Stark Differences

The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our [the federal government’s] stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use. — Jared Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, April 2, 2020, in reference to medical equipment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

We need to remember, the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people. — President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021.

Two stark contrasts: The Republican Party’s vision of government as some alien presence, disconnected from the everyday lives of the people who live under it; and, the Democratic Party’s belief that, in our democratic republic, government is by us for our benefit. “We the people,” as the Constitution’s preamble puts it and Biden affirmed, is the Democratic ideology; “us” against “them,” the Republican creed.

This is not new. These two conflicting interpretations of the relationship of the governing to the governed have defined American political parties from the beginning. The roles have shifted through history, with the Democratic Party now championing government as a tool for the betterment of society through creation of the social safety net and expansion of democratic practices. The Republican Party’s ideology is best summed up in President Ronald Reagan’s favorite aphorism, uttered in his first Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The differences between the two parties center on competing visions of the role of government. But, in the past, both parties accepted the basic framework of American democracy: Devotion to the Constitution, free and fair elections — the results or which were honored by both victor and loser — and the rule of law. And, both parties were coalitions of differing interest and ideological groups that made compromise possible.

Now, in our highly polarized political process, the two parties consist of tribes that no longer talk to each other, much less work together for the common good. The Democratic Party has moved to the left, embracing an active government in which healthcare is a guaranteed right, the state promises a minimum standard of living for everyone, and everyone participates in choosing the nation’s leaders.

The Republican Party has not only become more conservative, but it has moved to darker places on the political spectrum, becoming an authoritarian party that shares common goals and methods with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz Party, both of which have subverted the hopes of democratic rule unleashed after the fall of Communism late in the last century. A recently declassified report from the director of national intelligence asserts that the Republican Party, in collusion with the Trump White House and the party’s propaganda organs (for that is what Fox News, Breitbart, and One America News are), cooperated with a Russian campaign to keep Trump in the presidency by undermining the campaign of now-president Joe Biden.  

The report says the Russian government worked to weaken “public confidence in the electoral process.” Trump used the same strategy with his constant litany before Election Day of the dangers of absentee voting and his refusal to accept the results of the election after November 3. Trump’s intransigence convinced his supporters that Biden is not the legitimately elected president, despite all evidence to the contrary. One of the surest roads to autocracy is fomenting a belief that the electoral process cannot be trusted.

Trump has not given up. Just this week, he complained that “our Supreme Court and our courts didn’t have the courage to overturn elections.” In this blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric, the former president no longer simply asserts that the other side cheated; he now suggests that results he does not like should be ignored. It is a concept that spurred the insurrection at the Capitol in January and encouraged two-thirds of congressional Republicans to vote to throw out duly certified electoral votes. A majority of Republicans — along with Trump — were willing to sacrifice democracy to maintain political power. That is the mindset of autocrats.

Contrast the increasingly expansive and democratic vision of the Biden administration, which differs strikingly not only from modern Republican ideology but also recent Democratic thought. After the successes of the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Society of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democrats moved away from embracing activist government. Note their middle-of-the-road rhetoric:

Jimmy Carter: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” 

Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is over.” 

Barack Obama: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.” 

President Biden, instead, is harking back to the philosophy of the New Deal and the Great Society, attacking serious problems — such as environmental degradation, immigration reform, the obscene income inequality plaguing the nation, and attacks on democratic processes — with bold programs. The first piece of Biden-inspired legislation to pass Congress was the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion program to ramp up vaccine distribution, help Americans suffering economically during the pandemic, and begin an attack on poverty through an expanded child tax credit. 

Nothing is more critical for the success of the Biden program than passage of two laws to guarantee access to the ballot. Central to the Republican march to an authoritarian government is the party’s attempts to destroy democracy — first in its refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, then in passage of laws in many states restricting the right to vote.

The battle over voting rights is central to the questions posed by the two competing visions expressed by Democrats and Republicans. Will the United States remain a democracy that  cares for the well-being of its citizens and continually expands democratic processes? Or, will the United States follow the lead of rightward drifting countries in Europe and become an undemocratic society whose leaders are not freely chosen by all voters and cling to power for its own sake?

Posted March 19, 2021

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