For centuries there have been three ideologies, but at any particular moment in time, there have been only two sides to a society’s political culture: a dominant ideology vs. a coalition of the weaker two. The compromises between the two minor ideologies can be so complete that at any particular moment in history, it will seem as though they are, and always have been, one coherent worldview. When the classical conservative ideology was dominant, classical liberals and socialists seemed united as secular-humanist republicans against monarchs, aristocrats, and the established state clergy. For example: when the French Revolution broke out, many of America’s founding fathers could not distinguish its ideological difference from the American Revolution.
When the classical liberal ideology is dominant, classical conservatives and socialists see themselves as united defenders of human dignity against the heartless forces of an unfettered market. For example: the participation of the classically conservative William Jennings Bryan within the Progressive Movement seemed natural at the time. Labor lawyer Clarence Darrow worked hard to deliver organized labor’s votes to Bryan’s many campaigns for the White House.
When the socialist ideology is dominant, classical liberals and classical conservatives seem united as defenders of proven social arrangements against radical social engineering. For example: in the 20th Century’s ideological dynamic that still lingers somewhat today, “conservatives” have been a fusion of classical liberalism and classical conservatism forced into a coalition to maintain parity against democratic socialism in the West and revolutionary socialism in the East.
The difference between the political-cultural dynamic Bryan and Darrow faced in 1908 and 1925 remains illuminating. These former political allies became political opponents as socialism was on the rise in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Progressive Movement in America no longer needed conservative allies. Bryan won the Scopes Trial but fundamentalist Christianity lost in the court of public opinion, evicting classically conservative Protestants from their former public prominence. This prominent tribe of American life remained withdrawn from politics for decades until a young evangelist named Billy Graham successfully argued that the atheistic threat of global communism was a force of evil that evangelicals should resist. This transformed conservative Christian attitudes toward economic policy, moving from a rejection of free markets at the beginning of the 20th Century to becoming a seemingly wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party by the century’s end.
There is no permanent, natural alliance among the three primary ideologies. When one is dominant, the other two automatically merge together to maintain parity of power. With Tucker Carlson frequently denouncing free-market economics from his well-watched prime time Fox News show, we may be seeing a new realignment in ideological coalition-building today.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is also the author of We were winning when I was there.