Thursday 26 October 2006 — This is over 16 years old. Be careful.
In these days leading up to the mid-term elections, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the possibility of control shifting from Republicans to Democrats. There’s also a steady undercurrent of the disillusioned claiming that there’s really no difference between the two parties.
In some ways, they are right: both parties are prone to scandal, both spend more than their constituents would like, both tend to grow government, both need to practice more what they preach, both are likely to be beholden to “special interests”, both fight dirty when their backs are against the wall, and so on. In short, they both tend toward the typical negative behaviors we find among those in power everywhere. This is what people mean when they say there is no difference.
And it doesn’t help that the cliche distinguishing characteristics are contradicted frequently. Bush is a Republican, but spends a lot of money. Kerry is a Democrat, but is wealthy and privileged. When Bush came into office, there were those who pointed out that he was anything but conservative: in some ways he was a true radical, and they were right. So the classic differentiators are often proven wrong.
But I’ve been pondering this point for a long time: is there an essential difference between Democrats and Republicans? What is at the core of the character of the two parties? There is an essential difference, and it is summed up by their attitude towards Community.
By Community, I mean the balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. Democrats lean toward the community, Republicans toward the individual. This inclination emerges in many aspects of political life:
- Taxes: Should you keep your money, or should it go to the community?
- Labor: Corporations are individuals in the eyes of the law, workers are a community.
- Environment: Preservation for the common good often conflicts with individuals’ use of natural resources.
- Foreign policy: The US is an individual country, the UN represents the community of countries.
- Demographics: Urban areas (where many people live closely) are more Democrat, and rural areas (where people are relatively isolated) are more Republican.
These characterizations are simplifications of complex issues. Some classic differentiators are not explained well by this distinction (abortion comes to mind) but the general theme holds: Republicans tend toward individuals, Democrats toward communities.
I’m not making a value judgement. It’s no secret that I vote Democrat, but my point here is not to sway anyone. I’m just trying to unravel a political puzzle.
among other charts on that page.
aynti-Rand-ly y'rs, - Dean
and another little piece of FUD gets dished out.
Ned, you knew that you were going to attract trolls with this post, I really don't see what's the point.
Simple: The USPATRIOT act, in the eyes of Democrats, does little to help the common good and infringes too much upon individual civil liberties. The balance between the two is negative.
Giacomo: "I really don't see what's the point" As I said, I'm not trying to sway anyone. The point of this post is the same as the point of most posts in this or any blog: it's something I was thinking about that I thought other people might be interested in, and that I thought might generate interesting reactions. Besides, Pete isn't a troll, he's a friend of mine.
Pete: I have to admit to being a bit confused by your mention of the PATRIOT act. Are you for it or against it?
Keith: I also don't agree with many of the provisions of the Patriot Act, but it passed in the Senate by a vote of 98 to 1, and in the House by a vote of 357 to 66. Obviously a heck of a lot of Democrats voted for it.
Ned's thesis was about Democrats being more community focused than Republicans and I just was pointing out how I think that's not a useful distinction. Each party will spin their platform as either being about personal choice or the good of the community as it fits their agenda.
Here's the real differentiator. I think Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different attitudes toward human nature. Democrats are idealists while Republicans are skeptics. Democrats want the government to fix problems through policy because they believe in human nature. They believe the contributors to government programs (taxpayers) have a moral obligation to help, the administrators of government programs are universally well-intentioned and effective, and the recipients of government programs are well-intentioned, deserving, and grateful. Republicans distrust government programs because they are skeptical about human nature. Republicans try to solve problems by appealing to enlightened self-interest.
I'm a right-leaning Independent and I often vote Republican, but I'm not knocking idealism. For example, Social Security is an idealist's program. It has saved a lot of older people from poverty. It also appeals to my enlightened self-interest. I hope I can benefit even a little from Social Security when I retire.
And I am really disgusted with today's Republican party. In fact, I don't think the idealist vs. skeptic comparison holds for the leadership of the parties. I think both parties are lead by cynics who care about nothing but power for power's sake. We need independent idealists and skeptics to meet in the middle and solve problems. Heaven knows the major parties won't do it.
With only two parties in the game, this kind of otherwise brave attempt can only result in a very jumbled and unsatisfying average. Conservative Christians come rather strongly on the Community side of your equation, whether on Darfur, poverty, global warming not to mention abortion which they argue is not an individual choice. And, assert (too) many Democrats, these people hold enough sway over the Republican party to warrant warnings of creeping theocracy.
Likewise on the side of the Democratic Party, where you will find people suing the NSA to defend the civil liberties of the individual. While some among their opposites label them as unpatriotic wimps for doing so, in the name of the Community's welfare and survival.
Things get even more confused and farcical when you get stuck at some party between a Democrat who will argue that people should not be profiled at the airport but can be for the purpose of affirmative action, and a Republican who will argue the exact opposite. And both do manage to hold these contradictory positions because one is argued in the name of the individual while the other is supported for the sake of the collective.
So Community and Individual maybe, but on what ?
So I would qualify your fine post by saying this is a good characterization of the way the >>parties
Lastly, people also vote for different parties depending on the election. They may vote Democrat at the state level and Republican for federal polls, for 'individual' motives in one case, 'Community' ones in another.
As bizarre as it may sound, I voted for a social ist mayor once. (space to prevent Ned's spam filter from screaming about some well-known pill for males with, ahem, deficiencies...)
Dave : can independents be idealists ? And do we want idealists in power ? Idealists are a great check on power. They are terrible at exercising it.
I also disagree specifically with your condensation of party positions on taxes, because the GOP position through most of recent history has not boiled down to "should you keep your money" so much as it has boiled down to "should rich people keep their money". And note: although I am a strong Democrat, I don't consider that to be an inherently wrong position, as the motivation behind that position is (or can be, though it isn't always) to preserve and strengthen the profit motive, which is an extremely powerful driver of many benefits to society and the economy.
Politics are complex. As this is a blog that geeks tend to hang out in, I will point out that one can think of politics as an N-space (of very large N) with each individual voter's positions on N issues defining a point in that N-space. And since I've probably not lost all that many of you with the previous sentence, I will further point out that you can think of party platforms as projections of that N-space onto a 2-space in which the two dimensions are defined by the parties attempts to maximize the number of points in the N-space that project to high values on their dimension and low values on the other dimension. And to cap it off I'll point out that, through arguments not unlike those behind the mathematical basis of entropy, it can be shown that if a projection of that 2-space onto a 1-space exists that accounts for a significant amount of the overall variance in the 2-space, then it is extremely unlikely that the 1-space corresponds to anything organized -- i.e., something that is meaningful in and of itself, such as an ideological spectrum as simple as "favors community" vs. "favors individual".
On the other hand, maybe not ;-)
I've bookmarked that site.
Obviously both parties want their platforms to seem coherent even where they aren't. Parts of the platform just will not fit under a simple ideology. This is usually the result of some group that needed to be "thrown a bone" to stay on board, and a clause had to be weakened, added, or whatever. This undermines the ideological justification for the platform, but still must be done for the party as a whole to remain viable. Thus, the policies of any party makes the most sense as a compromise between its subgroups, and not as something that arises from unified ideology. (IMHO, YMMV)
But I think that any attempt to boil the two parties down to a core philosophy is bound to be too simplistic in these times. That's why this past election turned out the way it did. The trouble for me - and probably a lot of others - is that any attempt to identify either with a core philosophy or value system is bound to lead to disappointment, because the only consistency throughout each party's ideology is that it is almost always the polar opposite of the other party's view. What we end up with is two opposing hodgepodges that please almost noone. Democrats are seen as champions of certain personal liberties (Bill-of-Rights-type stuff), while Republicans are about others (economic freedom, personal property, religious expression). Often it seems that each party is trying to restrict the personal liberties most prized by the other. Likewise, Dems are all about community in certain respects (race, class), while Republicans are aligned with others (faith, nationalism). Adding to that, Democrats are perceived as idealistic in the sense that they believe that as a society we have certain responsibilities to help and protect our brethren (civil rights, due process, the welfare state), but this is also a skeptical - even cynical - perspective because it presumes that human nature is basically bad and that a powerful, centralized, paternalistic government is needed to keep self-interest in check, to keep Republicans from screwing the little guy. Republican idealism leans towards the responsibility of the individual and some pretty high - some would say unrealistic - standards of behavior, such as abstinence. Republican cynicism manifests itself in the distrust of big government, and tries to limit that government to prevent its encroachment on the individual throuth the confiscation of wealth and property, and the restriction of religious expression.
So what are the vast majority of people - who most likely fall somewhere in the middle - to do? Look at me. I will almost always vote for the candidate that I think will keep my taxes down, but I acknowledge that some entitlement programs are necessary. I am pro family values, but I view gay marriage as something that actually is consistent with promoting the family. I am against abortion (life is sacred), but pro birth control (abstinence is unrealistic). I think removing the statue of the ten commandments from a courthouse was RIDICULOUS, but I am indifferent on the question of keeping the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, because its addition was an afterthought anyway. I support the Patriot Act because I think our safety as a nation trumps the risk of a small loss - if any - of individual freedom. However, I am against the death penalty (life is sacred), and mandatory sentencing, for that matter. I am OK with embryonic stem cell research, as long as we aren't creating tons of embryos only to destroy them. I think school choice is a good idea, but I also like the idea of having at least some national standards.
I think what we really need is more common sense, and a willingness among politicians to break ranks when their constituents are at odds with the extreme views that can dominate the parties on either side.
and the rich.
Democrat's are for the guy or woman who gets up and goes to work everyday.
My Great Grandad told me that when I was very young.
He was a politician for 40 years.
Add a comment: