Sunday, October 16, 2011

Picking Sides

By most recent estimates, 31% of Americans identify themselves as Democrats, 29% as Republicans, and 38% as Independent. The profile is different in Massachusetts, with 37% of voters seeing themselves as Democrats, 11% as Republicans, and 52% as Independent. What characteristics determine this identification? Certainly, how one’s parents, family, friends, and occupational/social milieu are positioned on the political spectrum may be very influential on the formation and maintenance of someone’s political identity. Affiliation with a political party may be driven by the propaganda of gross and inaccurate caricatures, such as that Democrats are Communists or Republicans are all Rich White folks. A person’s particular beliefs on one or more key issues, such as abortion, immigration, or energy and global warming may lead to their affiliation with the party that seems more aligned with those positions, though party breakdown on specific issues is not monolithic. However, I believe that there are far more fundamental beliefs that lead someone to choose their political team.

The single most obvious divergence between the parties has to do with the belief of the role of government in America. Democrats see our society as fundamentally being a group effort. We are all in this together. The government is the projection of collective decision making. As such, the government is inherently good and should play a very central and large role in our national life. Republicans believe that we are a society that fundamentally prizes and protects expanded degrees of freedom for our individual citizens. Americans should strive and live as they see fit. Government is necessary and has defined tasks, but should be kept limited and on a short leash. This is why Republicans frequently refer to the Constitution, which was penned by thinkers who did not trust centralization of power and was written specifically to control the potential abuses of big government. For Democrats who view a strong central government as the good and necessary expression of the common purpose, the Constitution is referred to infrequently and is viewed as an inconvenient quaint relic of a passed era.

There is a different basic ethic between adherents to the two parties. Democrats focus primarily on ameliorating the impact of failure in our society. Whether of fault or of no fault of the individual, Democrats look to soften the blows of poverty, familial disarray, school failure, or even just income disparity of unspecified degree. The Democratic model of “little guy” is the victim of the system, oppressed by racism or greed. Democrats operate through the auspices of the government as the agency best positioned to address these problems. The government operates for social justice by redistributing income by taxation and government largess.

Republicans concentrate on cultivating the conditions which lead to success. If government is to intervene, it is to enable the individual, whether rich or poor, to find and access the levers of achievement, and then enjoy the results of work and effort. Opportunity is provided, but outcome is not guaranteed. The Republican “little guy” is the budding entrepreneur who builds a business in his garage or the poor kid who picks himself up by the bootstraps and works his way through college.

There is a difference in whom the parties do and do not trust. Democrats trust members of the government who are seen as agents of the collective dedication to doing good. Democrats generally distrust their fellow citizens, who they believe will make unenlightened and self serving decisions. Business interests are the ultimate root of corruption. Extensive rules and regulations are necessary to control these economic and personal impulses. This is the source of the authoritarian streak of the Democratic Party.

Republicans do not trust members of the government. Corruption is to be expected as politicians and public workers once in place could manipulate their position to amass power and to maintain their office. American citizens are in a far better position to decide what works for their own lives than are bureaucrats. Republicans run the risk of seeming to believe that it’s every man for himself. However, protecting every citizen’s right to self determination is a grand societal effort.

Once the attachment to a party is made, members of the team accept and defend stances taken by their party even if they are destructive and nonsensical. Our politics are currently very partisan and polarized. Positions taken from core beliefs become absolutely unacceptable to the other side when those opposite core principles are challenged.

And then there are the independents.

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