Why Do Conservatives “Hate” the Democratic Party Platform?

Baseball exemplifies a tension in the American mind, the constant pull between our atomistic individualism and our yearning for community. -George Will

Kathleen Parker, a well-known conservative Republican and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post recently wrote of conservative Republicans, “You hate the Democratic platform but you can’t abide the president.” Why do conservatives and, in particular, conservative Republicans “hate the Democratic platform”? Consider some possible reasons: (1) It’s “The [Democrats’] Road to Serfdom”; (2) It aims to destroy the “American Work Ethic”; (3) It’s intended to raise taxes as required in support of the first two reasons. In fact, these reasons are neither true nor the source of hatred for the Democratic Party’s platform or proposed programs. Before identifying and examining in detail the actual sources of “hatred” for the Democratic platform, let’s look at and discard these supposed reasons.

The Democratic Party Platform is “The Road to Serfdom”

Conservative and typically Republican) economists, such as Milton Friedman, have at times referred to themselves as “neoliberals.” That philosophy, “neoliberalism,” is an extension — and, arguably, a distortion — of the theories of Ludwig von Mises and, especially, Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian/British Nobel Prize-winning economist. Hayek wrote that his book, The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944, toward the end of the Second World War, was intended to make readers aware of the great dangers of a “planned economy,” that is, government-controlled economic systems like “National Socialism” (the source of the shortened German term “Nazi”). Hayek has often been quoted by conservatives of the late twentieth century, from William F. Buckley to George Will, as embodying the basic concepts of modern conservative theory.

Hayek argued against systems of governmental control of a nation’s economy, as exemplified by central planning. He saw planned, government-controlled economies — as in Germany, Italy, and the USSR — as invariably dangerous and believed that this would inevitably lead to control not just of the country’s economy but to absolute control over the behavior of its people, as was, indeed, the case in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek says, “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.”

Neoliberalism is an outgrowth of the thinking of Hayek and others who strongly advocated free-market economies with minimal governmental economic influence. However, neoliberalism is by no means a clear and straightforward economic or philosophical doctrine. For example, some of those working with Salvador Allende in an effort to construct a Marxist/socialist government in Chile referred to themselves as neoliberals. But the term is used here as it is defined in The Handbook of Neoliberalism:

…when we make reference to ‘neoliberalism’, we are generally referring to the new political, economic and social arrangements within society that emphasize market relations, re-tasking the role of the state, and individual responsibility. Most scholars tend to agree that neoliberalism is broadly defined as the extension of competitive markets into all areas of life, including the economy, politics and society. (p. 2)

Conservative and typically Republican) economists, such as Milton Friedman, have at times referred to themselves as “neoliberals.” That philosophy, “neoliberalism,” is an extension — and, arguably, a distortion — of the theories of Ludwig von Mises and, especially, Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian/British Nobel Prize-winning economist. Hayek wrote that his book, The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944, toward the end of the Second World War, was intended to make readers aware of the great dangers of a “planned economy,” that is, government-controlled economic systems like “National Socialism” (the source of the shortened German term “Nazi”). Hayek has often been quoted by conservatives of the late twentieth century, from William F. Buckley to George Will, as embodying the basic concepts of modern conservative theory.

Hayek argued against systems of governmental control of a nation’s economy, as exemplified by central planning. He saw planned, government-controlled economies — as in Germany, Italy, and the USSR — as invariably dangerous and believed that this would inevitably lead to control not just of the country’s economy but to absolute control over the behavior of its people, as was, indeed, the case in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek says, “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.”

Neoliberalism is an outgrowth of the thinking of Hayek and others who strongly advocated free-market economies with minimal governmental economic influence. However, neoliberalism is by no means a clear and straightforward economic or philosophical doctrine. For example, some of those working with Salvador Allende in an effort to construct a Marxist/socialist government in Chile referred to themselves as neoliberals. But the term is used here as it is defined in The Handbook of Neoliberalism:

…when we make reference to ‘neoliberalism’, we are generally referring to the new political, economic and social arrangements within society that emphasize market relations, re-tasking the role of the state, and individual responsibility. Most scholars tend to agree that neoliberalism is broadly defined as the extension of competitive markets into all areas of life, including the economy, politics and society. (p. 2)

To put this more starkly, it would seem that neoliberals today believe that anything government does that directly affects individuals or organizations should be extremely limited. The basic philosophy underlying neoliberalism is that the role of government should center on actions that ensure that individuals and organizations have access to a free market with as few limitations as possible. This would provide equality of opportunity to all under “free market principles.” Some, such as Friedman, have argued that the only role government should have in a nation’s economic life is to legislate and enforce rules that maintain fair and equitable principles, viewing this as the most fair and equitable social arrangement. Such rules ensure that individuals and firms taking part in free market transactions are able to enter, leave and participate in the market with none having a government-regulated advantage over others. However, some economists — especially those who, like John Kenneth Galbraith, are considered “liberals” — argue that conservative/neoliberal principles put a great many individuals — and organizations — at a disadvantage and, quite often, at an insurmountable disadvantage.

The neoliberal view stands in particular contrast with that of liberals of the 1960s. President Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, argued for “affirmative action” for minorities, especially African-Americans. He pointed out that for the hundred years after the end of slavery those individuals were subjected to unfair restrictions that severely limited opportunities for education that would have enabled them to compete more equitably with white Americans who had substantially better educational opportunities.

Republican conservatives today, especially those in and working with the Trump administration, are striving to eliminate government-based assistance programs. Specifically targeted are programs such as food stamps (SNAP Food Benefit), assistance to women and children (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and even Social Security and Medicare.

It is interesting — and significant — that none of the conservative/neoliberal views just noted actually represent the positions explicitly put forth by Friedrich Hayek. Following are some Hayek’s actual positions, in his own words:

· In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing.

· To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs they impose.

· Even the most essential prerequisite of its [the market’s] proper functioning, the prevention of fraud and deception (including exploitation of ignorance), provides a great and by no means fully accomplished object of legislative activity.

And the notion of a “social safety net” is not only not new, it is an idea actually advanced by Hayek, who wrote:

· The government also has a role in creating a safety net. … There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.

When Hayek criticized socialism, he made it clear that he was not speaking of the sort of policies that create a social “safety net” as represented by Social Security and Medicare. Rather, he was referring to state control of the economy, as in Nazi Germany — not to a welfare state.

Others than Hayek have pointed out that government actions are not necessarily detrimental to individual freedom or the effective functioning of a free market economy. Stafford Beer, who pioneered the theory of cybernetic systems, observed that intelligent adaptive planning on the part of government can increase rather than decrease individual freedom. Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon noted that not everything in an economic system in which there is some government intervention and planning is tightly coupled to everything else.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once referred to himself as a neoliberal, writing (in 1951) that

Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order.

As noted, Friedman thought that government should have almost no role in how the economy functions, other than defining and enforcing rules to ensure that free market economic principles are followed. His “‘Stockholder Theory’ or the Friedman Doctrine, is that a company’s only social responsibility is to increase profits for the owners (stockholders), as long as it doesn’t engage in deception or fraud.” [Italics added] But in even the neoliberal Friedman did not completely reject the concept of government programs that help individuals. He proposed, to President Richard Nixon, a “negative income tax” that would guarantee poor individuals and families a basic (though small) income, paid to them directly by the government, an idea consistent with what Hayek actually wrote. (Nixon actually proposed that Americans should be guaranteed a government-paid minimum annual income, a concept alien to current Republican thought.)

It is almost one hundred years since Hayek began developing and publishing his ideas about individuals’ economic freedom. It seems, however, that his name is now being taken in vain, in not-so-subtle opposition to the principles of economic freedom that Hayek was actually trying to define and advance. Rather than paving the road to serfdom the Democratic Party platform and programs are remarkably consistent with Hayek’s economic views. Based on the concept of a free market economy that promotes individual effort, but also incorporating George Will’s observation regarding Americans’ “yearning for community,” it would not seem that the Democratic Party platform is a map of the road to serfdom.

The Democratic Platform Would Destroy the Work Ethic

Not all conservative Republicans refer — incorrectly, based on Hayek’s own words — to Hayek’s work as the basis for rejecting Democratic policies and programs, proposed or enacted. Some argue that programs such as those mentioned here may remove the incentives individuals might otherwise have to work hard to achieve goals and support themselves and their families through their own efforts, preferring to just accept a “free lunch” offered by government (but actually provided at the cost of those who choose to work for their rewards). This ultimately leads, one argument goes, to the rejection by the general public of the moral work ethic or, as defined by classical sociologist Max Weber, “the Protestant Ethic.”

Considerable research evidence, however, documents the results of the sort of government programs proposed by Hayek (and others) and implemented through legislation by Democrats, from Franklin Roosevelt on. That evidence shows that those who benefit from such programs generally go on to become contributing members of society rather than living off welfare. Actual research results contradict common anecdotal “evidence” like the story told by Ronald Reagan, when campaigning for President, of a “welfare queen,” an individual who had engaged in criminal fraudulent actions to exploit government programs designed to help the poor. There is no research evidence that such crimes are the norm.

The classic example of an effective program is Social Security, initiated under the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Social Security not only provides income for those over 65, it also helps individuals (even those under 65) who cannot work, or who continue to work but whose income is limited, due to disability. A more recent case is that of the Earned Income Tax Credit, first passed by a Democratic US Congress in 1975. EITC, which provides cash payments to low-income families, has deceased poverty while increasing the number of working individuals. Democratic Party policies and programs seem to have increased rather than decreased the work ethic. Still, as conservative Governor of California and liberal Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren observed, “Many people consider the things government does for them to be social progress but they regard the things government does for others as socialism.” There is no evidence to suggest that programs aiding the poor and disadvantaged have had a negative effect on, let alone destroyed, the work ethic.

The Democratic Party Platform Would Raise Taxes

This conservative Republican myth would have it that the only way to finance what they incorrectly call “free lunch” programs, that is programs like Social Security, Medicare, WIC and SNAP, would require higher taxes on those who choose to work. Thus, a commonly-heard conservative Republican claim is that liberals and Democrats want to increase taxes that are already too high. In fact, the United States is one of the least taxed first-world nations, with taxes (in adjusted real dollars) consistently decreasing over the past half century.

For example, under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower the maximum individual tax rate was capped at 90%, considerably greater than today’s maximum, while some of the most significant reductions in taxation were carried out under Democratic administrations, including those of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton. Of course, Republican presidents have also reduced taxes, with the result that today many of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in America (such as Amazon) pay no tax at all. Of the 36 nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada, taxes (as a percent of gross domestic product) are lower than in the US in only three (Mexico, Chile, and Ireland).

It is interesting to note that taxes on the very wealthy have been reduced far more than have taxes on the general public. This has contributed to dramatic increases in Federal government deficits and debt, although it is notable that under Democratic President Bill Clinton the US Congress reduced taxes on non-wealthy individuals while the national deficit was (temporarily) eliminated and the national debt was (again, temporarily) reduced. Overall, however, neither Democrats nor Republicans have consistently acted to increase taxes.

Not Anti-Free Market, Not Anti-Work Ethic, Not Higher Taxes…Why, Then Hate the Democratic Party Platform?

In sum, the “hatred” by conservatives, Republicans, and neoliberals of Democratic Party policies and proposed (as well as enacted) programs is not based, as is often asserted, in the noble desire to protect individuals’ freedom from government controls, to “strengthen” the work ethic of individuals by encouraging them to “make it” on their own, that is, to “lift one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps” as the old saw goes, or to increase taxes. The actual basis for hating Democratic Party Platform proposals, policies and programs may lie in a shift in the American values noted by George Will — individualism and community — as being in potential conflict. But his relatively contemporary observation echoes a warning made almost two centuries ago.

American Individualism

French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was sent to the United States in 1831 by King Louis Philippe I to study American prisons. He used the opportunity (and the King’s money) to engage in extensive travel throughout the US. In 1835, after returning to France, Tocqueville produced a two volume analysis of Democracy in America that is still considered one of the best descriptions of American culture.

A key to that culture, in Tocqueville’s view, is the American tendency toward individualism. He observed, “Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends. . .” But Tocqueville also pointed out that individualism can lead to a materialistic society of single-minded people striving toward personal wealth rather than enhancing the common good.

Americans, then and now, tend to view self-reliance as a virtue. But Tocqueville claims that the true virtue lies in needing to rely on other people. By doing so we create ethical bonds between citizens that can potentially expand outward. People are able to see others, even those they don’t personally know, as part of a nation and as connected to themselves. But Tocqueville also warns that when conditions encourage people to live independent and self-sufficient lives that culture of individualism can threaten the very fabric of society.

But are Americans today as dangerously individualistic as Tocqueville seems to suggest? An answer can be found in the research of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist. Hofstede conducted large-scale studies of national cultures around the world. He identified six consistent dimensions of culture across nations, one of which was — unsurprisingly — individualism (which he contrasted with its opposite, collectivism). The United States scored highest on individualism of the dozens of nations in Hofstede’s studies. The evidence seems to show that Americans have, as Tocqueville feared, become extremely individualistic both in absolute terms and in comparison to other nations.

Individualism Gone Awry

An important consequence of the narrow focus on self and those very close to one’s self is the loss of concern for others. This is seen in the value shift among traditional conservative Republicans reported by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker earlier this year. He documents the shift away from concern for the public good among the traditional — and wealthy — Republican elite toward an overwhelming concern for only one’s self and family and, in particular, for increased personal wealth. In his analysis Osnos validates one of Tocqueville’s harshest — yet pertinent — observations: “As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: How much money will it bring in?”

This value shift did not happen overnight. It was noticed as long ago as 1995, a quarter century ago, when Wallace Stegner observed,

American individualism, much celebrated and cherished, has developed without its essential corrective, which is belonging.

Over that twenty-five year period the rich have become increasingly wealthier, the middle-class has neither shared in that wealth nor kept up with inflation, and the “working poor” have had to take on two or three jobs just to survive. The causal details here are arguable. To what extent have government programs that favor the wealthy been a cause? To what degree has political corruption played a part? The bête noir of today’s issues is “institutional racism,” but it might prove more useful to focus on institutional economic classism that by design and hidden intent keeps the poor, whatever their ethnicity, on the bottom and has, as described above, led to the overwhelming focus by the wealthy on wealth alone, in the context of an individualism so extreme that it could, as Tocqueville pointed out, fray the very fabric of society.

What Values?

The way that those on the “individualistic” wealth-over-all end of the stick see it is explained, in part, by Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. In an international study of moral values Haidt and his research colleagues identified a set of key values that were exceptionally important to people just about everywhere around the world. Of these the most significant two were:

· Care for others (Not harming others)

· Fairness (Reciprocity)

In the US both Democrats and Republicans agree that these are extremely important values. More significant, however, is the way Democrats and Republicans interpret them. Democrats see an important government role in caring for those who have difficulty in caring for themselves, both economically and physically. Republicans, however, see “not harming others” as the appropriate focus. That is, government has a role in preventing individuals from harming one another physically. But Republicans place little or no emphasis on the role of government in providing for the care of those unable to do so for themselves. Care for others is viewed as the proper duty of family and, when necessary, charity.

Even Milton Friedman, who considered himself a neoliberal and a libertarian, rejected such an extreme view that rationalizes the failure to exhibit any concern for those outside one’s own “in-group.” And the conservative Republican hero Hayek (who is, by the way, considered a “classical liberal”) expressed views even more strongly consistent with the concept of government responsibility to care for members of society who are limited in doing so for themselves.

With respect to fairness, Democrats believe that government has a key role in redressing unfairness, such as discrimination against minorities — or, in some cases, majorities such as women. Republicans see little if any role for government in this regard, believing — against massive empirical and research-based evidence — that everyone has an equal opportunity in the free market.

Most distressing is the purely self-centered focus on individualism. That value is expressed in the creation of as large a personal/family fortune as possible while, at the same time, destroying the rules and safeguards that are based on government laws and actions that economists such as Hayek and Friedman saw as essential for the operation of free market economies. Thus Amazon, owned by the world’s first trillionaire, bribed (by means of campaign contributions) a state legislator to give favorable consideration to the firm’s economic advantages in her state.

Although the values of individualism and community have had, in America, an historical tension the balance has dramatically shifted. This has happened partly through the operation of a free market that is increasingly less subject to rules of fairness in operation and partly by the intentional stripping away of those same rules. The increasingly obvious outcome is the rising inequality of wealth distribution in America. Thomas Piketty is a French economist whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been an international best-seller. Piketty has observed that in 18th and 19th century Europe one-percent of the population owned most of the wealth. He argues that a similar situation has arisen in the 21st century and is becoming as extreme as to threaten democracy.

In Sum…

Evan Osnos’ analysis is consistent with Thomas Piketty’s ideas. Osnos concludes his report on Republicans’ self-centered view of money as all-important by noting: “. . .some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance . . . a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit.” Christopher Hitchens put it this way: “I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.” And this is the sad but best answer as to why today’s conservative Republicans “hate the Democratic platform.”

Reference Notes

Beer, S. The Heart of Enterprise. New York: Wiley, 1979.

“Did Bill Clinton Reduce Taxes?” Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_policy_of_the_Bill_Clinton_administration

Friedman, M. (1951, 17 February). “Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects.” Farmand, pp. 89–93. Retrieved from miltonfriedman.hoover.org/friedman_images/Collections/2016c21/Farmand_02_17_1951.pdf

Friedman, M.: “Stockholder Theory.” Retrieved from study.com, “Economist Milton Friedman: Theories & Monetary Policy” at https://study.com/academy/lesson/economist-milton-friedman-theories-monetary-policy-quiz.html

Friedman, Milton (1987). “The Case for the Negative Income Tax (a view from the right)”. In Leube, Kurt (ed.), The Essence of Friedman. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press. (pp. 57–68)

Galbraith, J. K. (1958). The Affluent Society. NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind. NY: Pantheon Books.

Hayek, F. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944. (p. 95)

Hitchens, C. (2015). Quoted by David Masciotra, “You’re Not the Boss of Me! Why Libertarianism Is a Childish Sham.” AlterNet, February 26, 2015. AlterNet Media Inc. https://www.alternet.org/2015/02/youre-not-boss-me-why-libertarianism-childish-sham/

Osnos, E. (2020, May 11). “The Greenwich Rebellion.” The New Yorker, xx-xx. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/11/how-greenwich-republicans-learned-to-love-trump?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker

Parker, K. (2020). “The party of Trump is already a convention of ghoulish clowns.” Washington Post, August 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-party-of-trump-is-already-a-convention-of-ghoulish-clowns/2020/08/21/89248e90-e3ea-11ea-8181-606e603bb1c4_story.html

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Arthur Goldhammer, translator.) Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Simon, H. A. Models of Bounded Rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Springer, S., Birch, K., MacLeavy, J. (Eds.) The Handbook of Neoliberalism. London: Routledge, 2016.

Stegner, W. (1995). “Living Dry.” In Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. (p. 57) NY: Wings.

Warren, E. (1952). Address to National Press Club in Washington DC, as quoted in Freedom and Union (April 1952).

Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Talcott Parsons, translator). London: Allen & Unwin.

Will, G. F. (1990). Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. NY: Macmillan.

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Marshall Sashkin

I taught organizational psychology at a number of universities across the US and was active in research and publishing, with a focus on leadership and change.