The Decline of Ideas

In the second half of the 20th century, the United States underwent a fundamental political shift. Traditional party loyalties weakened. Ideological identification gained preeminence. The Grand Old Party became the party of the Right just as the party of FDR and JFK turned to the Left.yet today that great historical pivot toward ideological stratification between the two partisan powers has shown signs of reversing.partisan In the Trump Era, loyalty to a man (and not loyalty to a cause) has become the measure.

Over the last half-century, driven significantly by the battles over African Americans’ civil rights and the decline of the American manufacturing sector and its unions, Conservative Democrats in the South and Southwest broke from the once-steady New Deal coalition to become Republicans. Even in the last two decade the seats held by most of the so-called Blue-Dog Democrats of the (mostly) mid-Atlantic, the center-right politicians of the party, have flipped to red. At the same time the liberal Republicans of the Northeast and West Coast were replaced by a solid block of Democratic politicians. The Blue-State-Red-State American divide of many-an-election-night “magic wall” was set, seemingly intransigent, ideologically impregnable.

Yet today, rather than a purity of ideas, President Donald Trump has signaled ideological flexibility. He has turned away from such mainstay Republican doctrines as free trade, low tariffs, muscular internationalism and lower deficits with promises of American-foreign-policy retreat and fiscal profligacy (see e.g., $1.5 trillion of infrastructure, $25 billion for the Wall.) In Trump we have ideological confusion: a supply-side populist, a big-spending libertarian, a hawkish isolationist.

It is the “Nunes Memo”, however, that has revealed most profoundly a break away from ideological clarity and toward partisanship. And not simply for the Republicans but for the Democrats as well. Indeed, in the latest partisan spat over FISA-court decisions to surveille the one-time-Trump-aide Carter Page, it is hard to miss. The Republicans, once stalwart defenders of government intelligence and policing, have pivoted to an attack on those same institutions as assailants of civil liberties. In turn, liberal Democrats, once consistent critics of FBI and CIA investigative overreach, once outspoken opponents of “over-classification” of state’s evidence, have fallen back on calls for state secrecy. The Left has issued a whole-hearted defense of government institutions that they so frequently (and recently) distrusted. Previous issue-based affinities have been traded for party-based allegiance. The magnetic-magnate-in-the-middle attracting and repelling Republicans and Democrats alike is, of course, Trump.

Is such ideological inconsistency merely run-of-the-mill hypocrisy, corruption, political expediency? We have seen this play before in loyalties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Yet instead of exceptions, the partisan battles of the Clinton era now appear portentous of today if not tomorrow. Just as with the present president, loyalty and animosity toward Clinton split the country in two along party lines. The cries against sexual harassment now so central to the #metoo revolution were then voiced by Republicans, a party never before particular advocates of that cause. In turn Bill’s party faithful came dutifully to his aid with nary a considerate thought to his allegers. Moreover, both Clintons’ apparently corrupt campaign styles, their profligate use of fame to enrich themselves and their celebrity standing, has voiced of the kind of Wall-Street greed so often vociferously pooh-poohed by Democrats. And yet a large constituency within the party has continued to revere both Hillary and Bill.

Repelled by the Trump administration’s agenda, Republican stalwarts like Joe Scarborough and Nicole Wallace have shed their party status. Conservative mainstays like David Frum and Bill Kristol have found themselves in the ideological wilderness. Even centrists like The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch and Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes have called for battling the White House’s agenda by “rising above our independent predilections and behav[e] like dumb-ass partisans.”

The 2018 elections may well mark this great historical reversal. Previously the mid-term was predicted to be full of primary purges. The progressive-Bernie-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party was once anticipated to push out more centrist Clinton-leaning hangers-on. In the Republican party the more radical Bannonistas, the Roy-Moore model, the Tea-Party purists were expected to unseat their more pragmatic red-state counterparts. Yet with Trump in full-partisan swing, such a shift to the ideological edges now seems quaint. Like the fight over the “Nunes Memo”, the upcoming election may well turn on who is the loyal partisan rather than who has the purist ideas. At stake will be control of the House of Representatives. In place of governing philosophy will be Trump affinity. For the opportunity to lead or block potential impeachment proceedings has taken over as the organizing partisan principle for the upcoming campaign.

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