Political Linearity Across Time and Space

ThirteenValleys - [original thread]
Democrats and Republicans still were not the kind of parties that would easily map to our current left-right division.

I definitely disagree but am interested in where you and /u/ThirteenValleys are getting this from. The Republicans started out by abolishing slavery and continued on with being if not anti-segregation, then segregation skeptical. They then voted for the 19th amendment 2:1 vs. Democrats (there was a left leaning Democrat faction by this time -- Dixiecrats were distinguishable as the conservatives). There's also the education trend: education was a Republican project, and is now only largely criticized by Republicans to what ever extent it is criticized.

Well, I'm only an amateur historian but I can try. Consider Ben Tillman (D-South Carolina) as another example:

  • Drafted and helped pass the first federal campaign finance law in 1895 (Tillman Act) which forbade corporate contributions to politicians' election campaigns. As I can tell he really meant it, to the letter of the word, but it was hard to enforce for obvious reasons and thus largely ignored.
  • Helped found Clemson University as a place where the common man could get an education because at the time the University of South Carolina was functionally a gated community for the sons of the planter class. Along with just generally railing against the Corrupt Elite his whole life.
  • Enforced anti-lynching laws as governor (left-wing!), saying that lynching was a threat to law and order (well, instrumentally left-wing)...while also saying "The intelligent exercise of the right of suffrage ... is as yet beyond the capacity of the vast majority of colored men." (right-wing!)
  • Here's a good one: tried (and failed) to ban all local government in SC, replacing elected officials with appointed functionaries that would report directly to the state government (a man after Chairman Mao's heart!)...for the express purpose of weeding out SC's few black elected officials in black-majority communities. ("I'm going to destroy my own state government just to ruin a few black guys' lives" is not a progressive statement no matter how you define progressive.)

So was Tillman 'left-wing?' 'Right-wing'? The correct answer is that he was a 19th-century Southern Democrat, a discrete category that had its own set of goals, ethics, standards, and such, some of which are left-wing by contemporary standards and some of which are not.

Another senator, more of a quick study here: Estes Kefauver, D-TN. Solid supporter of FDR and everything New Deal-related. A pioneer in consumer protection laws ("medicines must list their side effects" was apparently a novel concept in 1962). More or less directly responsible for the Comics Code, which forced a bunch of 50's publishers of 'indecent' material to shut down or risk prosecution. Left? Right? (What complicates all this is that now we're living with the specter of the censorious, holier-than-thou, deplatform-happy leftist, but I assure you that such an act would have been coded 100% Right-Wing from the 60's until like ten years ago. Synchronicity with the past is not evidence of an unbroken trend.)

You'll notice all three of these were Southern Dems; for a long time, the two big parties were regional before they were ideological. Nowadays, ideology always comes first; the idea of someone like Tillman sharing a party with Cory Booker seems ludicrous, and not just for racial reasons. Southerners voted Democrat, full stop, which included reformers like Kefauver, populists like Tillman, and all-purpose conservatives like James Eastland. Compare the Great Plains, where, in an inverse of the South, if you had any designs on winning any election, being a Republican was a necessary precondition. This got us senators like pro-labor, pro-New Deal, pro-communal-ownership George Norris, and the anti-all-those-things Carl Curtis from the same party, same state, within a few years of each other. If you got all those guys in a room together to talk politics, Norris and Kefauver would probably ally against Eastland and Curtis, with Tillman in the middle. Partisanship? We're both from Nebraska, man, of course we're Republicans, let's talk about something meaningful, shall we?

And why shouldn't this be the case? The political maladies of each age are unique to that age; to its technology, its struggles, its achievements. Why should we expect political linearity across time and space to be the rule rather than the exception? (And why do my best effortposts come on Sunday nights?)