The Great Debate
*Note: This was posted on Facebook right before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
So tomorrow is a big day. We should be celebrating the peaceful transition of power, regardless of party affiliation, but instead, half the country will be protesting (literally) the inauguration of the 45th president. I have friends who will be in DC or will be protesting closer to home. I do regret not thinking ahead and taking part in the Women’s March, but then again – I really dislike crowds.
In the last couple of years, I’ve become really interested in the differences between the parties, party ideology and history of said ideology/ philosophy. I wanted to understand how and why the Dems and GOP were so radically different and believed that it had to be something more than just “politics and power.”
I started with the book, “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of the Right and Left” by Yuval Levin. I know…fascinating. First let me say this: I hated political philosophy in college and I hate it now. And I hate it not because it’s not interesting but because I cannot understand philosophy. Philosophy and Shakespeare. Did you know they have online courses to teach people how to read and understand Shakespeare? Anyway, when reading this book, I probably picked up about 20% of what the author put down.
Second is what follows. “Conservatism” as defined by Patrick Allitt in a book he wrote about the history of American conservatism is an ‘attitude toward social and political change that tends to look to the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than abstractions of political philosophy.’
Sir Edmund Burke is considered to be the father of conservatism. Burke, an Irish member of Parliament in Great Britain and philosopher wrote at the turn of the 19th century (essentially after the American War of Independence and during the French Revolution). Burke was observing politics through the lens of these 2 great events – the latter being seen as catastrophic to the old order. What do I mean by catastrophic? French mobs were chopping off heads of aristocrats. Every monarch in Europe was concerned that the French insanity would not stay “in France” and instead spread to its neighbors. They were right to be concerned. As such, Burke developed a political philosophy, rooted in nature and the evolution of the state, that fit this model: slow, incremental change, within the bounds of existing institutions or those from history.
Thomas Paine was Burke’s counterpart. Americans know Paine from his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” but he was also quite active in the French Revolution. Not surprisingly, he saw things much different than Burke. His philosophy was also rooted in nature – specifically, which came first – individual rights or the state. Paine argued that individual rights came from nature and thus, the state could be discarded if it no longer met the public need. Paine was a true revolutionary. “Don’t like the current government? Throw it out and start over.” (Sound familiar???) Burke believed that individual rights came from the state and therefore, the state, above all else must remain in order to guarantee civil liberties.
It is this fundamental difference that divides the right and left but in practice, it has taken many forms throughout history. Additionally, political parties have shifted; meaning, the Republicans have not always been conservative, Democrats not always progressive. At its founding, the GOP was quite progressive and was a response to the Democratic conservatism. Over time, the parties may have changed, but the core beliefs of conservatives and progressives have not. In America, conservative orthodoxy is based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution: strong on defense but otherwise small central government, low regulation, low taxes, and states’ rights. The conservative stance on business and banking ironically has changed from negative (at the founding) to obviously “free market capitalism” today.
Progressives, not surprisingly have disagreed. Just as Paine believed that the French should “blow up” the existing order and replace it with something that worked for the current time and place, so do progressives who believe that if the government is no longer working, it should be changed, radically if necessary. A further refinement of Paine’s philosophy gets us closer to what Progressives in the Gilded Age or during the Great Depression believed: that certain social ills require government involvement and that society should not shy away from leveraging the power of government to promote social reforms. Now – there is a long way between New Deal Democrats and Communists just as there is a long continuum between William F. Buckley and Fascism.
But those are the continuums.
American political parties have not always been so polarized, but let’s be honest: the early days of the Republic were not “peaceful.” The conflict between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was rooted in policy differences based on conservative vs. progressive beliefs. Alexander Hamilton lost that battle by getting killed in a duel with Burr. The conflict between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was also rooted in a fundamental difference in how they each perceived government.
Fast forward to the antebellum period and of course, the Civil War. At its core, this family feud was based on the federal government’s rights toward protecting personal property.
But even during these truly polarized periods, the parties could still work together (with the exception of the actual Civil War). This was because the parties themselves were coalitions of a broad based constituency, progressives and conservatives being just one element in a much larger puzzle. Conservative Republicans were tempered by Liberal Republicans. The same happened to the Democratic Party.
This mélange (awesome word, huh?) started to change in the 20th century. As to root cause of the change, some people will point to the New Deal while others the cultural upheaval of the 60s. I believe that the polarization slowly started to form after 1919. What happened in 1919? The Russian Revolution of course. All of a sudden, what had been small groups and minor, failed uprisings in Europe, coalesced in a violent revolution and civil war which killed the Czar, his family and thousands from the nobility.
Then, once that was done, one of the largest countries on earth, began a state directed, controlled economy which successfully moved Russia from a feudal, aristocratic society to a full-fledged industrialized state. All of this happens while America and the West enjoyed the Roaring Twenties, only to see capitalism fail – dramatically – pitching the world into the Great Depression.
American conservatives were horrified with FDR’s successful implementation of the New Deal, perhaps the best example of Paine’s philosophy. The New Deal was not a programmatic or even strategic development. FDR and his advisors were risk takers. They were willing to try anything to get the country moving again. One author liked it to “throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what stuck.” Whether it was that haphazard or not, the New Deal was not nearly as organized as we have come to believe. And while its success, in retrospect, is debated, at the time FDR was hailed as a hero.
Then came World War II. What Americans do not realize is how “directed” our war time economy really was. We talk about how WW2 brought us out of the depression. Part of that growth was credited to private businesses. But the vast majority of the economy was planned and controlled by the federal government. And that “planned economy” – with its price controls and public rationing – won the war. Worse yet – the economic golden era of the 50s was founded in large portion on the military industrial complex and government spending.
Conservatives, while small in number, were horrified. The final progressive straw was the cultural upheaval of the 60s & 70s and the embarrassing defeat in Vietnam. Conservatives, beginning all the way back in the 50s began to develop the cohesive, systematic orthodoxy that we recognize today. Influential conservative thinkers founded think tanks and conservative periodicals. These elites focused their attention on college age Republicans and university professors. In time – and yes, it took decades – the conservative movement of economic libertarianism, foreign policy hawks, and Christian evangelicals began to take shape within the Republican Party. In time, the right wing gained control of statehouses, platforms, and Congress.
Progressives did not fare nearly as well. They simply were caught flat footed in the face of the conservative offensive. I’ve done less study on this side but from what I have read, progressivism took a big hit in 1968. Democrats took the blame for Vietnam, which overshadowed any advances made in the Great Society. The southern wing of the party was adamantly opposed to civil rights and de-segregation making passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 largely due to Republicans. (Interestingly, Republicans lost a huge opportunity with African Americans by pursuing their southern strategy – courting angry southern Democrats vehemently opposed to the federal government’s intervention in its bigoted affairs). Democrats eventually won the support of blacks and other minorities – but that did not coalesce until Bill Clinton’s administration.
Clinton’s presidency, in retrospect, was quite conservative much to the chagrin of today’s progressives. But here’s the thing: in 1992, America did not want a “progressive” president. America was still a center right electorate. So that is how Clinton campaigned and governed.
I’m pessimistic that the parties will reach any kind of consensus on the issues facing this country. I am pessimistic because, at the core, Republicans and Democrats disagree on a fundamental question: the role of government in addressing social, political and economic issues. The Republican Party is almost 100% hard line conservative. There are no more moderates and certainly no liberal Republicans within the “establishment.” Fundamentally, the Republican Party leaders do not agree that the government should guarantee universal health care coverage. Listen to Paul Ryan: he talks about universal access – not universal coverage.
Universal coverage requires the government to place regulations on health care insurers to take every applicant, regardless of pre-existing conditions. Universal coverage means defining what a “standard health care insurance policy” includes. Universal coverage means mandating that every American have insurance else incur a fine. Universal coverage means that those of us higher income Americans are taxed so that subsidies can be given to those lower middle-class Americans who cannot afford it. Universal coverage means sending federal tax dollars to states so that they can expand Medicaid coverage to even more poor families.
The “universal coverage” noted above is the partial definition of Obamacare. Perhaps there are other ways to get to universal coverage but if the Republican majority does not agree that fundamentally, the government has the responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of its citizens and the Democrats DO believe the government has a role, then what on earth is there to agree on?
This fundamental difference applies to any controversial issue. Abortion. Conservatives hate Roe vs. Wade for 2 reasons. First is the moral, Christian, pro-life reason of the evangelical wing of the party. But most of the Republican establishment believes that Roe vs. Wade is unconstitutional (even though it was decided by the Supreme Court) because the decision was based on the Griswald vs. Connecticut case guaranteeing the right to privacy. Roe vs. Wade has nothing to do with women having rights over their own bodies. It was decided that abortion fell under the right to privacy – a right decided by the Griswald case. There is nothing specific in the constitution that guarantees this right to privacy, therefore – to conservatives in the Ted Cruz mold – find it unconstitutional (as does our new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions).
If I were to boil it down – at least to the Amy perspective – Conservatives believe in governing via principle and by a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Progressives are more than willing to expand the interpretation of the Constitution and its precedents in order to improve society. As a progressive, I naturally fall on the side of the left but I at least understand the conservative position.
So. I fear that as long as the GOP controls Congress and the executive, conservative policies will be implemented without the support of the Democrats just as the GOP failed to support or compromise on any of the major legislative achievements hailed by President Obama. These conservative policies include eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (recent rumors), slicing the budgets for the Department of Energy, HUD, EPA and Department of Education (to name a few). Fundamentally, the current government simply does not believe the federal government should be involved in these areas.
What Republicans typically say is that these discussions and issues should go back to the state to solve. So for example, Paul Ryan’s plan for entitlement reform – Social Security and Medicare (if the GOP cannot phase them out altogether…which folks, the party WANTS to do), is to privatize social security and give block grants to the states (or vouchers) for Medicare. There are pros & cons to these ideas. Let’s start with the privatization of social security. What happened to your 401k when the free markets took a catastrophic nose dive in 2009? What if you had been 55 – 60 and your social security “bucket” was also indexed to the market? Think about that for a minute.
Medicare and block grants. This COULD work if you trust your state to do the right thing and spend the money on Medicare costs. But given recent examples of states like Kansas…who slash taxes thinking that the economy will boom – and then resort to the ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ game: Well that’s nuts. With Medicare at the federal level today, there is greater flexibility when we have funding shortfalls. Vouchers have been known to favor the well off, rather than the poor. The point is: the current GOP establishment would love to phase out any social program, including Social Security and Medicare. To date, this has been hard because the GOP did not have the full support of its own caucus. Now, I think it does.
Given my progressive nature – and whole hearted disagreement with, let’s say 99% of conservative views, I view the next 4 years as a potential catastrophe. However, in regard to health care, I believe progressives have one leg up: Obamacare, if nothing else, set the bar for universal coverage. Removing that objective, and thus taking health care coverage away from tens of millions of Americans, would be a political disaster for the GOP. Their current plans would result in just that, which is why this debate will go on and on.
When we think about why the government is not working, the answer lies in a lot of things. But fundamentally, if you cannot agree that the sky is blue, and that grass is green – it will be almost impossible to gain consensus on anything of importance.
Amy, from the Facebook Archives