When I was young my great grandpa would entertain my siblings and I with stories about his days roaming the country by hopping trains. He had actually arrived in the small town we grew up in with his own father in a horse drawn wagon. They were poor farmers and in later life he would make his own reputation as a mountain man logger. He had his own family and kids by the time the depression hit and he became a life long democrat at that point. I remember being baffled at the idea that this man who was well respected for his hard work and integrity could give his vote every election to a political party that supported abortion and other social issues that countered Bible belt norms. I tried only once to discuss this with him but his rationale was so grounded in personal experience that I never tried to contest him again. “All I know is that when FDR was President we had food, and when he wasn’t we were hungry,” he stated, with the memory of events from a half century earlier still heavily stamped upon his mindset.
The Little Guy
The Democratic party starts with the little guy in mind. Whereas Republican and Conservative politics consider the overall validity and long term potential of the system, the Democrats toss that aside. What does it matter if the economy is running strong a hundred years from now if the poor and downtrodden are still trapped in a dire situation they can never escape?
This is not necessarily a rational position to take but it is a values based position. The value of the individual human life, especially those who often get left behind in the system is as important as the system itself. If we, society, cannot care for that individual then what good is the system in the end. That is why Democrats are stronger supporters of welfare and entitlement programs. True there is abuse within these programs but it is also hard to judge the actions of another man unless we have walked in that man’s shoes. Some abuse in the system is worth it if that is the price we pay for helping those who are unable to help themselves.
That kind of open mindedness does not work in the more traditional Conservative Republican framework and ideology. The history of social reform and assistance was largely built upon the same ideology that many of today’s Democrats claim to embrace. When the industrial revolution was overwhelming the social systems of the cities at the end of the 19th Century it was this open mindedness that was able to get outside of the box and find ways to assist widowed mothers, orphaned children, minorities, and the like. It was also this open mindedness that stirred progressives who reined in the excesses of capitalism that had been birthed in the Gilded Age.
The American system, built upon capitalism and free enterprise does not naturally have room in it to stop the monopolization of resources and people’s lives that was being produced in the likes of Rockefeller and Standard Oil. It lacks the creativity to adjust the system to prevent market excesses that helped fuel the Great Depression. Democrats had the open mindedness to recognize that it might not have these things – but it should. The people should be protected from what the system can produce when left to itself. Regulation might be a dirty word when one is focused on the purity of capitalism and free enterprise but not when one is at the short end of the stick of these systems.
Historically, the Democratic Party has been the party of idealism. There have been Republicans here too – Ronald Reagan was an idealist (albeit an idealism focused upon American exceptionalism). This has traditionally been Democratic turf. When Senator Obama launched his 2008 campaign talking about the audacity of hope and change you can believe in he was echoing the idealism of the Democratic Party for more than a hundred years. This goes back to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and even Jimmy Carter. Self determination, nothing to fear but fear itself, ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, and the crisis of confidence were all phrase derived from the oratory and passion of former Democratic leaders. This idealism made you want to be and believe for more.
The ability to think outside the box and move toward hope rather than fear fueled great diplomatic feats for the Democrats. If the great diplomatic feats were not accomplished, at least they were attempted. International relations under the democratic ideology is about more than the stick but about the carrot too. It is about more than war and boots on the ground but also about discussion and agreements. Thus President Obama has added Cuba and Iran to his resume where history will remember, at the very least, attempted processes toward a more peaceful world. President Clinton had his moments with Ireland, Israel and the Palestinians.
It is a party that believes in more.
It seems there is more room for a judgment call of what is right and wrong in the Democratic Party. This is at odds with some of the basic values of the party (see next article) but philosophically the power of conscience fits closer to the aims of the Democrats than to the Republicans. Republicans argue for what works. Democrats argue for what is right. No doubt the basis for their determination of what is right and what is wrong I am at great odds with. Nevertheless, this is the party that gives the most room to seeking out what is good and right even at the expense of what is productive and effective.
Watch for the next post in this series: 10 Reasons I Am Not a Democrat