The American Dilemma

by George Kennedy on December 18, 2011


The American Dilemma

The enduring American dilemma is the philosophical divide between the Democratic and the Republican approach to governance and the impact of each approach on society. Since 2009, the impact has been sclerotic government at its worst. Is the partisan divide so deep that we will miss an opportunity for real change in 2012?

Here is the essential difference between the two parties that between 2009 and 2011 birthed the Tea Party, OWS and the 99 percent movement: Democrats, in large measure, seek to govern and Republicans seek to rule. That formulation may appear narrow but they are the governance models voters associate with each party.

Democrats believe government can be effective in the best traditions of FDR and Lyndon Johnson through investments in infrastructure, education, technology, and people. They also believe that even in a capitalist democracy there has to be a balance of interests and responsibility within society. Without the constraint of regulation, Democratic leaders know the most well intentioned leader in both the public and the private sector may abuse the power entrusted to him or her.

Republicans, on the other hand, prefer government principally as a tool to promote the interests of private enterprise and to preserve the prerogatives of the wealthy. Moreover, Republicans regularly assert that regulation of private capital and free enterprise is anti-capitalist and efforts to do so are derided as adherence to Socialism.

Another major philosophical difference has to do with a society’s moral responsibility to its citizens. Republicans are opposed to any government policies that collectivize responsibility for the electorate. Moreover, Republicans prefer that the triad of social programs to ease the burden of poverty, old age and infirmity on the elderly and the poor, should be privatized or that they should be abolished. Democrats, however, believe in the sanctity of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Another contentious issue for which voters look to government as a final arbiter, is equality as a desirable social goal. This societal outcome lacks merit according to the prevailing orthodoxy among Republicans and their social and financial elites. They maintain as a general proposition that inequality is natural, inevitable, and just, and thus it cannot be avoided.

Republicans would likely quote from Thomas Jefferson who said, “It appears that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors because God has laid in the constitution and course of nature the foundations of the distinction.”
Democrats advance an economic agenda that espouses social justice, equity, fairness and opportunity. In the current struggle between a frightened 1 percent and an angry 99 percent, structural inequality is the defining issue; it has become the cause that fuels their passion for change.

This country has survived divided government, but government by paralysis is a condition that cannot endure. The dollar costs are excessive and mounting. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is adamant that new revenues are off the negotiating table if those revenues support government. If anything, government should support the growth of free enterprise and the benefits Republicans insist the system offers society. They do not accept that time-honored American principle that each of us is our brother’s or our sister’s keeper. They argue that each citizen bears the responsibility for his or her standard of living and should not look to government for support. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people living in poverty has reached an all-time high in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The latest official figures reveal that one in six Americans, or 49.1 million, are living below the official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400 annually for a family of four.

Much of the electorate, meanwhile, has become outraged to the point of open and sustained public protest because government is unresponsive about most issues germane to the quality of their lives, joblessness and income inequality chief among them. The electorate’s dilemma is they continue to believe that those they elect to manage and lead share their expectations regarding the functions of government. The dilemma voters experience is their elected officials are too easily influenced by the availability of unlimited campaign cash in exchange for their votes on issues important to contributors – issues generally unfavorable to their constituents. This can be remedied by voters calling for legislation that empowers them to more easily recall errant officials, and by choosing more informed, more intelligent candidates to represent them.

Americans may be unwilling to admit publicly the qualitative and quantitative impact of government in their daily lives for various reasons. Some may be more dependent on specific government programs than they want to admit for fear of social embarrassment. Others may not want to admit their level of dependence for political reasons. In each instance, however, the government at some level provides a floor under their lives they are loath to surrender. Government for the average American is that pervasive presence they take for granted, especially during emergencies and crises. Government is their principal first line of expected response. A fair assertion would be that the average American is psychologically unprepared to accept life under the de minimus role of government espoused by the Republicans. Some context for this last point might be helpful.

Republicans have espoused eliminating the federal departments of education, energy, and commerce. Also, they would dramatically curtain the budget of the EPA, and emasculate all federal regulatory entities. Add to this the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid, and the privatization of Social Security, and you would have the most radical, and unacceptable, restructuring of government in more than a century. In spite of this right wing agenda, Republicans would ask for our votes for their form of governance. What is truly frightening is the probable level of support available to them.

Americans across the political spectrum rail against “too much government.” They do not, however, say what specific government services and programs they are willing to forego. It would be instructive to learn what level and/or kind of government services they are willing to pay for with or without a personal source of income. Often, an individual’s level of perceived dependence on government services rises in concert with joblessness or a diminution in personal or household income. It would also be helpful to learn whether they think government resources and benefits should extend to everyone. These are questions the electorate fails to answer, but then candidates do not conduct campaigns at that level of specificity. They still need votes.

The dilemma described here makes for interesting debate between the two schools of thought. Although conservatives and Republicans are philosophically opposed to “big government”, they consider themselves the more legitimate beneficiaries of government benefits than those with whom they differ politically. As an interesting, but amusing, aside, my conservative Republican neighbors, both retired federal employees, also rail against government but say, “keep your hands off my six government checks.” The level of government required to support their needs, they maintain, is legitimate. It is those less deserving “others” that account for the difference in philosophy. This debate is central to the American dilemma because it is about government and which party the electorate prefers to administer the affairs and resources of government.

Republicans at all levels of governance make no secret of their program and policy preferences for the wealthy, the white (and not all of those), and the privileged when it involves the role of government in society. Even they do not want to eliminate it. How else would they exercise power? Democrats, on the other hand, are more egalitarian but lack the political will or the courage to be the forceful advocate for their constituency of interests. The result is the sclerotic government we have endured since 2009.

The inherent tension between the two competing philosophies has escalated in recent years to open warfare. The fact that we have entered a presidential election year only heightens the tension, given that the Republicans have vowed to deliver a humiliating defeat to the first African American President. In all fairness, his hesitant, less commanding leadership continues to embolden Republicans determined to unseat him while labeling his governing philosophy as Socialist or anti-capitalist. The depth of the schism between the two parties and the degree of hostility they exhibit toward the other is perhaps a new phenomenon for many Americans. One party struggles to govern in the face of prolonged economic crisis while the other party thwarts attempts at effective governance on every level.

This national struggle is reminiscent of two gladiators in combat to claim the spoils that redound to the victor. In this instance, we, the electorate, are the spoils. It is our lives and our futures that are at stake. We, with all our expectations and dreams, continue to hope for a better outcome. We who have the power to select the gladiators (candidates) allow ourselves to be sacrificial lambs even when the gladiators set aside the terms by which they were elected. We, whose interests are continually ignored, continue to relegate ourselves to the role of un-empowered spectator as our gladiators struggle for the right to determine our fates.

We are the solution to this peculiar American dilemma but we have become too comfortable in our sacrificial role.

Those who believe they can profit from our national dilemma, unless deterred, will continue to invest ever more time and resources in their efforts. It is the game they know, accept, and desire to play. Why not? Their return on investment is paying off handsomely. More so in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 infamous decision in the Citizens United case. This decision further tilted the balance of the power to the rich and the powerful (corporations) by granting them constitutionally protected rights “to spend as much money as they want, without disclosure, on a political campaign.” Unless reversed, “there will be no end to the impact that corporate interests can have on our campaigns and our democracy.”

So the question is, “Why are we complicit?” Given this situation, do we then have the right to reasonable expectations from whichever political party is in power? It is difficult to fathom 360 million powerless to negotiate, even demand, a different outcome.

This may hurt the psyche of some, but even slaves revolted occasionally against repression and they did not have the vote. What is it about the American electorate that conditions them to accept such catastrophic outcomes when they have the power of change?

How much more debt, joblessness, and inequality are the voters willing to absorb while the few, the greedy, and the powerful continue to hold them in continual contempt?

This is the enduring American dilemma and only the electorate can resolve it.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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