In Praise of Republicans and Democrats

Marchmaine sent me a link to this story, about a free-market reformer of socialism within France’s Socialist Party:

Previously an aide to French President François Hollande, he was appointed as Finance Minister with a mandate to, in a word, liberalize France’s economy in a desperate bid to boost employment and rescue Hollande’s abysmal poll ratings. Macron then embarked on a frenzied program of free market reforms, in a country that is one of the most anti-market in the developed world, and which voted in a Socialist president and parliament three years ago.

Macron has been unashamed. Instead of keeping his head down, he keeps making remarks in the press almost designed to rile up his own side. He has called for reforming civil service rules, a longstanding demand of the right and anathema to the left. According to reports, he said privately that Hollande’s plan to raise taxes on the rich would make France “like Cuba but without the sun,” and almost resigned as presidential advisor because he felt a pensions reform plan didn’t cut enough. He talks about being part of the “reality-based left” and of being a “left-wing supply-sider.”

I’m not really going to explore the French political aspect of this as it will go up in Linky Friday, but the item got me thinking about party names. Specifically, the slight oddity that a party that calls itself the Socialist Party would have a free-marketeer at its financial helm, and more than that about party names. {Note, this post contains minor spoilers for Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series, mostly as a jumping off point.}

In Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series, in the 1880’s the Republican Party having been elected only twice and twice having presidents lead them into losing wars becomes so disgraced that it is considered beyond redemption. Abe Lincoln, one of the two presidents to lose said wars, turns coat again and helps found the Socialist Party, which over time replaces the Republican Party as the second major party. Even without the southern states, the country is not ready for a the sort of Socialism that the party offers and while the Socialist Party and Republican Party split the opposition the Democrats have the presidency completely uninterrupted from 1885 to the 1920’s.

Now, as a matter of political science, Turtledove is far too comfortable with one-party rule: There is a similar dynamic in his Confederacy where one political party, the Whigs, obtains uninterrupted power from the formation of their party system (whenever that occurred) to the 1930’s. The dynamic in the Confederacy is explainable due in part to corruption but also to a minority party (Radical Liberals) whose base of support is regional (Chihuahua, Sonora, and Cuba), and ethnic minority. In the United States, a similar stagnation is due mostly to the spoiling Republicans and the intransigence of the Socialist Party. The best I could do to justify that occurrence is that a party so built on an unwavering socialist foundation wouldn’t be able to expand its support to a majority (indeed, throughout the novel they seem to mostly be speaking a foreign language, though presumably the tenets and terminology of socialism are at least somewhat more familiar in that timeline).

What occurred to me is that by calling themselves Socialists, they painted themselves in a box that made it extremely difficult to win. Perhaps if they’d gone with Social Democrats! That would, at least, give them room to have more than one wing to try to cobble together a majority. While Social Democrat has a particular meaning, it is one that at least seems more subject to evolution over time. And indeed, it has evolved over time. Christian Democrat is the conservative alternative in Germany, though as a name it may make it harder to bring Turkish-Germans into the coalition.

I may not be a fan of the two political parties we have, but I will say this for them: They have good names. There is nothing in the words “Democrat” or “Republican” that nails them down to supporting a particularly ideology. There will never be the oxymoronology of the free-marketeer Socialist. The coalitions have changed considerably over the years, but the names have never become as disjointed as with the conservative Liberal Party of Australia or Liberal Democrat Party of Japan, nor as awkward as the Labour Party’s transition to being the party of the university and the professional class that has to watch what it says about the working class. And unlike with the Tories and the two major parties of Canada, our names give us room to talk about the conservative wing of the GOP versus the moderate without having to constantly specify “lower case c” and “upper case C” and so on. Ditto for their Liberals (which have been using that name for considerably longer). Though, how long will the New Democrats be new?

The rival party to the Socialists in France go by the name “Republicans,” though that is something of a recent development. The name of the Gaulist/center-right party has changed over time through some splinters, mergers, and re-branding. That also works, and it would actually be a lot easier if each time a coalition died the next one came back under a different name (like Federalist to Whig to Republican), instead of the same name with a different meaning (Democrat to Democrat). But, if the party names are hard-coded in there, I’m not sure we could have better names.


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52 thoughts on “In Praise of Republicans and Democrats

  1. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s name only sounds weird in translation. A more literal translation would be the “Freedom-Democracy Party.” It was formed from a merger of the Liberal Party (again, freedom) and the Japanese Democratic Party, hence “Liberal Democratic.” It never had anything to do with the phrase “liberal Democrat” as it’s used in US politics.

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    • When I studied abroad in Japan, I lived in a neighborhood of Tokyo called Jiyugaoka. This would translate directly into English as Liberty Hill or Freedom Hill, which could be the name of an American suburb.

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      • That neighborhood is named for the Jiyugaoka Academy, which was called that because the founder was a proponent of the Taisho-era liberal education movement. I can’t find much information on it, but apparently the name comes from the fact that it put more emphasis on student autonomy than traditional Japanese education had.

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    • Well, they could mean that the Democrats are in favor of democracy and the Republicans support having a republic, but since only a vanishingly small percentage of the US understands (1) those aren’t necessarily the same thing and (2) what the difference actually is/ could be, both parties are pretty safe.

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  2. Democratic Party. Not Democrat Party.

    I think in any political system with two or three major parties, they are going to overlap and have contradiction. The LDP in Japan has a lot of factions and these factions represent different groups but this is unknown to people who don’t study Japanese politics. There are right-wing parts of the LDP but they are not quite the same as American social conservatism.

    Labour has always had left-wing and right-wing factions and in Britain it is common to say someone is on the Labour Right or the Labour left. They have also always had a upper-middle class intellectual wing. This started with the Webbs and the Fabians and continued with Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Iris Murdoch, and others. The university and professional wing was always more left-wing and often anti-American. If you read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston, you will read about intellectual Labour supporters hoping that the 1945 victory would ween Britain off of American-culture. The novelist L.P. Hartley used to make radio speeches on resisting the “siren song of Hollywood.” Nye Bevan famously started a small rebellion when Hugh Gaitskill introduced charges for prescription drugs into NHS. But you are right that New Labour via Tony Blair does alienate a lot of the working class Labour base. There does still seem to be a large chunk of Labour that sincerely believes in old Clause Four and public ownership.

    I would also say that Les Republicans has a long and very different association in France because of the French Revolution. Most of Europe including France had Monarchist Parties into the 20th century. I think one of the big problems in American politics is that all the parties and factions use the language of “freedom” and “liberty.” In my view, the ultra-right wing House Freedom Caucus is anything but representing Freedom and Liberty.

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      • Republicans were a leftward group

        Are we talking about the US here? The Republican Party in the Lincoln-Grant era was progressive in its racial politics, but perfectly happy with big business in economic policy (unless you want to argue the abolishing slavery is anti-business). Even the racial policies area was inconsistent. There was an early split between the Radical Republicans (radical in the sense of supporting civil rights for blacks) and the Moderate Republicans (moderate in the sense of not wanting civil rights for blacks to interfere with the serious business of governing and patronage). The moderate wing won out, at which point the Republican Party smoothly transitioned to being a business party, while the national debate changed to now-obscure points of monetary policy that don’t really map well with present-day divisions.

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            • Yeah, though they tended to be leftward in the general sense. Even the softy liberals (who had some beliefs that now might be considered conservative) supported a constitutional monarchy. The monarchy was only nixed when just about everybody to the right of the left was out of government.

              (Which is an interesting reaccurrence between England, the US, and France… rarely was breaking free of the monarchy the initial goal.)

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              • No though once they got the ball rolling the monarchy often found itself axed. It went down that way with the German and the Russian Empires; they started out saying they were just going to rejigger the relationship between the Monarch and the state and then after some debate ended up axing it entirely.
                George in England really was the one who threaded the needle the best; recognizing that the ground was shifting under his feet and making peace with modernity and forging a new organic arrangement.

                Really now that I think about it only the British Imperial Monarchy survived. Every other Empire’s dynasty got ousted when they weren’t flat out killed.

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                • Japan? Or don’t they count as an Empire?

                  I think there’s two things: (1) some revolutionaries say they want a constitutional monarchy just to avoid freaking out the squishy middle too much, but deep down the monarchy was always in their sights. (2) once you’ve moved most of the monarch’s powers into a parliament/congress, what’s the point of having one anymore? Keeping them around starts to look downright dangerous: there’s always the possibility of more expansive powers creeping back to them.

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                  • Japan’s Emperor was written out of the government by the Americans after WWII. While the Japanese government is respectful to the institution IIRC their formal constitution etc don’t have any provisions in them for the Emperor to have any legal authority.

                    Though now that you bring it up Spain was technically an Empire and their Monarch survived. Francoism was kind of jiggy but if the English get a mulligan for Cromwell then the Spanish probably get one with Franco so the English aren’t the only ones though their transition was inarguably the smoothest.

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                • The Netherlands had quite a bit of a colonial empire for a country it’s size. They controlled the East Indies, Suriname, and a few tropical countries. The Spanish monarchy survived decades after the 1898 imbroglio and eventually revived itself. Belgium’s monarch didn’t disappear after the Congo went free.

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              • Monarchists represented a majority in the French Parliament for a few years after the fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire. France would have become a monarchy if the Bourbon heir agreed to the revolutionary tricolor rather than the old French royal flag.

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  3. What Saul said about the Labour Party. The original name of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party was the Independent Labour Party. It was always a mixture of working class trade unionists and middle to upper middle class intellectual progressive reformers. One quip about the Labour Party was that unlike continental socialist parties, it owed more to Methodism than Marxism. There was always a lot of tension between the two factions because of different ideas on how the party should go and what it should represent. Just as we had Reagan Democrats in the United States during the 1980s, there was Working Class Thatcherites in the United Kingdom because working class British people that lived in the prosperous south east of England abandoned Labour for the Conservatives. Working class people in Wales, North England, and Scotland remained Labour voters.

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  4. Having Lincoln form a Socialist Party is one of the more unbelievable counterfactuals I’ve come across. Lincoln was a big time corporate lawyer representing railroads for a lot of money before he became President. One of the lesser known aspects of Lincoln’s life, because it would distract from the popular image of him, is that he did like making and having money. There is no way in hell that he would do such a complete switch to become a socialist.

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  5. I wonder to what degree this is all putting the horse after the cart.

    Does “socialist” — or for that matter, “libertarian,” or “fascist,” or “communist” — really carry an inherent concrete and niched meaning in a way that “Republican” and Democrat” don’t? Or is it that we assume fuzzier lines for the latter two because we’ve grown up in a society where they have been necessarily fuzzy?

    Had early Democrats named themselves the Socialist Party, would we think socialist was a fuzzy catch-all phrase, and criticize someone who called themselves a “democrat” for being majority rules even when it meant tramping on personal freedom of speech, religion, etc?

    I’m not sure there’s such a clear answer here.

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    • I would say that Socialism represents a more universal ideology. Same with communism. The same case could be made with libertarian.

      Conservative and liberal are more like orientations, very context dependent.

      Republican and Democrats, unless we’re talking about a context where monarchy or dictatorship are realistic possibilities, are team names.

      To some extend, Socialist appears to be more of a team name in France, but it’s using a word with a different primary meaning that unlike Democrat and Republican where there is a broad consensus that we are all functionally democrats and republicans, is different.

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      • China has found “communist” to have an endless flexibility to it. James Fallows of The Atlantic has a nice set of videos called, I think, “Doing Business in China”. In one of the early segments, they ask a bunch of Chinese people what “communist means”, and every last person they talk to just does an “uhhh…”

        If I look at how Chinese people use the word, “communist” seems to mean “good for the common people”.

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  6. Kudos for plowing through Turtledove like that. His earlier work was often very interesting, historically informed alternate history. Then came the day he decided to cash in. The transition was quite abrupt. Anyone can have a bad book or three, so I kept reading them until I couldn’t take the dreary slog anymore. In retrospect I regret not having bailed out earlier.

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      • Early on he wrote a lot of short stories, some in a connected universe. I recommend the collection “Agent of Byzantium.” It is set in an alternate universe in which, centuries earlier, Saint Mouamet converted to Christianity and went on to compose such beloved hymns as (going from memory) “There is only one God and Jesus is His Son”. The stories benefit from Byzantine history being Turtledove’s area of expertise.

        Another recommendation is his stand-alone novel “Between the Rivers,” set in early Mesopotamia and based on the marvelously cracked theory of Julian Jaynes. It’s not a great novel by any means, but if you are familiar with Jaynes it is a fascinating exercise in working through the theory.

        “The Guns of the South” is (one of?) his first American South books. I believe it is a stand-alone. A South African white supremacist group invents a time machine and goes to Robert E. Lee in 1864, offering to supply the Confederate Army with AK-47s. (An interesting and sensible choice, as being more rugged and requiring less care than an M-16.) Wackiness ensues.

        Generally to avoid would, in my opinion, be any of the endless open-ended series, which to me have a distinct air of being written with speed taking precedence over craftsmanship. But if you liked the Southern Victory series, our tastes may be different enough that you should disregard the warning.

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  7. Conclusion: Political parties should be named with a five character alphanumeric string which does not mean anything.

    How can you vote for K0sw2 this election? Their candidate is horrible. Vote z30s4 instead!

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    • I’d favour changing our name to the Social Democratic Party (like “conservative” and “liberal”, “social democratic” is an actual political orientation), but it’s not likely to happen, precisely because the party is no longer “new”. The brand’s been around long enough that people are reluctant to change it.

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        • I think we stopped being the party that wanted systemic change when we lost Jack.

          We’re now that-party-that’s-kinda-like-the-Liberals-but-not.

          If I’d watched the debates with no beforehand knowledge of Canadian politics, I would not have known which party was supposed to be the “left-wing” one (well, other than the Greens, who were clearly left) and which was supposed to be the “centrist” one.

          The NDP backed a corporate tax cut, while the Liberals didn’t. The Liberals backed a higher income tax bracket covering income over $200k, while the NDP didn’t. The Liberals supported legalizing pot, while the NDP didn’t. The Liberals and the NDP both supported some kind of electoral reform. The Liberals and the NDP both took a well-we’ll-see position on oil pipelines. The Liberals supported intervention (but not bombing) in Syria; the NDP opposed military intervention. The Liberals said they would run a deficit to stimulate the economy; the NDP said they would balance the budget.

          We gave Canadians the choice between a centrist party with an old and uncharismatic leader and a centrist party with a young, attractive, and charming leader. Unsurprisingly, they picked the latter.

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    • “We represent a complete rethinking of liberal principles and policies. We’re going to call ourselves the New Democrats.”

      “That would be too confusing. There’s already a New Democrats.”

      “But our movement started just last year. We should be the New Democrats.”

      “Tough, kid. They’ve been the New Democrats since before you were born.”

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  8. I’m surprised I’m the first one to mention this. Might someone not consider it a *feature* that labels make certain kinds of actions awkward? If you really hate free markets, then you want change to be awkward.

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