Is American Politics Becoming (Gasp) “European?”

Is American Politics Becoming (Gasp) “European?” June 15, 2016

While this blog generally focuses on international affairs, in light of recent events in domestic politics – it seems the right time for a post about the good ol’ U.S. of A. At present, no one seems quite clear as to the where American politics is headed. Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee, has taken the GOP off in new directions. While on the other side of the aisle, the undeniable success of Bernie Sanders – despite his primary loss to Hillary Clinton – is doing the same for the Democrats.  So, what’s going on? Let me give a shot. And trust me – we’ll get to the Catholic bit at the end.

In my view, the most interesting aspect of contemporary American politics is that American politics is becoming much less interesting. One of the lessons that was drilled into my head as an undergraduate and later during my doctoral studies was that the United States is, more often than not, the “odd man out” in terms of global politics. Our system is unique. We do not have a parliamentary democracy, we combine the roles of head of state and head of government in one person, we vote on almost everything (from judges to drain commissioners to ballot initiatives to local tax rates), and we operate within a federal system. Only two other countries have adopted the American model: the Philippines – owing to 50 or so years of U.S. colonial rule and (between intervening dictatorships) – Nigeria. Our model isn’t really one for export.

The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans and the Democrats are becoming “more extreme,” being pushed by their respective bases to the tails of the ideological spectrum. Broadly, I agree with this analysis but the changes are more far reaching that that. What we may be observing at present is a gradual shift towards a European-style party model. There are various structural factors in the U.S. system that provide positive feedback to the two party system and many of these channels remain as robust as ever. However, there does appear to be a case to be made that America is moving in a European direction particularly as regards the ideology of the two main parties.

Traditionally, the Republican Party has been based around the so-called “Three Legged Stool of Conservatism” – foreign policy conservatism, social conservatism, and economic conservatism. Most GOP voters agree with at least two of the three. We can characterize the GOP as, in recent years, a “Liberal Conservative” party, i.e., grounded in the philosophy of the father of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke. With the rise of Mr. Trump, the Republicans seem to have abandoned traditional Anglo-American Liberal Conservatism in favor of a more Continental “Nationalist” or (less charitably) “blood and soil” approach – with the concomitant mercantilism and ethno-nationalism that goes along with it. Social conservatism together with opposition to immigration and support for “law and order” policies remain, but economic liberalism (open markets, free trade, etc) is jettisoned. Concomitantly, perspectives on foreign policy shift away from internationalism towards a more isolationist perspective. The Republican Party – cut adrift from its Burkean beliefs by Donald Trump and an influx of white working class voters – seems much more akin to the Swiss People’s Party, Hungary’s Fidesz, and the Danish People’s Party (all of which have been on the rise in recent years) these days.

On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats have historically been much less ideologically coherent than the Republicans – essentially a “Coalition of Everyone Else” (organized labor, African-Americans, urban and suburban upper-income liberals, etc). The party clearly has shifted away from center-left liberalism (think Bill Clinton’s 1990s “New Democrat” approach) towards support for policies more akin to European social democracy: secularism, major expansion of the welfare state, more ambitious intervention in the market, policies that entail greater centralization of power, an increasingly vocal opposition to Israel, and the questioning of absolute freedom of speech. Quite simply, the Democrats seem to be morphing into an old style European Social Democratic party – think Labour in Britain (before Jeremy Corbyn became leader), the SPD in Germany, etc.

This re-alignment in American politics leaves out some voters – as moderate Republicans and Democrats find their respective parties have essentially abandoned them. This could open space for a third party – the Libertarians come to mind, provided they are willing to abandon their historical obsession with ideological purity they might stand a chance of taking on a role similar to that of the German Free Democrats, i.e. socially liberal/economically conservative and playing a deciding role in control of the legislature.

So where does this leave American Catholics? At 23% of the population, it’s a demographic group that no party can afford to ignore.  Until the 1980s, Catholics were reliable Democratic voters. One could argue that the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt served as a form of ersatz Christian Democracy – the political movement that came out of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum with its emphasis on worker’s rights. Since the Reagan era, however, the research shows that Catholics generally split rather evenly between the two main parties and have a remarkable history of picking the winner in presidential elections.

At the same time, Catholic social teaching neither jibes with the late 20th century ideologies of the two main parties nor their contemporary views. Being a Catholic voter has in the last few decades generally meant compromise. As a religious minority in a predominantly Protestant country, European-style Catholic parties never took hold here. So today, the pro-life, pro-subsidiarity, anti-death penalty, pro-immigration, anti-secularism, social safety net loving “Catholic Social Doctrine Voter” (a rare breed, I grant you) is not going to find a comfortable home among the Nationalist Conservative GOP or the secular Social Democratic Democrats. Thus, as this shift continues – it’s time for Catholics to have a more serious conversation as to where these changes leave us; determine which issues we are willing to compromise on; and come to grips with the fact that our nation’s politics is becoming much more European. It’s not going to be easy.

Browse Our Archives