Will Wilkinson on the Roots of Partisan Rivalries

Will Wilkinson begins his latest Democracy in America post by quoting from Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting’s distillation of the Democratic and Republican worldviews. I like Gutting’s distillation, the heart of which reads as follows:

A vote for Obama endorses what has been the governing structure of our society since the New Deal: a free-market system balanced with government regulations, tax-funded social programs and legislative and judicial guarantees of civil rights—all to protect citizens from the excesses of the private sphere.

The current Republican Party is committed to replacing this structure with one that seriously reduces the role of government. The idea is to rely primarily on the private sphere to regulate itself and to solve social problems through increased production and wealth. 

Yet Gutting’s take reminded me of Yuval Levin’s, which is that the GOP is committed to preserving the postwar settlement in substance by revising it in form. That is, to preserve something like the mixed economy the U.S. has had since the Second World War, Republicans believe that we need to restructure entitlement programs to prevent the expansion of the public sector from crowding out the space for voluntary cooperation. A failure to restructure entitlement programs, and indeed the expansion of health entitlements, would, in Yuval’s view, actually lead to a larger social transformation as the U.S. becomes more of an “administered society.”

Will’s critique of Gutting goes in a different direction, and it is rooted in the notion that the major political parties are best understood not as vehicles for ideological concepts but rather as collections of interest groups that embrace ideological concepts opportunistically:

It’s an occupational hazard of philosophy to see significant philosophical differences behind partisan rivalries. Luckily, America’s two mainstream political parties are not actually very ideological. They continue to exist as competitive parties because they are doggedly devoted to the service of their constitutive jumble of interest groups. Philosophy in mature party democracy serves a mainly rhetorical, public-relations role. If you wish to understand the real choice between Mr Obama and Mr Romney, try to look past their parties’ branding campaigns and look instead to history and the make-up of each party’s coalition. For example, if Mr Romney manages to win, he’ll have older white Americans to thank. Thus, if you want to know what Mr Romney is likely to do with respect to Medicare, ask yourself how older white Americans feel about Medicare reform.

My own view is not unlike Will’s, though I tend to think that the most salient feature of this landscape is the devotion of organized public employees to the Democratic party.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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