Political Life in America

September 4, 2008

In November of this year the United States will have a major election for president. Massive political campaigns are raging within this country to decide who will be the next president and which party will hold the reigns of power for the next four years. During the last two weeks I have watched both the Republican and the Democratic conventions as they each chose their representative candidate to be president. I have many thoughts running through my head as a result, but the one that comes most to my mind, which both fascinates and troubles me, is: What exactly is America? In spite of being here for years I am still trying to understand what this country truly is, so watching these conventions churns my political juices and raises this question. Coming from Canada, in many ways, I am still searching for my political identity. Am I a Republican, a Democrat, or something else? There are aspects of all parties that attract me and at this point, having watched both conventions, I am most comfortable with the Democrats. However, the America that I saw reflected through the Republican convention is an America that I find both mysterious and enticing and, yet ominous and frightening. Who are these people? Why all the cowboy hats, why all the reference to religion and family, and why the country music?

Anna, as you may be aware, there are two main political parties in this land, the Republicans and the Democrats, and in theory, at least, they represent different political philosophies. Often times you hear the terms, the political right and the political left. The Republican are on the right and the Democrats are on the left and in general you will also hear that capitalism is to the extreme right of the political spectrum and communism is to the extreme left and socialism is in the center. What these terms, capitalism, communism and socialism, and right and left, actually mean is the subject of political philosophy, which is something beyond what I want to discuss here.

In theory the Republican party embodies the essence of capitalism. The Democrats, although they are said to be towards the left in no way even begin to approach the true left, which is communism. In fact, the Democrats of this country hardly even approach the socialism of most Western European countries. American political life only exists to the far right of the true political spectrum.

In theory the Republicans stand for less government and more emphasis on individual enterprise. The role of government is to create a favorable environment for individual enterprise and then government should step out of the way. It is a “sink or swim” approach to life. If you are strong and intelligent you can create vast wealth through hard work and ingenuity. If you are weak and lack intelligence you will sink down on the social and economic order. Everyone finds their rightful place in the social and economic hierarchy. If you are on top it is due to your own efforts and if you are on the bottom that too is the result of your own efforts or lack thereof. It is a survival of the fittest approach to social and economic life. This, at least, is the theory. What goes on in practice is something much different.

The Democratic approach is still along these lines, but with the added difference that a certain amount of equalization needs to take place in order to balance or level out society and thereby make things more softened or “equal” for those on the lower end of the social and economic scale. It is the role for government to take a little off the top and middle in order to raise up the bottom and thus level out society, just a little. Countries like Canada and Australia, compared to the American model, take a more socialist’s approach, and use government to level out society even more than the United States. Many Western European countries, such as Britain, France and Germany employ this leveling function of government still more by attempting to eliminate the very top and bottom of the social economic scale and force everything towards the middle. The result of the leveling function of government is the creation of all kinds of social support systems, sometimes called “social nets,” which include varieties of governmental programs such as health care, unemployment insurance, subsidized education, social security, food stamps, welfare, and so on. This leveling process of government taken to the extreme, where government takes almost total control of the social and economic life of the country and disallows even private ownership of land and businesses and other areas of life that could be used by individuals to produce private wealth, is called communism. Countries like the former Soviet Union and current day Cuba follow this path. Today China is an example of a society that is communistic, but at the same time is trying to blend in a certain amount of capitalism.

As I had mentioned at the beginning we are in an election season and so I have been watching the American political process in action. Politics is very much like watching sports and although I have no desire to watch sports I do pay keen attention to politics. So how this theory works out in practice is quite interesting and even mysterious to me.

What a difference in the speeches of the Clintons, Biden and Obama at the Democratic convention compared to what I heard at the Republican convention from Giuliani, Palin and McCain! Listening to the former president, Bill Clinton speak was like listening to a breath of fresh air, not because what he had to say was so special, after all he was speaking at a political rally and he is a politician, but simply because his speech contained intellectual content, something I have never heard in speeches from our current president President, W. Bush, who is a republican. A few days later I heard Obama’s acceptance speech and again, I heard intellectual content. In fact it was a first class speech and an historic event, given that it was from the first black leader of a major political party and a man who may become president. I honestly did not hear a lot of intellectual content at the Republican convention. The Democratic ticket presented speeches that seemed fashioned in Harvard and Oxford. They were professional and polished whereas the Republican’s seemed to be made in the heartland of America. They were speeches of the people full of emotion and calls for patriotism. The young women, the governor of Alska, Sarah Palin, spoke with a fire in her belly and a twinkle in her eye. She is mother bear and she is going to be a real problem for the democrats. Gulinani spoke with the swagger of a New York talk radio host and McCain took a “touchy feelly” approach, reminiscing about his war record and patriotism. They were all emotional speeches and they lacked intellectual content. The Republicans presented themselves as the face of America’s heartland full of Christian values, rustic small town entrepreneurs and traditional values. By Contrast Democrats came across as urban, polished, upbeat and intellectual. Instead of country music the Democratic convention ended with the music of Bruce Springsteen, a rock singer.

As I witnessed these conventions I wondered how any of what I saw relates to the political theory held by each party. The Republicans are supposed to be the party of less government, and yet during Republican administrations we hardly see less government spending or the down sizing of government. In fact the greatest down sizing of a government social welfare programs took place under the Democrats with Bill Clinton about a decade ago. In fact these days the Republican party seems to be more of a religious party than a political entity. Evangelical Christianity appears to have “high jacked” the Republicans, and yet I remember when the Democrats were the party of the so called Christian right under Jimmy Charter. The truth is there is very little relationship between political philosophy and political practice and all of the cultural oddities that I saw at the conventions, country music verses rock music, rural versus urban, heartland versus “harvard land” have more to do with the ethnic idiosyncrasies of America than political philosophy.

About a month ago there was a television program that featured both McCain and Obama, the respective Republican and Democratic candidates, being interviewed at an evangelical Christian church in Orange County, not far from where I live. It was a revealing presentation because each candidate was asked the same questions from the same host, but supposedly neither could hear the answers of the other. Obama’s answers were good, they showed that he was thoughtful and thinking, very much in line with the intellectualized “Harvard” speech I heard at the convention, but there was a slight delay in some of his responses. He had to consider each answer carefully before he spoke. McCain’s answers were direct and immediate. He did not need any time to consider his reply. On the issue of abortion, for example, when he was asked when life began, McCain immediately answered, “at the moment of conception.” Obama’s response was drawn out: Well, from a scientific perspective…., and then again, from a theological perspective… . McCain clearly won the night. He had the answers quick and direct. My vote, however, goes to Obama because these are difficult issues and there are no easy answers. McCain was responding from a fixed ideological perspective steeped in evangelical Christianity. The Republicans have a set philosophical and theological perspective. They are ideologically driven and their answers can be derived from this perspective regardless of how complex the issue is. It seems like the Democrats approach their platform less from an ideological perspective and more by taking each issue as it comes and responding accordingly. This was reflected in Obama’s responses. He wanted to reflect on each question. Not good television, but certainly what is needed in dealing with complicated issues. So my conclusion is simple: I want a thinking person at the head of my country. I do not want a cowboy, or a talk radio host, or an emotional ideologue making the important decisions that affect my life. Life is not black and white and I want a person and a party that is willing to consider the shades of grey that life presents before important decisions are made.

But even more that all of this: if this country was doing better after 8 years of Republican rule than it was before republican rule, if the economy was booming, if the dollar was strong, if we were not fighting a war, if there was descent health care and education available to all, if our reputation abroad was good, then these differences between Republicans and Democrats, heartland or city, old boys or Harvard boys would not make a difference. I would vote for the status quo. I would vote republican. But the country is not doing better after eight years of republican rule. Governance by ideology does not work and neither does voting by ideology. Politically I am practical, as are most people.

John McCain was supposed to be the Republican nominee and yet we heard more about an obscure female nominee for vice president, who came out of nowhere, than McCain himself. Apparently the Christian evangelicals in this country, who form much of the Republican base, did not favor McCain; he was not Christian enough, so he had to choose an evangelical Christian, Sarah Palin, as his vice president running mate. You could not believe the buildup to her nomination. At first I failed to see why her family had to be paraded before the American public, including shots of her relatives at a sports bar in Anchorage Alaska. What did this have to do with the job of being vice president? The answer, of course, is that the Republicans had to show Christian family values as part of their platform, including her fifth child with Down Syndrome that she chose not to abort during her pregnancy. But that a virtual ‘nobody,’ a person with no long experience in high political office or foreign affairs, could be nominated to become Vice President and then potentially become President of the whole country for strictly ideological reasons, absolutely astounds me! Again, I am intrigued by this and yet I fear this. Only in America can a person rise from the most obscure levels of society to become president! Much more than the democrats, the republican party embodies an America that I just do not understand. Even the country music that was played at the end of the convention seemed foreign and out of place to me. Why all the “country” imagery? The convention that I saw struck me as a “cowboy’s” convention. It even had a streak of “red neck” flavor reflected in the speech of Palin when she asked, “What is the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom? Lip stick”! Or as it was most succinctly put by one congresswoman speaker, “We are the party of the God fearing, gun “toten”, Bible thumping, flag waving, red blooded Americans of this country.” I could not say it any better myself.

Image taken from: http://www.nowpublic.com/world/democrat-vs-republican


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