US Political Parties in Classical Political Economy

Do the coalitions that make up the Republican and Democratic parties make sense in the context of classic political economic theory? Prof. Jonathan Krieckhaus, who teaches my Power and Money class, proposed this chart to explain the philosophies of the two U.S. parties.

x Republican Democrat
Economics Modern Liberal, lean Classic Liberal Modern Liberal, lean Radical
Social Conservative, not Classic Liberal Classic Liberal (no government intervention)

Some clarification:

Classic Liberal in this context means a belief in completely free markets, individual liberty and limited government. Conservative refers to a sort of nationalistic ideology where there are more important values than the free market – strong morals, patriotism and so on. Radical refers to Marxist thought and a belief that markets have fundmental flaws and capitalism is not the best system for a society. Modern Liberal is a compromise between Classic Liberalism and Radicalism – acknowledging the flaws of markets but also accepting the overall efficiency of markets to generate prosperity. Modern Liberals accept that there must be some government intervention to achieve some approximation of ‘justice,’ hence the welfare state and social safety net.

So Professor Krieckhaus thought that the contrast between the Republicans party commitment to free markets juxtaposed with their conservative social stance on issues (LGBT rights, abortion) was interesting. He observes the same disconnect in the Democratic party, which advocates government intervention in markets to ensure equality but also believes government should not interfere in the private lives of citizens or enforce a particular values system on individuals.

The non-interference is closer to Classic Liberalism while the government intervention leans toward the Radical side. Radical thinkers typically held that markets messed up society and wanted greater community. Libertarians, on the other hand, advocate both the social and economic values of Classic Liberal thought. So on a cross-continuum of hiearchy/equality and community/individual…

So how did the two parties stray so far from their philosophical roots? I don’t think they really did.

One part of the answer here is the whole coalition of socially conservative evangelical Christians with the small government, big business crowd to create the Republican party of today which is full of strange contradictions. An emphasis on small government but a push for the government introducing religion-based morality in schools. Citing the 10th amendment to limit national government but supporting an amendment to the Constitution to limit private citizens contract rights (gay marriage). And rabid support for private citizens right to bear arms while wanting to limit women’s control over their bodies. Less government spending across the board except when it involves big contracts for defense companies. Libertarians (a small subset of the Republican party aka Ron Paul) are at least ideologically consistent.

I think that about sums up the main reason for the alliance between Conservatives and Classic Liberals in the Republican party but the Democratic party is a different story.

If you think more deeply about the traditional Democratic platform, you can see that while they generally don’t like government interference in private social issues, they’ve used the power of government to ensure equality. Civil rights? That’s all about bringing government power to bear on private citizens and businesses to ensure individual equality. Government protecting workers and their rights to unionize? They want government to stop interfering where it’s limiting individual rights and equality (Defense of Marriage Act, abortion laws) but push for government interference to protect rights and equality (Equal Rights Amendment, civil rights movement, labor laws). That’s much closer to the Radical view than the Classic Liberal view which wouldn’t allow any government intervention to enforce equality – as witnessed by the general dislike Ron Paul and other libertarians have for legislation like the Civil Rights Act.

So while the Republican party has an alliance of social conservatism and classic economic liberalism, the Democratic party truly does lean toward Radicalism in both the economic and social arenas.

If you want to read about political economy and get some background, I’ve found Barry Clark’s comparative approach useful. It was the assigned reading and pretty understandable.


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