I find it odd that while we live in an especially polarized society, we also are experiencing a time when traditional Democrat-Republican political alignments are blurred. Historically the left, or those who considered themselves to be Democrats, were advocates of the federal government as regulator-in-chief, ensuring health, safety and civil rights for all. In general, Democratic politicians and voters wanted “hands-on” government. On the right, or self-defined Republicans, were advocates of states’ rights, unencumbered economic ventures, deregulation, free trade and balanced budgets. In general, Republicans wanted “hands-off” government.
These historical left-right blocs no longer exist. Democrats in general still want the government to protect the welfare of its citizens through regulation and to safeguard civil rights (at times, somewhat selectively). However, they have moved toward a preference for greater fiscal constraint. Republicans seem more willing to accommodate restrictive trade policies and, though they continue to eschew government interference in the lives of its citizens, they are open to the government regulating certain individual conduct. Republicans also have lost their fervor for a balanced budget. No longer can a Democrat be distinguished from a Republican based on their preference for hands-on or hands-off government policies. Also, the socialist-versus-capitalist schism no longer holds. Neither party would eliminate Medicare, a successful and popular program that also happens to be socialist in its orientation. Agricultural subsidies and child-care credits also enjoy bipartisan support.
What has compounded the new political divide and reshuffled alliances is the emotional freight attached to hot-button issues like abortion, gun control and religious freedom/expression. Folks likely will identify with the Democratic or Republican Party not based on their philosophy of how government should operate; more likely, they will align with the party that shares their position on one of these hot-button issues. If you think that women should not be subject to government regulations in their reproductive health decisions, if you want gun-safety laws enacted, or if you favor the separation of church and state, you typically vote Democratic. If you oppose abortion, reject commonsense gun-safety regulations on Constitutional grounds, and seek legal accommodation for expressions of your religious beliefs, you likely will identify as a Republican.
When it comes to the products of government operations, however, most folks are in agreement regardless of party. They want a clean and safe environment, good schools, well-maintained and robust infrastructure, affordable and accessible health care, responsible fiscal policies, a healthy economy, public safety, international accords that safeguard our democracy, and government officials who are honest, competent and serve the public interest.
How did we part company with the traditional substance of political parties and become a nation of conflicting social values? Was it the impact of social media and the onslaught of sensationalized news and messaging? Was it the individual’s unmooring when hard work paid less than gaming the system and having friends in high places? Was it the consequence of automation that made many working class jobs obsolete and led to a sense of disenfranchisement? Was it the demographic shift that has alarmed white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heterosexual males? These factors and many more have led to an energized citizenry that is angry and frustrated, intolerant and disinclined to focus on long-term objectives.
Until we reaffirm the role of political parties as standard-bearers for the programs and policies that strengthen our democracy, our economy and our public welfare, we will be unable to advance the country’s self-interest. Instead, we find ourselves engaged in an adolescent food fight, pitting one set of social values against another. This is not a party that I want to attend.
Weistock is a retired public servant who has served as an auditor and audit director in the Office of Inspector General, the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior.