In an Associated Press report provided to news outlets Thursday, former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) lamented that “far-left” positions taken by some Democrats alienate rural voters. Heitkamp explained, “We’re letting Republicans use the language of the far left to define the Democratic Party, and we can’t do that.”
The problem that Heitkamp fails to grasp – and that, indeed, a lot of Democrats fail to grasp – is that modern American politics are defined by a tautology.
Democrats are liberals and Republicans are conservatives. What is a liberal? Well, it’s someone who supports the Democratic Party. What is a conservative? That’s someone who supports the Republican Party.
There are certainly elements of liberalism in the Democratic Party. Liberalism supports individual freedom, private property, equality and civic participation. For much of the twentieth centuries, both of the major U.S. parties had sizable liberal factions, so much so that modern Republicans often – erroneously – refer to individual freedom or respect for private property as conservative ideals.
And, of course, there are elements of conservatism in the Republican Party. Conservatism is more of a social posture than an ideology, which can make it a little harder to define. In general, though, conservatism is a belief in slow, incremental changes, based on the presumption that tradition and heritage should be respected and upheld unless proven to be erroneous. Conservatism does not accept that every element of society can or should be changed. Conservatism is not just prevalent in the modern Democratic Party, its nearly the party’s core ideological belief: “Instead of bold schemes and utopian dreams, what we need now to start changing the status quo is to exchange radical idealism for radical realism,” wrote criminal justice reform advocate Greg Berman in “In Defense of Incrementalism: A Call for Radical Realism,” published by The Hill after Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
In contrast, the Republican Party is hardly arguing for slow, incremental changes. Even in its support for “tradition” and “heritage,” the party longs for a return to a world they’ve invented to justify their authoritarian ideology.
The realities of the parties don’t really match up with the liberal/conservative split, but it doesn’t matter. Those words are just alternatives for the party names. “Conservatives” are “Republicans,” absolutely interchangeable. “Liberals” are “Democrats.” Bernie Sanders is a liberal – which he is, though he’s also a social democrat, a moniker that probably fits him better – and Donald Trump is a conservative – which he absolutely isn’t, he’s a populist demagogue with no real ideology, arguably a kind of Neo-Peronist if you want to be very pretentious at parties – because what those words mean to Americans is “Democrat” and “Republican.”
Pete Buttigieg, now the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said it best during the debates when he was seeking the presidential nomination in 2020: “It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It’s true that we embrace a far left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.”
The next day, Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) said on Fox News, “I would remind you that the lesser of two socialists is still a socialist.”