After two posts on party labels, I feel just about “talked out” on the whole matter, so this post will be shorter. I promise.
To summarize (quickly) those two, party labels in the early years of the republic were not life or death affairs. There was a Democratic party ever since the days of Thomas Jefferson. It was the party of “continuity,” if you will, electing several presidents; opposition came and went, with the longest-lasting being the Whigs. The new Republican party elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which led to the Civil War, and the elimination of slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Post-Civil War, Republicans dominated in Presidential elections until the 1930’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the only President to serve more than two terms.
During the Roosevelt era, and partially motivated by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, Democrats shifted to a more pro-civil rights direction through the 1960’s, which cost them the support of the states of the old Confederacy, a shift that has endured to the present.
So what do the Democrats stand for over the last four decades or so? It’s useful to look at what Democratic Presidents have worked for while in office. Jimmy Carter kept the focus on civil rights domestically while beginning a new emphasis on human rights in foreign policy. In the 90’s, Bill Clinton managed to win two elections while governing as if he were a pro-civil rights Republican, with an emphasis on “tight” budgets and welfare reform, while spending large amounts of time and attention quelling scandals of a personal nature. Barack Obama, inheriting a ruined and sinking economy, had to concentrate primarily on bringing that economy back and establishing a way to let millions have health insurance (once a “fringe Benefit” for millions of workers, but available to fewer each year now); in foreign affairs he shifted to a less militaristic policy in favor of more openness to old foes like Cuba.
In short, there is not a whole lot to say about Democrats except that they have, in recent years, been reduced to pointing at the Republicans and saying, “Not us.” The Republicans, ever since the 1980’s, have concentrated on winning elections, rather than governing once those elections are decided. And frankly, it’s been working, so why would they change tactics?
Check this sequence: in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on constant criticism of Carter’s supposed foreign policy weakness, as evidenced by the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan and his surrogates insinuated endlessly that such a thing could never happen during a Reagan presidency. Under Reagan, almost 300 Marines died in the Beirut explosion (as well as numerous embassy staff), but the country didn’t seem to hold the Gipper responsible. Our current economic situation, with lots of employment but stagnating wages, with concentration of wealth in the upper few per cent of the population, began in earnest at this time.
George Bush, Reagan’s Vice-President and successor, presided, for the most part, over more of the same, but his presidency died after one term as he did the unforgivable: he agreed to raise taxes to bring a budget more closely into balance. Bush’s son, George W., talked the usual Republican talk of military strength, fiscal responsibility, and inclusiveness. He spent billions in military campaigns in the Middle East to little avail, and those campaigns continue today, with the meter running all the while.
So, to summarize our situation as it stands today in the good old USA: we still have two parties. Their differences of policy shift from time to time, seemingly based on very little. One party has gotten very good at winning elections, while its governance has proven less effective. The other party is better at governing, but can’t get into office. This is a recipe for infinite pandering to the single-issue voters I mentioned in the other posts on political parties.
And what shape does this pandering take, and over what issues? You already know the answers to those questions. The Republicans promise over and over to restrict abortion right out of existence, while the Democrats promise to protect a woman’s right to choose. The Republicans stand straight and tall against taxes, and promise to eliminate the estate tax, something that affects only those estates that amount to over 5.5 million dollars, or 11 million for a joint estate. Paris Hilton and the heirs of Sam Walton (the Wal-Mart empire) must get fluttering hearts at that. Democrats promise to ward off attempts to repeal the estate tax. Republicans shake their heads and make sad eyes while explaining that “we can’t maintain Social Security” beyond XYZ date, while Democrats promise to expand it. Republicans promise to “rebuild our military.” We already spend more on our military than do the next 15 highest-spending nations in the world combined. Republicans promise they will not let Democrats impose any name checks on gun sales. Republicans hint that the right to hate and discriminate is a “freedom of religion” issue.
Democrats talk of “programs” to aid the poor and the disadvantaged, while Republicans hint of vast armies of cheats roaming the country, collecting extravagant benefits that the rest of us pay for. Republicans campaign to “privatize” this or that because it’s “wasteful” to spend the public’s money on such things as prisons, totally ignoring the simple fact that, in the end, things like this are paid for by the populace at large, regardless of whether by tax levy or some other mechanism.
And what makes me most dyspeptic of all is that, over the last few elections, the Republicans have not even bothered to debate issues to any meaningful degree, preferring to attack the opponent personally, either directly, indirectly, or through docile media that will spread any charges they care to make. Don’t believe me? Remember the Clinton years? Bill Clinton was not at all my favorite president, but the trumped-up “scandals” such as Whitewater? Vince Foster conspiracy theories? John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate, was suddenly “exposed” as a “fraud” in regard to his war record. The Swift Boat Veterans sprung into existence, and then into action, to claim that this decorated Viet Nam veteran had cheated his way into being honored, while his opponent’s wartime service as a sometime Texas Air National Guard pilot proved his valor and fitness. Have you heard of the Swift Boat Veterans since then?
The personal angle to such attacks reached an all-time low during the 2008 campaign and then went downhill from that, as many sleazy claims were made about Barack Obama, including the most insidious and laughably false one of all–that he was not a US citizen at all. Apparently some actually believed that one day in 1961, a false birth certificate was created in Hawaii, as well as a birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper in favor of a child actually born in Kenya, all in hopes that almost 50 years later, some shadowy interest capable of organizing such a widespread conspiracy would see its favored candidate ascend to the presidency. And thousands of otherwise lucid human beings actually grasped this straw in the hope that Obama would somehow be deposed. A small majority of Republican voters actually still believe he was and is a closet Muslim.
Which brings us to 2016, and hatchet jobs done on Hillary Clinton, another new low. Her opponent, who had been one of the loudest boosters of the “false Obama birth certificate” theory, decided that she was not eligible to be president, and led rallies in chants of “Lock her up!” Nobody could ever say why she should be locked up. I rush to add that, once again, HRC was not my favorite candidate either. This is not 1950’s Argentina, where when Juan Peron was no longer around, his wife (widow) suddenly became a candidate and then president. But to harass her so relentlessly with fabrications and half-truths to give millions who already think only Caucasian men should aspire to office an excuse to spread old conspiracy theories as a justification to vote only against her? This is not what a democratic system was supposed to be.
So there you have it. Differences between the parties. It ain’t pretty, is it?