The history of parties is a bit of a rollercoaster. In fact, the very idea of parties in America was condemned by our first president. Parties, however, have been with us almost from the beginning. What makes it a rollercoaster is that the reason for two parties has changed throughout our history. At first it was those who wanted a strong federal government versus those who wanted to limit federal control. That latter party was the Republican party, ruled by Thomas Jefferson.
Somewhere over the years, the Republicans became those who wanted more federal power and the Democrats became the titular protectors of states’ rights, although it was really done to protect, first, slavery, and then the suppression of the rights of minorities. Then Kennedy and Johnson came along to flip the whole thing, with Democrats becoming the party of minority rights and the Republicans those touting state’s rights.
In our times, however, nothing is quite as clear. The South is neither as financially nor as socially conservative as it once was, and the North is not as singlemindedly committed to liberal views as it once was. More importantly, what once defined the Republican party — anti-debt, pro individual rights, pro international alliances — is now apparently replaced with an odd combination of the purely self-serving. It has endorsed tax reductions for the wealthy while actually increasing federal spending (although not on communal needs like health care or education). Most of all, it sits silent while a person so incompetent as to endanger the whole country embarrasses us all on a daily basis. Meanwhile the Democrats sit, out of power and with nothing to do but grouse about their impotence.
So we’re not exactly separated by fiscal conservatism or states’ rights or even the rights of African-Americans. So what is it that divides us? Well, caricatures for sure. Republicans ridicule the Democrats as loving abortions and wanting open borders and crime. Democrats ridicule Republicans as self-absorbed know nothings who do nothing but shame themselves by either remaining silent about, or by even endorsing, the madness that is Donald Trump.
Beyond mere caricature, however, there really is one thing that is becoming more and more clear about the division between the two groups. Let’s call them for the moment the Ins and the Outs. (Let us also hope that those two titles remain relevant only until November.) The difference, it seems to me, is between interest in the common good and unalloyed self-interest. How, for instance, can one explain the difference in commitment to reversing the growing environmental disaster? Or how explain the refusal to improve the increasingly ugly picture of health care in America? More and more, it seems to me, the Ins appear to support only those things that feather their own nests regardless of the damage done to their fellow citizens, much less the citizens of the globe.
There are still true conservatives, reasonable people with the interests of the nation sincerely at heart. They have been forced to tolerate the Trumpian outrages in order to effect some things they consider critical — the Supreme Court balance, reduction of federal regulation, etc. To some great degree, they have achieved those things. They have, however, paid two huge prices. First, they have destroyed their own credibility. Second, and consequent on the first, they have likely reduced themselves to a generations-long minority.
That will place a huge burden on the Democrats. They will have to impose some pretty serious burdens on the nation — taxes to pay down our intolerable debt, regulations to improve the environment, new rules on health care to finally provide universal coverage and to control medical costs. And more. But if the Democrats do one thing, they must rout from the national worldview the primacy of self-interest. Nothing is more destructive of the American ideal of the inalienable rights of all humans as a national policy based on self-interest.
The deadly disease that divides us is the commitment to self-interest over the needs of our communities. Trump is no more than a personification of that disease. It is we who need to reject that disease, and doing so will do no less than save American democracy.