Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 413-416
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The Evolution of Republican and Democratic Ideologies
Robert W. Speel
John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. xiv, 337. $64.95.
In 1908, Republican presidential candidate William Howard Taft stated that "the Republican party has always been in favor of a liberal construction of the Constitution to maintain the national power" (82). In accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1892, Benjamin Harrison wrote that "it is practically the duty of the educated and influential to help the ignorant and weak when possible" (81). John Gerring's Party Ideologies in America extensively documents the striking evolution of the Republican party away from such support for strong central government authority to support for decentralization and state self-determination, and the evolution of the Democrats from a party opposed to national power into a party committed to national unity and minority rights.
Gerring identifies five eras of American party ideology since 1828. The two eras of Republican ideology are the National Whig-Republican epoch from 1828 to 1924 and the Neoliberal Republican epoch from 1928 to 1992. The ideology of the Democratic Party has evolved through three eras: the Jeffersonian Democratic epoch (1828-92), the Populist Democratic epoch (1896-1948), and the Universalist Democratic epoch (1952-92). The study is based on a careful examination of the speeches of presidential candidates, of party platforms, and of other partisan sources. Gerring singles out key changes in these ideologies among the Republicans in the 1920s and among the Democrats in the 1890s and the 1950s.
Gerring's analysis of the timing of dramatic changes in party ideologies may prove controversial. Some political scientists, particularly realignment [End Page 413] theorists, have not found such continuity between the Whigs and the Republicans in the 1850s, and often identify dramatic changes in Democratic party ideology in the 1930s rather than the 1950s. But Gerring does not focus on major shifts in the voting behavior of the electorate. Indeed, he supports an argument that except for the 1930s, there really have not even been any major long-term shifts in partisan support among voter constituencies in American electoral history. That claim might make one wonder what should be made of the changes in Southern support for the Republican party since the 1930s and corresponding changes among other voter groups for the Democrats over the last forty years. However, Gerring's point is not to look at ideological change among voter groups. Gerring states that "it may not matter, that is, whether the American voter is less ideologically inclined than voters in other countries if the leaders of the major parties are as ideologically inclined as most of the available evidence suggests. Ideology, in this country at least, may be preeminently an elite-level phenomenon. If so, the logical site for an investigation into party ideology is the leadership stratum, not the rank and file" (31).
Gerring proves in his second chapter that American party leaders do express such distinct ideologies, and the remainder of the book provides persuasive evidence that at certain periods in American political history, the two major political parties have undergone ideological disjunctures. During the National Whig-Republican epoch, party ideology emphasized what Gerring labels as neo-mercantilism, which included among its components the subordination of economic activity to the needs of the state, the intermingling of geopolitical, military, and economic power in the international arena in pursuit of American power, and a vision of the international market as a competitive zero-sum game. National Whig-Republicans also emphasized the importance of strong, effective government, the need to maintain social order, Yankee Protestant moral ideals, and patriotic Americanism. Although slavery is often considered the issue that differentiates Whigs from Republicans, Gerring accurately points out that Northern Whigs were distinctly more antislavery than northern Democrats prior to the Civil War, and that the Republican party avoided discussing civil rights at the national level after the Reconstruction era as strenuously as had the Whigs.
Though modern Republican leaders have...