Politics of Negation

You were probably trained to think that the Democrats and Republicans “flipped” at some point…

The Republicans used to be the party of freedom, civil rights, etc. The Democrats used to be the party of … well, the opposite. This framework is used to explain why Republicans freed the slaves and Democrats, up until the 1960s, supported slavery and its derivatives. That’s what many have been trained to think, and it’s totally wrong.

The Republican party was created in the 1850s by injecting anti-slavery agitation into Whig philosophy. The Whigs essentially believed that the government should encourage large projects that private business wouldn’t otherwise engage (canals, harbors, trans-continental railroads). It’s worth noting that in a Whig government, the government does not usually build these projects (or, often, even own them). The government mostly lays the groundwork to make them financially and regulatorily feasible for others.

The Democrats were mostly concentrated in the South and generally dominated by slave-holders. (The vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves, yet the large plantations tended to dominate politics.)

Then, the civil war happened. Between 1861 and 1933, the Democrats had only two elected presidents: Cleveland and Wilson. For more than two generations, the Democrats remained desperate for a message, an ideology that would enable them to secure the executive branch.

The problem was obvious by the 1870s. The Democrats watched as the Republicans enabled massive projects (railroads, telegraphs, Thomas Edison generally, etc.) which made many millionaires. These projects created a vast network of political allies. The nouveau riche would continue to vote for the party that made them riche, and they’d encourage everyone else to do the same.

While the decades after the civil war made many people wealthy, it also created many dissatisfied workers, particularly in factories. The millionaire would make a donation to launch Stanford University while the worker would lose a finger while grinding meat. The brutality of Victorian capitalism and the seeds planted by the progressive movement gave the Democrats the theoretical underpinnings of their new ideology.

Yet this new ideology took generations to develop precisely because the Gilded Age Democrats and Republicans were remarkedly similar. By today’s standards, they were both laissez-faire small government free marketeers. The Republicans believed in limited proactive support of large projects; the Democrats didn’t. Otherwise, they could be remarkably interchangeable.

The Gilded Age Republican platform was pure Horatio Alger; Republicans would enable the environment in which millionaires are made. The newly developing Democrat platform was of negation; they did not promise to make millionaires; they promised to destroy them. The primary operational motives were fear and revenge: fear that if you didn’t have a seat at the table, you’d lose whatever you’d made, and revenge against those who profited from lost fingers.

While the politics of negation wasn’t new, it was new to America, so it took the courts and — decades later — the Great Depression to finally deliver the details to Democrats. (Negation is a primary tool of autocrat rule, most prominently used in the 20th century by the U.S.S.R. and currently most prominently deployed by the CCP. The government may enable you to become wealthy, but, more importantly, if you cross the government, it’ll destroy what you have. In Marxist-Leninist thought, this is called rule by arbitrary terror.)

The politics of negation had started in the courts in the progressive era, so the courts were naturally a major ally that enabled Democrats to threaten legal businesses even without public support. Further distance from public support was enabled by negation through regulation as developed and enforced by distant bureaucracies. Thus, Democrats could bifurcate the private message of destruction from the public message of progress (as desirable — those private messages sometimes became public if there were votes to get, so a politician could extort tobacco companies for decades until public sentiment turns against Big Tobacco and such extortion can be made public).

None of that is particularly controversial, but this is… While the early progressives, the courts, and Wilson/Roosevelt delivered the blueprint for modern Democrats, the reality that Republicans won so much for so long by making millionaires wasn’t wholly ignored. The Democrats, too, could make people wealthy. So, if you had some capital during the Wilson or Roosevelt administration, how could you best deploy it? Who, during those two instructional periods, were the nouveau riche? That’s right, defense contractors.

The parties never flipped. Republicans remained largely the same while Democrats deployed this new trickle-down fear to secure votes. The Democrat formulation proved so powerful that the Republicans essentially gave up on their platform in the 1980s — at that point more than a century old — and ideologically merged with the Democrats in the 1990s.

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