What does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican?

What makes an idea Democratic or Republican?

I know, heavy stuff for a Monday.

We can just as well substitute “progressive” and “conservative” in those roles, too. For my mental exercise I’m glossing over some nuance and lumping things together.

At face value people throw pithy tags at either party. “Big government”, “tax and spend”, “religious fundamentalists”, “social conservatives”, “the party of business”, “populists”, and so on. That only goes skin deep.

I’m more interested in the vision of the parties. Democrats, for better or worse, have been very good about establishing a vision at the federal level in the last 10-15 years. Republicans haven’t done as well at describing what vision they have for the country. At a local level here in Indiana, Democrats haven’t had an active vision for the governor’s seat in about as long. Republicans had clear vision under Mitch Daniels and that’s been muddied by Mike Pence.

The Party of Lincoln

Parties, like people, change over time so it’s hard to assign too much value to what Abraham Lincoln said and believed the 1860’s. But the vision is there. Lincoln was a Whig before Republicans were even a thing. Slavery and the Civil War changed that, however. After the Whigs and Democrats split between pro-slavery and abolitionists in the North and South, Republicans emerged as a viable, non-radical, party alternative.

At the Great Hall in New York City, 1860, Lincoln made his first appearance on a national stage. Looking “unbecoming” and wearing a new suit that didn’t fit, Lincoln laid out an argument against slavery that didn’t appeal to emotion or morals. It was based in fact.

Like today, people of the 1860’s wanted to know what the Founders thought about issues. In this case it was about slavery.  Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer, brought the facts. Citing in 1784 Congress prohibited slavery in the northwest territory (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin today).  Lincoln found that of the first Congress, through the Missouri Compromise, 21 out of 23 people who voted on the question of slavery supported federal regulation in the federal territories. Of the other 16 who didn’t vote, many expressed opposition. To Lincoln, arguing the Founders “supported slavery” was like saying “they created six houses of Congress”.

History muddies this because we know many of the Founders owned slaves. We know that many, Lincoln included, thought “whites and Negroes can never be equal.” It’s hard to square this circle, but racial animus aside, they could rise above on a philosophical level and agree what liberty and freedom really meant and see that slavery wasn’t it.

But Lincoln argued on, addressing the slave owners of the South: “You say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we [Republicans] are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on [slavery] which was adopted by our fathers who framed the Government under which live. While you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new [dissolving the union]. Let us stand by our duty fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophisticated contrivances wherewith we are so industriously piled and belabored – contrivances such as growing for some middle ground between the right and wrong: vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man; such a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care…”

In other words, the Founders weren’t modern-day yuppies thinking everyone was perfect. But they were pretty clear in stating all men are created equal. And it’s Job 1 to protect and further the nation. Slavery works against that, we didn’t get ahead of it, and now we have to abolish “this cancer”, as Lincoln said.  If that’s too hard for you, that’s too bad. This is what the Constitution says and this is out of hand.

As soon as you can recognize that slaves weren’t slaves, but people, it was all the more clearer. Lincoln argued, at first, to regulate slavery away slowly, like you might cut out a cancer slowly, lest you bleed to death. Eventually, as the South started war, Lincoln as President would come to realize “only complete brutality” would work to protect the nation.

Lincoln’s argument sets a tone that Republicans are the party of right vs. wrong, liberty vs. slavery, patriotism vs. greed, and recognizing that the Constitution says exactly what it means, even when you “might not like it right now,” usually through financial self-interest. It shows a Republican party and the Founders as not vehemently anti-regulation of any kind.  It had a place. He saw Government as having a clear role.

Democratic and Republican Visions Today

I spend this time on Lincoln because I feel like I understand the Democratic vision much more than I do the Republican vision. Today Democrats have a vision that’s easy to understand when applied to practical problems:

  • “Healthcare is over-priced and/or unobtainable.” “No problem, we can pay that for you.”
  • “My neighborhood is falling apart.” “No problem, we can fix that for you.”
  • “I can’t afford to go to a university and get ahead in my career.” “No problem, we can take care of that for you.”

Of course, in these and many other situations, the costs there are absorbed through higher taxes to pay for those things. That’s a valid vision and one that is clearly understandable. “Oh, the government takes care of that now.”

Republicans have been weak to share a vision that addresses those very practical problems people have. Instead, they’ve raised the flag on social issues, like Disunionists of Lincoln’s day did toward slavery. “This is the only thing that matters now, and we’ll blow this thing up if our one single demand isn’t met.” That’s not good government, it’s not good for people, it’s not good for the party, and certainly not for the nation.

It’s hard not to get the impression from Republicans as saying, “I dunno, you figure it out,” or, “Well, I got mine. Good luck.” It’s not wrong of people to turn to their elected leaders for direction on, “What’s next? Now what do we do?”

For example, Republican’s aren’t setting a vision for healthcare that’s regulated just enough to guarantee at least modest protection, and why that’s ultimately better. Republican’s haven’t given a solution to making neighborhoods better beyond “tax cuts”. At a federal level perhaps that makes sense. At a local level, people want to know their money is being allocated as wisely and exhaustively as possible. I think most Hoosiers would agree our State isn’t spending much money on frivolous services (except maybe attorney’s fees in losing court battles), so now what? A tax cut doesn’t fill a pothole.

Republicans aren’t showing people how they can improve their lot in life, how they can be responsible for their own success, and handle things like education, healthcare, and property for themselves and with measurable results.

I intend to think about those few things more in the near future from a Republican perspective. Perhaps there is a vision I’m not seeing. Or perhaps I can land on something that’s an alternative to, “The Government will just take care of that.”

3 Comments

  1. I think Republicans tend to dump what money they have into over-engineering the cart before spending money on feeding the horse. So people end up with a dead horse (sick with no insurance, jobless with no education, a wider road with no way to travel on it) while Republicans can say, but look at the amazing cart (lower taxes).

    I will say both parties have their vagueries though. Republicans like to say they are cutting taxes because someday the poor person might be rich (they likely won’t) while Democrats like to say college for all while totally gloss over paying for it (Bernie has been beaten down pretty bad by economists for this).

    Anyway, I look forward to the follow up parts to this discussion.

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