Friday, November 29, 2013

Why I Am a Republican

After some recent engagements online, I thought it would be useful to clarify my political affiliation. This seems urgently needed since the question of party identity in the United States seems completely obscured by slogans, myth, and perceptions of branding designed by the spin-doctors of professional campaign managers and public relation mercenaries.

 Before I get into why I am a Republican, let me give you the problem I have with the Republican party. It's perhaps best illustrated by an oft-stated axiom by my cultural hero, Dennis Prager: "There are two parties in the Untied States--the destructive party, and the stupid party. I belong to the stupid party." I'm not a Republican because I think they're brilliant. They're not, they are indeed, stupid--at least in one very import aspect: messaging. I am often appalled and discouraged by how incompetent the Republican party is at defining itself and the principles upon which it is based, to the electorate, and more importantly, to the popular culture at large. There are many sagacious thinkers expert at defining and explaining conservative ideals, but the Republican leadership and political class seem immune to their instruction. It's disheartening to watch Republican politicians bumble their way through press conferences, sound-bites, and talk-show interviews; to see the disjointed, contradictory statements, the back-biting, the self-inflicted wounds, the complete ignorance of utilizing popular media.

 Conversely, the Democrat party is a grand master of messaging and media, from a remarkable discipline in message (a phrase or slogan, repeated verbatim by every single Democrat legislator, party official, commentator and apparatchik day after day in every single media appearance), to its complete command of iconography and image. Just look at a website, for instance, of two campaigning legislators, one Democrat, one Republican. It's a safe bet that the website of the Republican will look dull and amateurish in comparison to that of the Democrat. The Republican party just doesn't seem to understand the importance and power of popular media, image, and the arts.

 So, why am I a Republican? The short answer is because of the ideas and principles that define the party and its platform, and most importantly because those ideas and principles coincide with my faith, my worldview, and my own political/philosophical beliefs. Space does not allow me to address all the details--I think that would be book length--but let me hit the high points.

 Of greatest importance is the core defining difference between the two parties; as I see it, this is their divergent views on the role and scope of government. My thinking about this is heavily influenced by Thomas Sowell's masterpiece, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. In it Sowell describes two different visions of how the world works and of human nature itself--what in Christian philosophical terms is often called worldview (from the German philosophical term, weltanschauung)--which he names the constrained vision, and the unconstrained vision. The constrained vision --what he otherwise calls the classic or tragic view of human nature--he asserts is in essence the biblical view, that man is fallen and all his effort are therefore constrained by the limitations of his sinful nature; his condition may be ameliorated, but never perfected except by God in the next life. The unconstrained vision sees no limitations on the condition of man, believing that perfection and utopia are possible through human effort.

 The out-working of these contrary visions in the two parties are exemplified by their defining views on the role and scope of government: the Republican party believes in limited government, confined to those narrowly-defined tasks enumerated in the Constitution (establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty); the Democrat party believes in inexorably and infinitely expanding government, and with projects such as the New Deal, the Great Society, and most recently, the Affordable Care Act has massively magnified not only the size, but scope of government. Regarding this last point, this scope has not merely been enlarged in application, but in the very ideas that define government in much of popular culture. See, for instance, the Four Freedoms speech given by FDR on January 6, 1941 in which he enumerate two freedoms never mentioned in our founding documents--freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These philosophically departed from the Constitutional concept of government's role as being the securer of conditions under which its citizens might pursue their own happiness, to one in which the government should be the provider of that happiness. Or see the Politics of Meaning speech given by then First Lady Hillary Clinton at the University of Texas, in Austin on April 7, 1993 in which she said,
We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Here she defines politics (and by extension government) as an essential domain of realizing personal meaning and fulfillment, in effect advocating an encroachment of government into areas formerly inhabited only by religion, ethics, and philosophy. Or watch the online cartoon, The Life of Julia, produced by Barak Obama's campaign during the last election, in which the fictional Julia is cared for, from birth to death, by a Democrat party-controlled state (headed, of course, by President Barak Obama the compassionate), which serves at once as surrogate parent, spouse, and all around benefactor. 

Branching out from these core views are the individual policies informed by them. The Republican party, since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, has stood for a strong and even interventionist national defense with robust funding of our military and intelligence gathering capabilities. That this is an essential role of government--perhaps even the central role of federal government--as enumerated in the Constitution is, I believe, unassailable as it is implied in three of the six purposes of government listed in the preamble: insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. Where once the Democrat party shared this goal--the doctrine of Cold War containment of Communism and maintaining a military capability of fighting two major wars simultaneously in different parts of the earth started under Truman--it began to advocate a reduction in military budget, force, capability, and deployment in favor of redirecting revenues and human assets to social welfare programs and transfer payments. This began in earnest under the Reagan years with their relentless resistance to his military build-up, his deployment of midrange nuclear missiles in Europe, and his plans for the ICBM Strategic Defense Initiative, then solidified as party dogma in the Clinton administration. It has now intensified in both scope and degree in the Obama administration with its withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, its "leading from behind" in the action in Libya, its incomprehensible forfeiture of advantage in the recent negotiations with Iran, and the deep budget cuts weighted most heavily on the military in the sequester cuts.

 As the Democrat party has invested itself more deeply in the unconstrained vision it has made uniform its positions on social issues in which, in prior times, its members had held diverse views. This has had the effect of strictly polarizing these issues along party lines. None of these issues is more clearly polarized than that of abortion. One by one, Democrat legislators who had spent most of their political careers as "pro-life" (anti-abortion), some of whom had wielded great power within the party, "saw the light" and changed their position to "pro-choice" (pro-abortion on demand and in some cases funded by the state) such that this position now serves as a litmus test for any position in the party. I have an acquaintance who had for many years been an elected precinct committee person in a county Democrat party. Precinct committee person is the very bottom elected position one can hold. Yet he lost that seat because, as a serious practicing Catholic, he refused to capitulate on this issue. The newest polarized social issue is the definition of marriage. Apparently the unconstrained vision impels its adherents to advocate for the eradication of distinctions--such as male and female--that have guided human civilization from its beginnings. This overturning of social and moral conventions driven by the unconstrained vision has seemingly engendered an antipathy to the source of that morality: biblical ethical truth. In the last presidential election at the Democrat convention when the committees were convening to write the platform, one leader saw that no mention of God had yet been included, and proposed an inclusion of some such statement as had always been made in the platform. This suggestion was roundly booed by the delegates. The boos were ignored by the leadership and the statement included, but it's indicative of an attitude prevalent now in the Democrat party.

Economic policy is another area of party line polarization that I would assert proceeds from the differing worldviews with which most of their members align themselves. In grid form it would look like this:

Party              Worldview           Economic theory      Government policy
Republican    Constrained          Hayek                       Non-interventionist
Democrat       Unconstrained      Keynes                     Interventionist

Soon after the stock market crash of 1929 under moderate Republican president Herbert Hoover, federal governmental interventionist policy began. One of the first such policies was the Smoot/Hawley tariff, signed into law by Hoover (despite his objections) in 1930. The tariff, created in an effort to help American farmers, started a cascade of reciprocal tariffs all over the world that stifled world trade and possibly precipitated a global depression and most assuredly deepened it. FDR actually campaigned against the tariff while running against Hoover, but soon after taking office, began a massive project of federal economic interventionist policies that included a complete overhauling of the Federal Reserve, The Banking Act of 1933 that instituted the FDIC, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (which told farmers what and how much of a crop they could grow, as well as set price controls on commodities), a deep restriction of the money supply, The Gold Reserve Act of 1934, the formation of the National Recovery Administration that was so far reaching and draconian in its imposition of hundreds of "codes" on American business, that it was finally struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. Throughout his 12 years as President of the United States, FDR relentlessly lived up to the call he had made in a college commencement speech in 1932 that,
This country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
So he kept experimenting with one government interventionist policy after another, sometimes abandoning them, but more often just adding a new one to the mix. This seemed to serve as a turning point in the Democrat party; since then such attitudes toward economic policy have become uniform and hardened in the party.

It's important to note, however, that the homogenization of Republican party attitudes to economic policy did not begin to occur until the Reagan administration. Both Senator Smoot and Representative Hawley, for instance, were Republicans, as were Senator Davis and Representative Bacon of the Davis/Bacon act. And in 1971 President Nixon imposed sweeping price and wage controls on virtually every industry and commodity in the country. Even since Reagan there have been departures from Hayekian non-interventionist theory by Republicans such as the steel tariff imposed by George W. Bush in 2002, or the 152 billion dollar economic stimulus package he pushed through in 2008.

The final issue I'd like to address is that of entitlements and social welfare programs. But first let me establish some historical grounding.

The origins of the modern welfare state begin with Otto von Bismarck in late 19th century Germany who introduced old age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance. Its development was underpinned by a wholesale acceptance of the unconstrained vision which led to a definition and focus on equality in contradiction to that held by the American founders.

Under the American system the focus of equality is in process, equality under the law. In other words, the law and its processes shall treat all its citizens equally, ignoring their real-world differences (skin color, natural abilities, economic status, etc.). Thus our symbol of justice, the statue of Lady Justice, a sword in one hand, and a set of balance scales in the other, is blindfolded, acknowledging that differences do exists, but barring herself from seeing those differences so she cannot take them into account in her judgement. But beginning with the French Revolution and progressing through the development of the modern welfare state to its apex in the European socialist democracies, most of the countries of Europe defined and focused on a concept of equality of outcome. The ultimate good in this view is a leveling of economic class whereby the poor are brought up while the rich are brought down, and this is accomplished through the power of the state which redistributes income by confiscatory taxation of the rich and transferring that wealth to the poor via social welfare programs.

In her brilliant history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes begins by describing a tour of the Soviet Union taken by a group of FDR advisors, some of whom later became part of what was called FDR's "brain trust" who helped formulate the policies he called the "New Deal". Welfare entitlements in the US started in the New Deal, expanded in the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson, and now further enlarging in the Obama administration, have their origins in a combination of ideas borrowed from the European socialist democracies as well as the Soviet Union. They all proceed from the unconstrained vision, and have led to a gradual abandonment of the American view of equality (equality of process) and the adoption of the European view of equality (equality of outcome). To be sure, there has been substantial participation by the Republican party in this paradigm shift. The passage of Medicare, for instance, had massive bipartisan support. But with the polarizing of the two parties that has occurred over the last few decades--which has entailed many conservative Democrats changing parties, as well as a few liberal Republicans switching to Democrat--differing approaches to welfare and entitlements has clearly emerged.

On the Democrat side the sense seems to be that an ever-increasing progressive tax system coupled with an unending proliferation of transfer payments, social programs, subsidies, and entitlements are the only hope for the poor and the method by which a truly egalitarian utopia can be achieved, the "fundamental transformation of America" that Barak Obama spoke of five days before his election into office. And any suggestion of scaling back this project, reducing the progressive ratio of taxation, or tightening the requirements for access to the programs, is characterized at best as indifference, and more usually as outright heartless cruelty to the poor and vulnerable. So, under the Obama administration we have seen the eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as Food Stamps, greatly relaxed, first as part of the 2009 Stimulus Act, then further by administrative fiat when he changed elements within the Clinton Welfare Reform Law in 2010. This resulted in the number of recipients of Food Stamps soaring from 28 million in 2008 to 47 million five years later; perhaps an outworking of an axiom bandied by Democrat policy-makers: "a policy only for the poor is a poor policy"?

Conversely the Republican approach to entitlements and assistance programs is to view them as a safety net to help the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable in our society, but always with an eye to avoid the moral hazard of engendering permanent dependance in all save those who are incapable of ever providing for themselves. As Paul Ryan said during the last presidential campaign, "we want these programs to be a safety net, not a hammock." Of course this is invariably characterized by Democrats as the desire to do away with these programs all together.

In conclusion, there are a great number of other issues in which the Republican party stands in agreement with my worldview, biblical moral truth, and political views, among them: private gun ownership, school choice, the death penalty, states rights, energy policy, environmental policy, voter ID, support for Israel, reform (with the possibility of privatizing portions) of the "big three" entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) to keep them solvent, and the appointment of federal and appellate judges who adhere to an originalist view of the Constitution rather than a "living document" malleable view. For further clarity I have included this link to a website that is a synopsis side by side comparison of the Democrat and Republican party platforms of 2012 using excerpts copied directly from their written platform documents. These are the Democrat and Republican statements on these issues written in their own words.

I have written this blog post in the effort to clarify my own thoughts as well as to cut through the fog of disparaging bromides and smears. As always, I welcome comments, questions, debate, even spirited argument. But if all you have to offer is unsupported accusations, ad hominem attack, or name calling, be warned that I will not respond.