that as control of the White House and Congress bats itself back and forth, we stand no real chance of social and political reform. Sometimes the sentiment is calculated to force people to vote for a more leftist candidate, of course, often an independent — it was a driving force behind the push made by a number of Nader* voters.
The thing is, though, that this is simply not true. In recent years in particular, it is accurate to say that the Republican and Democratic parties have drifted more firmly towards the centre, and on some political issues became more tightly aligned — for example, some Democrats are extremely hawkish. The two parties are not identical, however, and decisions made in the coming year really matter, as a Republican administration and/or Congress would be devastating. Progressives for the most part seem to understand this, but the flickering of revival around this notion is distressing.
To be clear, I don’t have a donkey in this fight, or an elephant, for that matter. I’m registered nonpartisan and will continue to be because I loathe both parties with a flaming passion (though I often end up voting Democrat either because there are only two options, or because I feel it’s politically expedient to cast my vote for the more centrist or moderate of two candidates — notably, of course, California swings left-of-centre and thus my individual vote doesn’t have the kind of influence it would in a swing state like Ohio, where individual votes really can decide entire districts). But obviously, as a US citizen and someone living in the US, I have a very vested interest in US politics and the direction of the two major parties.
Indisputable: Democrats have drifted more to the centre, for a variety of reasons. One is some expedience of their own, as they want to capture centrist voters and people sitting on the fence. Lack of political courage makes it easier to appeal to these voters, as they may be hesitant to support candidates with views they feel radically differ from their own, but might be willing to stomach a moderate as opposed to someone on the right, especially an extremely conservative candidate (more about this in a moment). The bulk of high-profile Democrats at the moment are centrist (Sanders is an Independent although he’s often treated like a Democrat and is, of course, contending for the Democratic nomination, fully aware that running as an Independent would nearly certainly spike his campaign). Obama was centrist when he ran in 2008, no matter what his starry-eyed supporters thought. To succeed in Democratic politics, people need to be moderate or just slightly left of centre, and people who seem radical are only so because of the overall shift to the right.
Also indisputable: The Republican party is deeply split between extremist conservatives and people who are trying to straddle the centre, and the party is losing control. It’s notable that in the contest for the Republican nomination, extremist candidates are doing extremely well, including with rhetoric that would have been unimaginable in 2008 and certainly in 2000. These Republicans are capitalising on a culture of fear and a backlash to the actually pretty substantial social progress the United States has managed to make in the last decade. They’re also speaking to conservative ideals that have always been present, but are now getting a voice. Moderate Republicans are facing a tough battle as they get shouted down by a growing number of extremists, and while the party wants to advance them because it also wants to capture the moderate fence-sitting vote, and it’s having difficulty in the face of cries to ‘return to Republican roots.’
Of course, as I was just recently discussing, Reagan was a positive liberal in comparison to the ‘roots’ being referenced by extremists. While Reagan was quite conservative and certainly not one of my favourite presidents, he brokered some important political and social change in the United States and abroad, and for this, he needs to be given credit. He also went against the will of conservatives in his party on more than one occasion and was much more interested in bipartisan cooperation than his modern-day candidates, who like to pitch hissies and shut down the entire government at the drop of a hat.
But let’s not pretend that even moderate Republicans and Democrats are identical. Moderate Republicans still need to appeal to the extremist voters who need to make the same expedient choices that leftists do, and they still hold conservative viewpoints. Most have conservative views on abortion, gender equality, transgender issues, health care, environmental problems, and a huge number of other really important subjects. These differentiate them radically from their Democratic counterparts, and that matters. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t is making a grave mistake.
*A word on Ralph Nader, as this is a pet peeve of mine. Many people like to claim that he lost or tanked the 2000 election, thus leaving the United States stuck with George W. Bush. This is demonstrably not the case as a look at both the popular and electoral votes illustrates. Nader did not take a single state, nor did he have enough influence in any swing states to substantively ‘take’ the vote from Gore. The reason Bush won the election was simply that the Supreme Court handed it to him after litigation over spoilt ballots in Florida. Thanks, Supreme Court (good effort, though, Notorious RBG).
Image: Tres burros por el precio de uno, Jose Luis Canalos, Flickr