This is my understanding of American politics. I don’t know if it’s absolutely true in every detail, but as far as I know it’s true in the broad trends I’m pointing out.
To begin, early Republicans were libertarians who believed in separation of government and capitalism. The Founding Fathers believed in an educated elite that controlled government and weren’t motivated by economic concerns. They thought selfishness was a danger to democracy. The early country was almost entirely agrarian. The Federal government was weak as much for reasons of disagreement as for any libertarian idealism, but there were already those favoring a strong Federal government supported by a thriving economy. Industrialism was already emerging and so along with an increasing tax base there was an ever-growing Federal government. It wasn’t long before there was a standing army and it was all downhill from there.
The US had slavery longer than other major nations. The US was slow on abolishing slavery. The early economy of the US was largely dependent on slavery and even politicians who were ideologically against slavery were only against it very weakly. The hope was that it would peacefully die out on its own, but this hope would prove to be unfounded. A similar argument is made today in the belief that racism will end on its own if we just don’t talk about it.
Lincoln was more concerned with maintaining Federal power than he was in ending slavery. He said he would have accepted slavery if the Southern states stopped trying to secede. With Lincoln and the Civil War, the Republican party had become the party for the federal power and the Democratic party had become libertarian in defending state’s rights. The Civil War was mostly about conservative Democrats from the Southern agrarian states (i.e. Dixiecrats) who opposed the liberally progressive Conservatives from the Northern industrial states. Of course, Industrialism and Federalism won and along with it progressive liberalism.
In the early 20th century, politics in general along with both parties was slanted towards progressive liberalism. Socialist programs were popular and fascism (the combination of state and capitalism) was the national enemy. At this time, Ayn Rand for the first time made popular a form of libertarianism that was pro-capitalism (i.e. big business to replace big government which if taken to an extreme would manifest as fascism). I don’t know which ideas were originated by Rand, but certainly she popularized a new ideal of enlightened selfishness which in time became the ideal adopted by many politicians.
In the mid 20th century, the Democratic and Republican parties switched places. Democrats turned towards civil rights and turned away from their support of state rights Dixiecrats. Republicans attempted a balancing act of maintaining their growing support of Federal power all the while wooing the Southern states. So, Democrats became the party of multiculturalism and minorities, and Republicans became the party of “white culture” and the religious right. At this time, Communists replaced the Fascists as the new national enemy and Federal power grew in leaps and bounds. Distracted by Communism, the ties between state and capitalism grew closer (i.e. military-industrial complex).
Several decades of the Cold War changed even further the definitions of the political parties. The fear-mongering of patriotic rallying led both parties to be proponents of a strong central government. The Republicans had a nifty trick that helped them to dominate politics for much of the last few decades. They managed to hold on to the Southern states by opposing the civil rights movement, and they held on to the Northern states by their support of Federal Power (and their support of “white culture” as the nation was still majority white).
This would seem to have left Libertarians outside of influence, but Republicans and Libertarians made a deal. The Rand devotees took over the Libertarian party and made it the party of big business and the Reaganite Neocons took over the Republican party and made it the party of the military-industrial complex. Thus the Rand Institute became a major player as a think tank for the Neocons. The odd thing is that the Neocons were disillusioned Democrats who stripped progressivism of any consideration of the idealism about human rights. Under Reagan, the Cold War military-industrial complex had led to an economic boom. The rich grew richer and the poor got trickle-down economics, but this also began the movement towards a massive cultural divide that would take a while to become disruptive to Republican power.
The Democratic party lost it’s inspiring vision with the death of Martin Luther King jr and the Kennedy brothers. It became a time of materialism and selfishness. There was simultaneously a cynicism about human nature and an idealism of the American spirit. Social Darwinism was the model of politics and of society in general. Even protesters against the war had turned violent as the police also turned violent. The soldiers were returning home and the travesty of the Vietnam war could no longer be ignored. These veterans weren’t welcomed home by anybody. Some of them joined the protesters (adding to the violence of the protests) and others entirely dropped out of civic participation. A generation of traumatized veterans became a major component of the growing homeless population.
This was also a time of an oppressive and invasive government. Besides the many assassinations, the government was heavy in to COINTELPRO programs which had the specific purpose of destroying the civil rights movement. Politics became dirty and Nixon became the symbol of how far the country had fallen in its depravity. The Cold War in general was a time of constant conflict inside and outside of the country. Besides Vietnam, the government was involved in covert wars, overthrowing of democratic governments, and illegal assassinations. As such, we helped support and build the power for people such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Politics and morality had almost been completely severed. This was a time of Republican power but it was a Republican party that had become entirely opposite of the ideals of the earliest Republicans. The Democratic party wasn’t much better as idealism in general was no longer strongly valued or rather the idealism had become nationalistic. Even the Democrats had become fairly Neocon. Neither party supported states rights. Neither party protected the poor from the rich.
However, a new young generation of realistic-minded GenXers were beginning to have a subtle influence in the background. It seems this new generation was not only more socially liberal but also more fiscally conservative which is closer to early American political values. GenXers believed in doing things for themselves because the large Boomer generation wouldn’t allow them into the reigns of power. GenX made the web into what we know it now and GenX embedded their liberal/libertarian values into how the internet functioned. The internet was first developed by the military and intellectual elites, but GenX made it in to a platform for democratic empowerment for the common person.
Meanwhile, Neoconservatism manifested in it’s most extreme form with Bush jr which finally made the American public realize the faults of this ideology that had dominated for a half century. Also, recent policies had led to a decade or so of increased immigration. A generation of kids were growing up in a multicultural America like no generation had seen before which in turn led to increasing socially liberal values. This was GenY which was larger than the Boomers and turned out in great numbers for the election when the Republican party finally lost its grip on political power. Obama was the first GenX president and he came to power by using the internet that GenX had developed.
After a dissatisfying 8 yrs of extreme Neoconservatism (along with a loss of American pride and an economic downturn), the ideal of the government taking the moral highground and of politics serving the people has became popular again. Obama has brought a focus on social programs and in reaction conservatives have retreated to a populist stance which they hadn’t used since the last time true liberal progressivism had been in power earlier in the previous century. However, this far right populism is grounded in both religious fundamentalism and “white culture”. The problem is that the US demographics have changed. The rural and Southern white Christian fundamentalists are now becoming less influential and will soon be the minority. This “populism” of “white culture” no longer correlates to popular opinion in the real world. Sadly, this the reason the white supremacists will become very vocal in the immediate future. There is going to be a cultural war and “white culture” as it’s been defined in the past is going to lose, but white supremacists won’t give up their power easily and there will be violence.
In conclusion, my main point is that only a loose connection exists between Republican and conservatism and between Democrat and liberalism. And Libertarianism has been particularly effective in redefining itself in order to create a niche. No unchanging definition of these parties exists.
So, what will the parties become in the next few decades?
The Democratic party is remembering it’s liberal idealism but without entirely giving up on the Neocon vision, and the Republican party is being forced to reassess its role in society and at least temporarily paying populist lip service to Libertarianism. The Libertarians were aligned with the Republicans in recent history, but now even many conservatives are critical of the Republicans. Now that Democrats are ascending in power and liberalism in general is increasing, where will that leave Libertarians in the long-term? The white supremacists are grasping for an alliance with the Libertarians, but if the Libertarians aren’t careful they will be pulled down. Libertarians have no loyalty to the white-dominated religious right. It’s more likely that Libertarians will eventually either seek commonality with Neoconservative Democrats and Blue Dogs or else lessen their advocacy of uncontrolled capitalism. What would the two parties look like if Libertarians switched loyalties to the new ruling party? I wouldn’t mind seeing a Libertarianism with a social conscience no matter which party it aligned itself with.
Blacks and hispanics will soon be the new majority. Will these previous minorities turn their backs on the Republican party that turned it’s back on them? Or will the new majority ethnicities take control of the Republican party? Will the political fight of the future be over whether America will be defined by either “black culture” or “hispanic culture”? Will white supremacists align themselves with hispanic caucasians in defense against the rising tide of blacks seeking compensation for centuries of oppression? Or are these culture wars of ethnicity a thing of the past as interracial marriage becomes ever more common?