Politics is a messy matter, and during a presidential election year it naturally becomes toxic. Each side wants temporal political power because – yes – they both believe they know how to fix a problem that we all recognize but nobody has been able to solve. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and independents are, for the most part, people of good faith. Most Americans love their country, want a better world for their children, and a place where we can be free from violence, oppression and tyranny to live our lives in peace. We look at the world around us, going from tyranny to chaos and back to tyranny, and we recognize just how important this is.
What, then, are we all fighting about? We are fighting about how we see our challenges and how we approach solving them. All Americans see the poverty on our streets and we suffer. We see broken families, homelessness, lack of opportunity and hunger and we sorrow. I would conjecture that very few Americans enjoy the misery of others; and even fewer actively seek to perpetuate it. The majority of us do what we can, reaching often from our own poverty to help others in need (American charity and volunteerism is the largest in the world by far – both in real terms and proportionally). This is (among other things) why America is exceptional.
The problem, I would suggest, is of worldview.
Democrats of good faith see poverty and exclusion as a structural/institutional problem, requiring institutions to solve it. They point to bad schools in inner-city areas; income inequality; higher rates of minorities incarcerated; and use this to make the case that the deck is stacked against them. Most Democrats of good faith won’t say that the rich revel in the poverty of others; but they do say they are somewhat responsible. The reason for this is they see wealth and wellbeing as a zero sum issue (sometimes called a limited good world view); so for them it’s natural that the rich would game the system to “scrape off” more for themselves at the expense of the weakest which are always the poor. This is where the strange “class warfare” arguments are coming from. The solution, Democrats of good faith believe, is “rebalancing” the system to assure a more equitable distribution of the national wealth. In order to do this, government must act through regulations and taxes on the one hand and with institutions/bureaucracies on the other. The Democrats rightly identify that a society with such extremes is inherently unstable; and believe that the government should step in to help reduce those extremes. In doing this, they demonstrate their vision of government; as a benevolent force meant to supervise our diverse society.
Republicans of course see the same problems (hunger, poverty, etc.). Republicans however don’t see the problems as structural but as personal, requiring a personal solution. They believe that the response to individual poverty and inequality must be found individually; that there is no easy blanket, top-down panacea to help poor individuals and families become whole and prosperous. Republicans believe that this will only come from the power of voluntary, individual contact which humanizes people. Guiding this vision, Republicans do not see a limit to national wealth; making wellbeing not an issue of distribution but of individual opportunity married to productivity; issues which blanket lowest-common-denominator programs cannot solve. Republicans see this best provided through localized groups such as charities, foundations and small businesses. The problem isn’t about money but prosperity and productivity, wellbeing and opportunity, the idea goes; it’s therefore not going to be solved by handing out other people’s cash. Cash in itself is not equal to wealth; wealth is in point of fact about prosperity (measured by everything from educaton to housing to vacations to opportunities). Large bureaucracies, through cash handouts, de-humanize and in the end subjugate, while individual charities build relationships, confidence, and opportunity in an upward spiral. Republicans do not believe that national instability comes from having a large wealthy class – as long as there is also a large middle class and plenty of opportunity to go around. Contrarily, honest wealth is something to be aspired to and celebrated because it provides people the added income to give back, creating more opportunity for others. Finally, Republicans do not generally see government as benevolent. They point to the coercive nature of government – their legitimate use of the gun – to explain why they should not be involved in compassionate human interaction. Government is not meant as an entity charged with our supervision but a body vested with coercive power in order to keep us safe from foreign threats and each other. Republicans point to waste, abuse of power, lack of transparency or accountability and authoritarian practices (at home and abroad) to demonstrate why government should never be trusted too much.
The problem, as can be easily identified, is that these are mutually exclusive visions that naturally evoke conflict. The other problem, of course, is that they are presented in their extremes. Of course the Democrats do not want to destroy the wealthy; many of them are wealthy. Of course the Republicans do not want to abandon the poor; many Republicans are poor or were once poor. The problem is an issue of balance. We have always been a state run by and for the entrepreneurs and those most productive that still has a social safety net so the destitute do not fall through the cracks in the richest country that has ever existed.
Of course, the founding fathers understood this; and they wrote the solution into the constitution. The 10th Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” It should be the states, closer to the challenges and more attuned to the problems, which should address them according to their own constitutions and charters. The role of the Federal government, as seen by the forefathers, should be to arbitrate conflicts and provide for the common defense. Occasionally a state will violate the social contract set in our Bill of Rights (think of segregation in the South); in which case the Federal government can and should move in temporarily to sort out the issue (as it did). If a state over-reaches, the Federal government can step in. To whom do we turn if the Federal government over-reaches?
If states are left to decide their own balance to the conflict above, America will be the winner. States will compete against each other; and people (and companies) will “vote with their feet” based upon their beliefs, concerns and interests. Ideas can be tried at the state level with relative ease, jettisoned if they don’t work or adopted by other states if they are successful, and on we go. In this way, both visions of the United States can co-exist within the national geography without leading to conflict; and the results of the approach to creating prosperity and mitigating misery will be demonstrated on a state-by-state basis while the United States government continues to work for all the people.
Joel D. Hirst is a political analyst, Principal at Cordoba Group International and is the author of “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”.