Political parties: Pick your poison


Earlier this month, I came across this Tweet from a liberalish Lafayette attorney whose blog I have followed for a few years: “I didn’t watch the Senate debate. I do know that Trump is an incessant liar with bad ideas. Joe Donnelly will vote against him sometimes & Mike Braun never will. No need to get into the weeds on this one.”

That sounds curiously similar to my reasoning in the presidential race, which I wrote about several months ago. The system, I said, had given us the two worst candidates possible. But: “I could either have Clinton as president, and get absolutely nothing on my agenda addressed, or Trump as a chief executive who might at least give me some of what I wanted.”

Now, I do not agree with the attorney’s conclusion, and I feel fairly safe in saying he did not agree with mine. But I would argue that we both made a rational decision based on the fact that we wanted to see our political philosophies enacted into real-world legislation. We each vote for the person most likely to act on our agenda and, just as important, against the person most likely to thwart it.

It’s the agenda, stupid.

I have long been bewildered by those self-described moderates and independents who insist that they “vote for the person, not the party.”

What world are they living in? Do they not wish to elect the candidates who will address their priorities? What happens when they realize that the “best” candidate — using whatever magical matrix they subscribe to — is a member of the other faction? Do they go ahead and vote for that person anyway, even though it means helping their adversaries rather than their allies? Or do they just want government to “get something done,” never mind whether it is good or bad?

I can understand the personal approach, at least a little, when it comes to local elections. As has often been said, there is no Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative way to fill a pothole or clear the snow. But even there, politicians and their constituents tend to coalesce into competing camps.

And at the state and federal level, there seems to be no way around the dichotomy. There may be many paths to the truth, but there are two competing world views in politics. Pick one.

Granted, it might not be as easy as it once was to choose a camp for our loyalties when it comes to national elections.

The Constitution did not envision political parties, and the Founders were in fact strongly against them. Alexander Hamilton believed factions were an evil to be guarded against at all times. Thomas Jefferson insisted, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

And we know what happened with Hamilton and Jefferson. Quickly realizing that the only way to avoid hundreds of ideas crashing and burning into chaos was to find like-minded people and fight for the same ideas, they founded the first two major American political parties.

There were the Federalists, who believed in a strong central government, and the Democratic-Republicans, who wanted to leave most of the power in state and local hands. Over time, those parties broke up and reformed a few times, eventually evolving into today’s Republican and Democratic parties, but always the one question was at issue: the proper role of the federal government in American life.

But that raison d’etre for political galvanization is gone now.

The role of the central government has been decided, it seems. For many reasons — the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, the Great Depression — it has become the driving force in American life and will remain so with minor adjustments one way or the other. Federal spending and overreach may go up more during Democratic ascendancy, but they don’t go down under Republican control; just check the spending numbers for Trump and his GOP-controlled Congress.

So we must run through a checklist of subsidiary ideas to sort ourselves.

Are we alarmed or complacent about illegal immigration? Should our abortion focus be on the woman or the unborn child? Is the Constitution inviolable or malleable? Should we strive for free trade or fair trade? Is the freedom to bear arms an individual or collective right? Gay rights or religious freedom — which one trumps the other under what circumstances? Is climate science at the top or bottom of our worry list? And on and on.

If we check enough boxes one way or the other, we are in one camp or the other, which we may call, for want of better terms, liberal or conservative. Go ahead and grind your teeth, but it is true.

We might seek nuance and accept clarifying ideas from the fringes, as liberals have from the socialists and conservatives from the libertarians. We might stray from orthodoxy on some issues. We might, at times, lament the imperfections of our figureheads, as many conservatives have about Trump and many liberals did against Obama (two chief executives who won, I would suggest, in large part because of voters who chose a person rather than a party).The vehicles for those paths — the current Democratic and Republican parties — might even disintegrate and reform again (as, in fact, they seem to be on the verge of doing).

You may fancy yourselves something else — you dabbling, middle-of-the-road amateurs — but you will be dilettantes, political tourists who think you can swoop in and take souvenir photos, then go home and call it a day.

There are the two access points to the system. Joe Donnelly represents one, Mike Braun the other. The Lafayette attorney is right — you can watch all the debates you want and it won’t get any more complicated than that. Those are the paths. Pick one.

Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review.

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