It’s easy to come to the conclusion that politics is often more about which way the wind is blowing and where we are in the election cycle than it is about a political party’s canon of beliefs. Those principles over time can shift randomly like wind-driven sands.
President Ronald Reagan was at one time a committed Democrat, proudly stating that he’d voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt, “all four times.” Roosevelt was roundly accused by many conservatives at the time of being a socialist with his New Deal programs. As time strides, Reagan then became a conservative president who believed profoundly in supply-side economics and low taxes.
Political conservatives for many years have decried “socialism,” usually defined by that cohort as too much social spending by governments, but more precisely by Webster’s dictionary as, “governmental ownership and administration of the means of production.” The reality is, few in the full political spectrum today would be willing to give up their Social Security pensions, earned income tax credits, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, food stamps, or low taxes on their capital gains.
Woodrow Wilson was considered to be a progressive Democratic president, a leading advocate for the League of Nations, and the president who signed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote; yet in spite of easy New Jersey wins as governor and presidential victories, this two-term Democratic president was an avowed segregationist, completely disinterested in social politics of inclusion and integration.
While Democrats like to think of their party as pro civil rights, historically many southern Democrats supported segregation and Jim Crow laws. Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is irreducibly tied to the emancipation of slaves, yet later that same instinct was embraced by democratic presidents Truman and Johnson, famous respectively for the integration of the U.S. military and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Over time, Republican politics in the Nixon and post-Nixon period deliberately flowed into a political “Southern Strategy,” designed in part to dog whistle appeals to southern whites, especially “Blue-Dog” Democrats.
Ironically however, Nixon would likely have been shunned by the conservative Republican Party of today, promulgating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Acts, the earned income tax credit, Equal Employment Opportunity Act, Endangered Species Act and (OSHA) the Occupation Safety and Health Administration, among other progressive legislation. Indeed, in many respects Nixon was a demonstrably liberal president who had significant accomplishments in both foreign policy and domestic legislation.
Equally gymnastic, the early Democratic Party was very focused on state sovereignty and individual rights, attributes more akin to today’s Republican Party.
What then to make of this historical evidence of wandering political values? It’s hard not to be cynical when politicians today get high and mighty about some political stance when suspicion warns you that it’s just today’s wind blowing from the South, when over time the issue shifts, the moral underpinning turns, and the weathervane swings North.
Benjamin Disraeli, a famous British prime minister of the 19th century who played a central role in the formation of the Conservative Party in Britain, once famously said, “Damn your principles, stick to your party.” He may have been more historically prophetic than anyone at the time realized.
On a lighter but more sardonic note, Ronald Reagan, known for his quick wit, once said, “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to understand that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
He was also known to have said, “Trust, but verify.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.