My view of American Politics, part 3: “Whatever became of Nelson Rockefeller?”

Recently, in the satirical paper The Onion, there was a story headlined “New Breeding Program Aimed At Keeping Moderate Republicans From Going Extinct“. It’s an amusing little piece, and it highlights a concern often voiced in the press–particularly the liberal press: why aren’t there more moderate Republicans?

But, you will notice I have said “in the liberal press”. Obviously, the liberals would want moderate republicans; if you’re a liberal, they just make your job easier. Or, to put it in a more positive way, they act as a needed moderating influence on the liberal project. But then, if you are a Republican, you don’t want to moderate the liberal project. You want the liberal project, as Zaphod Beeblebrox would say, “caught and shot now.” (Metaphor here; not accusing them of inciting violence)

This is so self-evidently true for someone like me, who first became politically aware in the early 2000s, that it is a sort of circular logic: there are no moderate Republicans because to be a Republican is to not be remotely accommodating towards liberalism. You can be what they call a RINO, but those people are so hated by the majority of Republicans  as to be effectively Democrats. Thus, the concept of a moderate Republican appears inherently impossible.

But it was not always so; there used to be moderate Republicans. As Wikipedia says, they were called “Rockefeller Republicans“, after Nelson Rockefeller. They are, says Wiki:

[T]ypically center-right, reject far-right policies, and are culturally liberal. Many espouse government and private investments in environmentalism, healthcare and higher education as necessities for the nation’s growth, in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller, Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. In general, Rockefeller Republicans oppose socialism and the redistribution of wealth while supporting some pragmatic regulation of business and federal social programs in matters pertaining to the public good.

Well, as we know, the term “right” and its brother “left” are pretty much useless, but that phrase “culturally liberal” is interesting. Remember that one. The rest is basically saying “they oppose redistribution of wealth, except sometimes”. But the article continues:

Historically, Rockefeller Republicans were moderate or liberal on domestic and social policies. They typically favored New Deal programs and a social safety net; they sought to run these programs more efficiently than the Democrats… They were strong supporters of big business and Wall Street… In foreign policy, they tended to be Hamiltonian, espousing internationalist and realist policies, supporting the United Nations and promoting American business interests abroad.

All this sounds rather familiar, though it’s true we haven’t heard of it from the Republicans in quite some time. Still it sounds rather like… Obama. And Clinton. So, I think it’s pretty clear what happened to the Rockefeller Republicans: they became Democrats. Or, more accurately, many of the Democrats became Rockefeller Republicans. Like I said, Republicans force the Democrats to yield on economic issues for the sake of social issues.

It all started with the Democratic Leadership Council. If you condensed the DLC’s plan for the Party into one sentence, it would be “be Rockefeller Republicans”. And it worked, because Clinton got elected. And whether by choice or by necessity, Obama has been carrying out a similar set of policies

That’s one mystery solved, then. The Rockefeller Republicans have all gravitated to the Democratic Party, and in fact, are the Party’s most electable candidates. The name is gone, but who cares about what party people happen to be? The point is that a certain group’s views are represented, not the name that group happens to go by. The Republicans have no need of moderates in their party, not only because they hate them, but because their views are represented tolerably well elsewhere.

Enough of Rockefeller Republicans, though. What about Rockefeller himself? Why wasn’t he ever President, since apparently his way of doing things is quite popular. It was because of what we would today call a “values” issue. He divorced his wife and married a divorcee in 1963. This was quite shocking back then, and dealt a blow to his career from which he never really recovered. It wouldn’t be such a big deal these days, of course, but it was at the time.

The cosmopolitan, technocratic, internationalist politician brought down because the “middle Americans” didn’t care for his lifestyle. Now we know how old that story is! The “Culture War” started even sooner than Pat Buchanan thought. The Republican party’s appeals to “traditional values” are attempts to replay this on a larger scale. That is, on the scale of parties, not people. The Republican party says it stands for these values, and the Democratic party does not. For those who believe this, the character and deeds of the individuals involved matters little. Thus can a thrice-married adulterer claim to defend “the sacrament of marriage”.

People say the country has shifted “to the right”. But that means nothing, as we know. It would be far better to say it has become much more like the most anti-government forces in the 1960 Republican party. The increasingly Rockefelleresque Democrats only go to prove this, but we also must remember that the country has become far more socially liberal than most people would have speculated it would in 1964.

Consider: interracial marriage was illegal in some states in 1964. Now, gay marriage is legal in many states. Think about what a massive change in attitudes this is. The sexual revolution was a major change, and I very much doubt there is anyone, anywhere, who will say this constituted a shift “to the right”.

So, as has been the upshot of my last two posts in this series, the country has become much more liberal on social issues, and much more laissez-faire on economic issues. (Actually, the latter could also be called “liberal”, in the classical sense, but that just confuses everything.) In my terminology, simultaneously more cosmopolitan and more materialist. Admittedly, however, this has not happened without a good deal of complaining from the nationalists.

Overall, this doesn’t sound too bad. There are worse things than to be governed by Democrats who act like moderate Republicans from the 1960s. Granted, it’s inevitable that some Democrats will feel a little bit of angst that their party doesn’t do much to help the average worker like it used to, but when you look at the alternative–a return to the social dynamics of the 1950s–there aren’t many Democrats who would like to make the swap.

Is everything alright then? Not really. For openers, the Republicans’ economic policy is somewhat flawed, to put it mildly. This introduces some problems into the system. Like massive Recessions, for instance. That right there is something of a drawback. And there are some other issues, as well. But for now, we can at least be happy knowing why there are so few moderate Republicans.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?