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Note: This column will be providing insights towards an understanding of American politics and the American political system. It is a good faith effort to share knowledge derived from teaching and research. The recent presidential elections in the USA beg such an examination. What are the guiding principles of the democratic and republican parties? Are there such major ideological and policy differences between the two that it really matters which one is in government? These are some of the issues to be explored.
The year 2000 has been a season of elections in North America and the Caribbean. They were of special interest to people in the latter region because of superpower geopolitics and, in particular cases, common strains in culture and population profiles. However, during the mostly peaceful season of polling, the central binding commonality between the two regions was and remains special challenges of democracy and democratic governance.
Part I of an Occasional Series
In the Caribbean, elections in Haiti were marred by the usual violence and the results are once again questionable with strong allegations of fraud. Democratic challenges were not met. Trinidad and Tobago overcame some tensions after the election result showed the ruling United National Congress (UNC) and the main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) being separated by only three seats. Admirably, the political system was able to deal with the challenges by application of the rule of law. This was important because although the twin-island republic has strong democratic moorings, there is also the matter of two coup attempts that are part of its history.
High interest in Trinidadian politics concerned, in part, similarities with Guyana where general elections have been rescheduled for March 19, 2000. Both countries have populations of East Indians and blacks in numbers that are not too dissimilar and the politics of race is a factor. Both have had challenges to democracy and democratic government. Trinidad has managed to overcome its problems time and again and now has perhaps the most booming economy in the region. Guyana, meanwhile, has not overcome its persistent problem with issues of electoral process to make democracy and democratic government work. Moreover, its economy cannot be called strong. It remains to be seen whether the country will rise to the challenge of peaceful elections this time around.
In all three states of North America – Canada, Mexico and the United States – citizens went to the polls with Canada having the most normal, tranquil experience. Amplified, there were no major glitches that challenged democracy or democratic governance. This sustenance of tradition was aided by the fact that transition to a new government was not necessary. But, even if it were, the process would have gone smoothly. There is no reason to believe otherwise.
Mexico had what really amounted to a political revolution of sorts with the ouster of the venerated Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) which had never lost a national election since it was founded in 1929. The PRI was defeated by the National Action Party (PAN) which was founded in 1939 and was able finally to transform its ultra-conservative image to a more populous one. The PRI’s longevity had, of course, been marred by allegations of fraud over many decades. Even with the triumph of the PAN, it would be a mistake to believe that the test of democracy and challenges to democratic governance are over. Significant problems of poverty that have been inherited and other related ones that continue to arise unpredictably lie ahead. The truth be told, most analysts do not label Mexico a democracy even though it has formal structures, institutions and some behaviour codes that fulfill aspects of the required tenets. More commonly, it has been categorized as a corporatist state involving choreographed elite pluralism.
It was the superpower United States, however, recognized as the embodiment of democratic excellence, which had the most controversial elections for the presidency of the country. I have argued that the final result marked the triumph of democracy even though questions linger about fragilities in the political system (see Chronicle, December 18, 2000). What everyone saw was the imperfection or limits and appeal of democracy, its necessity and that the rule of law has a deeper meaning involving the spirit of the law. The latter is often a difficult concept, the understanding of which is enhanced by a reining in of pre-set mental baggage that reflect the biases of superficiality.
Now, one can approach analyzing American politics and the American political system from several angles of vision most of which are helpful. The trick is that some are more useful than others in capturing the all-important ambivalent nexus between theory and practice. For example, it is valuable to focus on what leaders do. A concern with class reticulations and spread is likewise useful. However, the most useful approach that appears to hold up over time is to view the American political system and the politics it plays out like the interconnected parts of the human body. Separately, the parts do not work but, put together, they do. When there is an ailment in some part of the body, the discomfort is felt. Similarly, when there is discomfort in the political system, dysfunctions become apparent. Understanding how the parts interconnect in the political system provides useful insight into American politics and the system.
When Bill Clinton campaigned for the US presidency in 1992 on a highly appealing slogan that promised to “invest and grow” the US economy, President George H. Bush was his republican rival. Bush charged that the democrats under the so-called new Clinton leadership banner were “tax and spend” liberals. Clinton won. He went on to keep his promise to the American people by innovations that produced the wealthiest economy in American history. The cleverness of campaign nuances is apparent.
Part II (revised) of an Occasional Series
Note: We resume the occasional series, "Towards an Understanding of American Politics: The Practice and Challenges of Democracy." Part I was published on December 31, 2000. Part II was published on January 6, 2001. The latter has been revised to restart the series. The series will provide insights towards an understanding of American politics and the American political system. It is a good faith effort to share knowledge derived from teaching and research. The November 2000 elections in the USA beg such an examination. What are the guiding principles of the democratic and republican parties? Are there such major ideological and policy differences between the two that it really matters which one is in government? These are some of the issues to be explored.
Start of Part II (revised)
When he was campaigning for the US presidency as the nominee of the Democratic Party in 1992, Bill Clinton defined his economic policy as one which would "invest in and grow" the American economy. Then President George H. Bush scoffed and termed it no different from the old "tax and spend" liberalism of the democrats that had spawned huge bureaucracies to oversee gigantic federal entitlement spending programs. This had precipitated economic stagnation since there were just too many entitlements that ate up the budget, killed entrepreneurship and handcuffed business expansion. As a result, the traditional large middle class was disappearing as more people sunk into poverty when many top businesses "downsized." Nevertheless, Clinton defeated Bush at the polls convincingly and, during his two terms of stewardship, the economy boomed.
Meanwhile, Clinton and democrats had blamed Bush and the republicans (especially Ronald Reagan) for causing the economic crisis by "trickle down economics." This was a policy of huge tax breaks for the wealthiest businesses because it was thought that they would use the money saved to re-invest in the USA and create more jobs. They did not. Instead, businesses expanded overseas investments to reap even more huge profits from the abundance of cheap Third World labour. And that is how, charged the democrats, a perilous shrinkage of the middle class emerged.
But was Bush way off the mark about Clinton's strategy being "tax and spend" simply dressed up in new clothes of "invest and grow?" Consider these points. How does the US government get money to "invest" in the economy? The answer is taxes. And how can the US government "grow" the economy? The answer is by spending. Thus it was that, theoretically, Bush's "tax and spend" charge was correct. His defeat in the election is more explainable by the sometimes aggressive and always subtle role of elastic political ideology which bends, stretches and manipulates one way and then another in a fierce search for appeal to loyalty for either the democratic or republican political parties.
Elasticity is necessary for people to feel comfortable under the wide umbrellas of either main political party in a nation of over two hundred and eighty million citizens. I shall provide ideological specifics later as well as inform about growing dominance of centrism as well as marginal ideologies that lie outside the mainstream. Suffice it to say for now that a paradoxical duality of difference and sameness informs both the democratic and republican parties, and that is why in presidential elections, as the polling date draws closer, both parties tend to sound alike as they move more to the center of the political spectrum and, in the process, spark charges that there are really no significant differences between them.
Apart from all sorts of controversy that the November 200 elections produced, this lament of there being no real difference between the tow main political parties held steady and was readily apparent in the near dead heat results. The dead heat meant that both George W. Bush and Al Gore had successfully appealed equally to centrists and had been equally persuasive in their use of ideological emphases. It also meant that in key areas of policy that ranked high for most Americans, e.g., Medicare insurance for senior citizens and saving the federal government's Social Security retirement plan from bankruptcy, people had perceived the ideas of both candidates as equally merited. But despite this traditional closing of the ideological gap, the parties are different. Democrats are generally referred to as liberals and republicans are usually called conservatives.
There are, in fact, some substantial arguments to the charges of lack of major differences - especially with the primacy of Clintonesque politics during the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. And we shall explore this theme later. However, it is still possible to outline fairly accurately some traditional core ways in which the political ideology and policy emphases of democrats differ from those of their republican rivals.
First, let us outline the approach to deriving insights about differences between the two main parties and then examine the political ideology of the Democratic Party and then the Republican Party. According to Professor Leonard Freedman of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), who has authored several books on American politics and under whom I served as a teaching fellow, the major differences between the democrats and republicans can be found by examining three core issues. These concern VALUES, POWER, and CHANGE. Under values, we ask the question: what should be the guiding principles of human behavior? Under power, the question is: who has power today in America? And under change, it is: how much change is needed in America, in what directions and by what means? For the purposes of this series, we shall limit our analysis to the issue of values just so the effort to detail differences is kept manageable.
There are several major values that comprise the ideologically molded energy of capitalist democratic America. Of these, two pivotal ones are EQUALITY and LIBERTY. The vast majority of citizens believe in them and so they constitute the guiding principles of citizen behaviour. Thus, exploring these two would significantly facilitate our search for differences between democrats and republicans or liberals and conservatives.
By "equality" is meant more egalitarianism so to speak in income, possessions, status and power. Traditionally, this is maintained by the construction and maintenance of a very large middle class with the wealthy and poverty classes remaining small. And this is why there is always serious concern - as the elections of 1992 - when the middle class begins to shrink by slippage into poverty and by the already wealthy expanding their substantial share of the economic pie.
"Liberty," however, has two aspects as a value. There is ECONOMIC liberty and then there is CIVIL liberty. Economic liberty holds that individuals have the freedom to accumulate wealth and do what they want with their money and property without undue government interference. Civil liberty, however, emphasizes protection of individual freedom of expression and personal behaviour - never mind how outrageous a case might be; so long as in exercising that civil liberty an individual does not infringe unbearably on the rights of others
Of note, several thinkers who influenced American ideology, including John Stuart Mill, have extensively elaborated upon this value. Remarkably, modern dictators have also seized upon it to severely limit individual freedoms of citizens by imposing very narrow boundaries around the concept of "infringing unbearably on the rights of others." Put another way, the latter phrase has been used to justify government intervention to limit individual and group free expressions and to curb behaviours in the so-called not always apparent "national" or "community" interest.
How do democrats deal with the value of equality? They contend that a just society, as America strives continuously to be, cannot tolerate serious disparities between rich and poor. Granted, some differences are inevitable based on talent, adaptability, luck, etc., but prevailing (and some say expanding) gaps among people in income, wealth and status are too wide in the world's most advanced nation state. With the passing of the Clinton era, they say, the widening of the gap is beginning again as evidenced by the large number of middle class jobs being cut by big companies. This means that the poor will once again receive a rather low priority and enjoy low status. Thus, a major redistribution of privileges must be undertaken to help those left behind - especially minorities. Key economic decisions cannot simply be left to big business and the wealthy few. Government has to play a leading role.
concede that heavy intervention in the economy in search of equality does
contract aspects of economic liberty. However, they argue that there really
is no alternative unless people want liberty to be the exclusive preserve
of the wealthy. Moreover, say the democrats, liberty is not only economic
liberty, as republicans tend to emphasize. There is also civil liberty, as
earlier mentioned, which in sum means that people are free to do or say anything
so long as their pursuits do not interfere unreasonably with the liberty of
others. On civil liberty, democrats or liberals want less government intervention,
while republicans or conservatives (as we shall see) demand more of it to
"save" American society from "rampant" immorality.
September 8th. 2001
Part III of an Occasional Series, "Towards an Understanding of American Politics: The Practice and Challenges of Democracy."
Main points from last week: a paradoxical duality of difference and sameness informs both the democratic and republican parties. Ideological elasticity in both camps, complementary to capitalist democracy, provides space for most Americans under the wide umbrellas of either liberals or conservatives as democrats and republicans are labeled respectively. Except for the hardcore, people switch allegiances from time to time. But for either main party to win at the national level, a large body of independents (centrists) has to be won over by one or the other. Differences between the parties are found in their attitudes to values, power and change. Values refer to the dominant guiding principles of human behaviour. Two key ones are equality and liberty with the latter connoting economic and civil liberty. Democrats charge that there is too much inequality in the USA due to big business monopoly and middle class shrinkage. Solution requires government intervention in the economy and more attention to civil liberty.
Start of Part III
Republicans reject the strong faith democrats exude in their take on the value of equality. For conservatives, people are basically unequal from birth. Individuals have different skills, aptitudes and abilities. These differences should not trigger complaints and futile searches for some type of idealistic, leveling down version of equality. That reminds too much of communism! Instead, the differences should be acknowledged, respected and cherished, and their diversities encouraged. The reality of differences should spawn intense efforts to fine-tune the political system and society to always positively maximize the benefits of these differences. State and society should function in ways that seek excellence of the collectivity through full use of people's individually different virtues.
The republicans or conservatives remind frequently that the Founding Fathers of America, in framing the country's constitution, had been wedded to a vision of the best society being one that was always being fine-tuned through devices that encouraged and rewarded virtues of effort, motivation and ambition. The major key device the Founding Fathers had identified was competition. That is why the socio-political system must remain organized institutionally and socially to reward according to merit those people who compete successfully to produce gains for themselves and the society in mutually reinforcing, satisfactory ways.
The republicans find that America has demonstrated over time that capitalism is the system that best accommodates these arrangements. It is based on individual effort, enterprise, thrift, competition and rewards for effective performance. For all its imperfections, it remains the best system that the world has produced and which world the USA leads. Any doubts about this were put to rest with the spectacular collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, and the ongoing slow but sure demise of holdout socialist states. Republicans point to one indisputable benefit of capitalism that highlights its superiority to communism - facilitation of the production of wealth in levels of abundance that no other system can match.
Besides, say the conservatives, the abundant wealth that America produces is not limited to the few who comprise the wealthy class, because, in the USA, the great majority of people enjoy a high and rising standard of living. If anyone needs convincing about this claim, one only has to look at the growing problem of illegal immigration where millions of the world's poor and powerless risk their lives in devising various dangerous means by which to enter the USA in search of freedom and, most importantly, a better standard of living.
How then should inequalities be handled? Largely, by charity, say republicans. This explains former President George H. Bush's "a thousand points of light" program of volunteerism and now the controversial initiative of President George W. Bush (his son) for a program of assistance to the poor through limited federal funding of religious organizations. Interestingly, the proposal has the support of a not insignificant number of democrats. That is because it acknowledges that private charity is insufficient while it still holds loyal to the ideological position of skepticism about government giveaway programs. To be clear, then, the republican argument on the matter of equality where the poor are concerned holds that a poverty class is an ever-present phenomenon in all human societies and cannot be eradicated. Thus it would be folly for government programs to attempt a utopian solution. Government will help the poor such as the disabled and unmotivated people but the bulk of any assistance must come from private quarters through charity.
The taking of this position by conservatives on this issue, along with others such as affirmative action, has led to harsh charges that the Republican Party is racist. In part, this is because a disproportionate number of minorities comprise the poor and they are the people most negatively affected by inadequate national policies of "charity to ameliorate" rather than solve poverty whenever republicans dominate national government.
Democrats tend to blast republicans on this approach to governance on many grounds including the charge that it assures the permanency and growth of a poverty class. The conception, they say, does not take into account the fact that some people are poor through no fault of their own but rather to systemic circumstances such as job losses in the economy. If republicans were sincere about wanting to help the poor, wonder democrats, then why do they routinely oppose the raising of the minimum wage for the poorest workers whenever the issue comes up for approval in the Congress?
The republicans say the answer is quite simple once one examines the solution offered by democrats, i.e., intervention in the economy. Attempts to always have government interfere in the national economy in the name of the value of equality is foolish, they say, because differences in wealth and status cannot be extinguished without ruthless and massive use of power as used to happen in communist states. Even so, those efforts only produced a new privileged class of bureaucrats rather than an equalizing of classes as was the promise and mission. It is simply contrary to nature to attempt such a mission.
Another argument that conservatives advance is that government interference in the economy compromises capitalism and undermines economic liberty which is the right of the individual (or big business) to acquire and use wealth and property without hindrance from government. They remind that capitalism is inseparable from liberty because the system dispenses decision-making among large numbers of individuals and does not concentrate it in government.
There is, however, a role for government intervention in the economy, say the republicans. Government must serve as a referee to ensure the rules of the game are followed by the players - individuals all - on the playing field of the marketplace. However, the players must be allowed the freedom to perform to the best of their ability.
This means that economic individualism and property rights must be unencumbered in the game of capitalism.
The republicans are very clear in their attitude to civil liberty. They support more governmental intervention than liberals do - aggressively so. They argue that freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are viable only in the context of order and stability in society. The latter are preserved by respect for tradition, patriotism, religion and family. These variables are undermined by displacement of traditional ideas, e.g., books like Daddy's Roommate that tell school children that homosexuality is okay and represents a new kind of emerging family along with single parent households and, increasingly, kids born out of wedlock. Loose interpretations of civil liberty facilitate the spread of pornography and sexual permissiveness as well as increases in violent crime. Laws must be strict and stringently enforced to preserve civil liberties despite repeated pushing of the envelope by Hollywood.
So sayeth the republicans on the values of equality and liberty.
is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant
who resides in the USA.
Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.