Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Political Identifications in America

It's widely accepted in America that at social gatherings one should preferably avoid initiating any conversations about politics and religion. You might offend someone or make them angry! Better to talk about the weather, sports, what people are doing these days, or about people's children and grandchildren. Right? This admonition also generally applies to one's political affiliation or leanings.

It is therefore interesting to note that in this country, except for in North Dakota, one has to register to be eligible to vote, and in all states except these six - Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington - one is required to declare a political party affiliation. In some states the only choices are Democrat or Republican. In other states one has more choices, including Independent and "decline to state", among others.

We essentially have a two-party system in the U. S. dominated by Democrats and Republicans, and political scientists view it as inconceivable that any presidential administration would not be led by a Democrat or a Republican. However, almost everyone is very aware of the fact that blatant partisanship by many members of the Congress and the Obama Administration is hampering progress in solving many of our major problems. Our leading politicians are clearly not following the prudent advice of our first and one of the greatest of our presidents. In his farewell address given in 1796, George Washington noted that the first few sessions of the U. S. Congress were markedly nonpartisan, implicitly criticizing overt partisanship, and he warned against having political parties that he felt would jeopardize that pattern.

The Democratic Party was essentially founded by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700's, but didn't become known as that until Andrew Jackson became president in 1828. The Republican Party was first organized in 1854, growing out of a coalition of Whigs and what were called "Free Soil Democrats". The Whigs were one of the two major political parties (the Democratic Party being the other) from the early 1800's until 1856. They were anti-slavery, supported the supremacy of Congress over the Executive Branch, and economic protectionism. The Free Soil Democrats were against expansion of slavery into the western U. S. territories and free land for settlers in these areas. On the key issue at the time of slavery, the Democrats concluded at their convention in 1860 that each state had the right to prohibit or recognize slavery.

At the very historical presidential election in 1860, a prominent U. S. Senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the Northern Democratic Party, lost out to the renowned nominee of the Republican Party, who, though born in Kentucky, also lived in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Labels for political affiliations and leanings have greatly expanded in recent years, and it's getting more difficult to keep straight what each typically stand for. Conservatives are most often known as Republicans, but they might also be referred to as "on the right", "right-wingers", "Tea Partyists", and "Libertarians", among other names. Liberals are most often known as Democrats, but they are also referred to as "leftists", left-wingers", "progressives" and "socialists", among other names. However, both Republicans and Democrats can also view themselves as "Independents" and "Moderates", with many of their positions on major issues being close to the center of the political spectrum.

As is well known, Conservatives' most noteworthy political positions include beliefs in limited government, low taxes, limited government regulations, balanced budgets, free business markets, strong military, pro-life on the abortion issue, and limited controls on guns. Liberals' most noteworthy positions, on the other hand, include a larger role for government (especially the federal government), willingness to pay more in taxes for a higher level of social services, pro-environment, pro labor unions, greater gun control, and pro-choice on abortions.

At our most recent presidential and congressional election in 2008, 169 million or 71% of voting age Americans were registered to vote. Of these 50.8% registered as Democrats and 32.5% as Republicans. The actual voting participation rate was just 62.4% of the voting age citizens. Despite this 83.3% domination by Democrats and Republicans, at about the same time fully one-third of all voters reportedly considered themselves as Independent or unaffiliated and roughly 15% identified themselves as Libertarian, though some of these must have registered as Republican.

However, according to a June 2009 Gallup Poll, 40% of Americans interviewed in a national poll described their views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and only 21% as liberal, representing at the time a slight increase for conservatism since 2008. The 21% for liberals was apparently in line with what Gallup found in 2000. It would appear that many voters switched from Democrat or Liberal to Moderate or Independent between 2008 and 2009, likely due to concern with the financial crisis and some of President Obama's policy initiatives. With respect to the upcoming mid-term elections, the keys for party success will likely again include the size of the turnout as well as how Moderates and Independents vote. It looks like the Republicans and Conservatives have reasons to be optimistic, but a lot can still happen between now and November to affect the outlook.

My conclusions from all this?

1. We need to find ways to motivate a greater percentage of American citizens to vote regularly and get informed on major issues and candidates. This might include simplifying or eliminating registration requirements. Another important step would be our federal and state governments earning higher approval ratings from the public as evidenced by credible opinion polls, in order to minimize the significant public apathy and cynicism towards government and our politicians that currently exists.

2. We need to put more pressure on our elected representatives, and request support from the media, to minimize the present high level of blatant partisanship we are experiencing in our government which is hindering effective governance, fair and balanced solutions to major problems, and appropriate and productive use of taxpayer dollars.

3. We need to get approval in Congress for major campaign finance reform that will reduce the importance of money in campaigns, lessen the influence of special interests and well-heeled individuals and organizations, and allow candidates to spend less time on fundraising and more time meeting voters and explaining what they stand for and why they should be elected. With enactment of this type of reform, there is a high probability that we will see better candidates run for office. This is close to a no-brainer, despite constitutional hurdles!

4. Following the lead of George Washington back in 1796, we should work towards reducing the role and power of our political parties and voters should be encouraged to be less ideological and more pragmatic in making voting decisions. It would also be a positive development if voters could be encouraged to really think about why they are liberal, conservative or independent and prioritize what candidate elections and issues are most important to them and best for the country as a whole.

I am not so naive as to think all this will happen, certainly not in the next few years. However, I do think these needs and changes would lead to a better government and a better America with a more engaged and content population.


wondarwie said...

Folks need to start taking a long look at why they are left or right, instead of blindly following their party platforms. If not, partisan politics may abort any hope for a better America.

Probably our best chance of moving forward is to put political ideology second and issues and candidates first. We need to stop looking at issues from the left or right and start looking at them from the center. After all, in our democracy issues are seldom clearly skewed either left or right. Instead, they are often distorted to appear that way, by slanted visions and delusory information, making a political decision all but impossible.

Maybe the "centering" of American voters will evolve like it did with me. As a young Democrat, I sorely wanted to support working people and bring some level of fairness to the economic table. That feeling never waned, but the idea that only the left felt that way began to weaken as I experienced more and more of the world. Finally, with the worldwide failure of collectivism in the late 20th century, I began to see the left as a backward step. I did see the importance of interdependence between human beings, but I had doubts that an individual's self-fulfillment could be realized through only the success of his community.

Having read Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Mao Tse-Tung in my 20s, I clearly saw their utopian vision and it lit a fire in me. Yet as I aged I began to understand that all human beings are both very much alone and part of a collective consciousness. It is this duality that lead me to accept more and more the value of individualism, which is a right-wing principle. It was the inevitable rise of individualism that caused the Soviet Union to fail and which provoked a move toward allowing capitalism in China. This recognition moved me to swing right, away from the collectivism ideals of the left.

During this swing right, I became cognizant of how it uses Christianity and Judaism as a massive political weapon. Common sense says that faith in a religion has nothing to do with governing a nation. This provoked an interest in secularism, which is a left tenet, swinging me back toward the left.

It was then that I was struck by an awful and soul wrenching truth, that the majority of people in our democracy are simply a flock of sheep. We have a country filled with insouciant and mentally lazy people who need strong political leadership. This is a fundamental belief of the right. This moved me back toward the center and that is where I remain.

It is only my spirit of hope, really, that keeps me politically active. In my heart of hearts, I still want to bring some level of fairness to the economic table, but I want it based on a person's mettle and work ethic. In my perfect political system, we will recognize our interdependence with others and also treasure the value of individualism. I suppose I want the best of both the left and right. Shouldn't everyone?

wondarwie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
d.eris said...

"We need to find ways to motivate a greater percentage of American citizens to vote regularly and get informed on major issues and candidates."

So long as people believe Democrats and Republicans are their only choices and that a vote for anyone else is a "wasted vote", I would be surprised if voter turnout consistently improved in any significant way. Why vote when your only choice is between one ruling class crook or another ruling class crook.

Viking Views said...

I agree with most of Wondarwie's points and the first part of d. eris' comments. Less ideology and more pragmatism is needed by both the voters and our politicians. The "centering" of a great many more American voters would be a good thing.