Warning: Political Thoughts Ahead

Republicans and Democrats. What’s the difference?

I’ve heard several people ask that question, and I’ve had a few other people ask me how to explain to their friends exactly what the difference is between the two parties. That may sound like a simple question, but you know, it’s not… Not any more. Both parties have been throwing around a lot of catch phrases and “loaded words” lately, making the simplest issue suddenly muddy.

If you go back and look at history you’ll see that the Democrats and Republicans came into existence well after the Tories and Whigs had dominated the political scene for decades. Originally both parties stood for much different things than they do now. Throughout the years leading up to the early 20th century the parties gradually morphed into what we now think of as the “traditional” Democratic and Republican parties.

Two Stereotypes

Historically the Republicans championed small government. They wanted the federal government to be as small and unobtrusive as possible — thus taking up less tax money in operating expenses. The Democrats thought differently, proposing the idea that the government should take a larger role in helping and protecting the citizenry.

Another key issue that’s still relevant today are the two party’s views towards business. Republicans, true to the idea of small government, favor letting businesses operate largely free of government intervention, regulation, or oversight — relying on the free market to provide such regulation. Democrats again see things differently, preferring to keep strict regulations on how businesses treat their employees, how safe their products are, banning false advertising, etc.

These concepts were seen most dramatically in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. The Democrat Roosevelt replaced Republican Herbert Hoover in 1933. The stock market had crashed in Hoover’s first year as president, and he spent his entire term trying to fix the Great Depression without letting the government grow or fettering business. When FDR took over, the nation was facing massive unemployment and a failed banking system. Rather than cutting back on government services, FDR went the other way. He created a massive public works program, consisting of numerous separate agencies, hiring millions of people to work for the government doing everything from building parks to building dams — thus giving millions employment while bettering the nation at the same time. He also initiated Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the latter to regulate the banking industry that had let greed drive the market to collapse in 1929.

Did Roosevelt’s theories of government protecting the common man and regulating business work? Yes, for the most part. Unemployment fell from 25% to 14% in his first term, and the economy grew by 58% prior to World War II and another 56% during the war. Can all of this be attributed to Roosevelt’s governance? Of course not — the vagaries of history and economics often lay the most well-planned political philosophy asunder with nary a pause, leaving naught but a shadow of bewilderment behind. But there is no denying that Roosevelt’s policies did have a substantial positive effect on both the nation and the world economy.

So, between WWI and the early rumblings of WWII the United States was governed by and large by the conservatives, who kept government intervention to a minimum — which led in turn to the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression. From 1933 to the end stages of WWII the United States found itself out of darkness and chaos at the hands of a liberal government promoting recovery and regulation. This reinforced the stereotypes we now use to categorize the Democrats and Republicans that I mentioned earlier. Republicans often think that Democrats will use any excuse to “regulate business out of business” by incorporating safeguards in the business sector and will increase government spending at the drop of a hat, while Democrats think Republicans will allow big business to steamroll over the working class unfettered and will actively dismantle government programs such as Social Security.

Are these two stereotypes valid today? To an extent, yes.

Just a few years ago United States President George W. Bush pushed a plan to privatize Social Security — meaning he wanted to take the funds out of the bank and invest them in the stock market. This sounded fine to conservatives who often choose to aid big businesses. But think what that would have done to our Social Security fund when the housing bubble burst and stocks tanked in late 2008? Millions of people who were already seeing their retirement funds shrink by up to 25% due to the failing market would have lost their security blanket provided by the government as well.

Another example of this is when the Bush administration actively deregulated the mining and banking industries, leading to numerous deaths (the Sago Mine Disaster, for instance) and the ultimate collapse of the banking and housing industries (though the deregulation of the banking industry did begin well before the Bush administration). Oddly enough, the Republicans somehow cast themselves as down-to-earth workmen, viewing the Democrats as idle elite, while enacting policies that actually work against the average man.

Stereotypes of the Democrats policies are a bit harder to pin down… We have progressive liberals to thank for the modern five-day work week, overtime pay, child-labor laws, retirement benefits, Social Security, programs such as Head Start and the Peace Corps… But do Democrats bloat government? I dunno. It certainly happened in FDR’s time, but no president since then has made the government smaller. I’m not sure if a Democratic president other than FDR has enlarged government significantly. I do know that Republicans feel Democrats spend too much on government programs, but the George W. Bush administration has put the government in substantially more debt than Democrats Carter or Clinton.

Taxes and Socialism

It’s widely accepted that Republicans will cut taxes while Democrats raise taxes. This notion is quite simply invalid these days.

When Republicans say they’re going to cut taxes, they don’t mean they’re going to cut taxes for people, but rather for corporations and businesses. This is the “trickle-down” theory, popularized in the 1980s — the theory being that if big businesses don’t have to pay so much in taxes they can afford to lower their prices, hire more people, and generally make the economy stronger from the top down. Unfortunately, history shows that this approach only serves to concentrate money in the hands of the very wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Here’s an example: since the rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in the Republican party in the 1990’s the average pay of a company’s CEO has risen 530%, while the average worker’s pay has increased just 32% — barely over the rate of inflation. The gap between the very rich and the rest of us is increasing, yet Republicans still want to decrease taxes on the rich. In the last 60 years a Republican government has never lowered taxes — they will very loudly offer tax cuts for some segments of the population but they always very quietly make up the difference by increasing taxes in other areas.

I see a lot of ads on TV from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) claiming that his opponent in the presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) is going to raise taxes. This is popularized by “Joe the Plumber,” a man who questioned Obama recently about his proposed tax increases. McCain has used Joe the Plumber as an example of “the everyman” who will be taxed to death by the Democrats. This is simply untrue. The ONLY people who will see a tax increase under the Democrats’ plan would be those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Quite honestly, if Joe the Plumber is making more than that, he’s overcharging. Obama’s plan, which is actually pretty standard fare for Democrats, is to increase the taxes on the very rich slightly and decrease taxes on the middle class slightly.

You can learn how Senator Obama’s tax plan will affect you personally by using this simple tool.

Something both parties are forgetting in this presidential election, however, is to mention that whomever is elected would still need to get their plan ratified by congress (something McCain may have difficulty with), and that income taxes are completely different than sales tax or any of the other myriad ways the government has of taxing us.

Taxes are complicated and confusing. But I’m certain of several things: we will be taxed, and the Democrats’ plan is NOT going to raise taxes for the average citizen any more than the Republicans’ plan — and probably less.

I also hear people getting worked up over the term “socialism.” This started when Obama spoke to Joe the Plumber. Obama said something along the lines that distributing wealth is a good thing. Conservatives immediately put commercials on TV showing concerned citizens wondering why Obama wanted to take their money away and give it to someone else. Again, unless these people are making over $250,000 a year they have nothing to worry about. And if they ARE making more than a quarter-million dollars a year, their taxes may go up slightly. That’s all. The conservatives are grossly overreacting and fear mongering.

True socialism is when everyone works for the government. The government owns all business, and each individual gets paid according to his or her needs rather than his or her talents. An example of government owning a business might be the Bush administration’s move to buy a stake in the major banking industry in the United States. This is a step towards socialism. Redefining the tax code is not.

It’s interesting to note that McCain’s celebrated Joe the Plumber has been working without a license and owes a considerable amount of back taxes to the government. Personally I’m proud to pay my taxes, to pay my own way. I’d feel pretty miserable if I had to rely on others to carry my weight…

Social Issues

A major difference between the Democrats and Republicans are social issues.

It’s been widely held that Democrats are tree-hugging, granola-eating freakazoids who would destroy an entire industry to save a single spotted owl. It’s also widely held that Republicans are evil monsters who would be happy to chop down the last tree on earth if they could make a buck by doing so. Both are true, to a very small degree. Democrats do lead the charge on environmental issues, and Republicans do value business over environment, but neither side is as nutty as the other would have you believe.

An example would be the spotted owl, a rare woodland critter (tastes like chicken by all accounts) in the American Northwest. The Democrats successfully stopped a logging operation from cutting down all the trees in the owl’s habitat, arguing that the owl species should be protected. The Republicans argued that many people depended on the income provided by the logging company, and that people’s well-being is more important than that of animals.

A sticky wicket. One can easily see both sides of the argument.

Another example involved Yellowstone National Park. For years snowmobilers have reveled in taking their snowmobiles on the trails in Yellowstone in the winter. Unfortunately there are so many snowmobiles that the rangers at the gate actually wear gas masks due to the pollution. (Snowmobiles have high-revolution 2-stroke engines — engines that spew a lot of pollution into the air and are notoriously loud.) The trees and vegetation along the trails are dying, and the wildlife that the park is supposed to protect are becoming stressed from the constant stream of snowmobiles and noise. The Democrats want to ban or limit snowmobiles in the park in order to protect the environment — or mandate the engines be changed to less polluting (but more expensive) 4-stroke motors, while Republicans tend to side with the snowmobilers, saying it’s their right to indulge their hobby in a pubic park regardless of the environmental consequences.

Another social issue that’s a hot-button the past ten years is abortion. The Democratic party feels that abortion should be legal and available to women as a last resort, while the Republicans feel that abortion should be banned altogether. This issue gets complicated and emotional, but there are just a few key facts that need to be remembered. One is that abortion IS legal. Another fact is that while Democrats generally feel it should be a woman’s choice to have an abortion, they do NOT advocate for abortion — rather they recommend and hope that proper birth control and counselling be exercised, with abortion being limited to extreme cases (rape, incest, the mother’s life being endangered, etc.); Republicans often phrase things to make it look as if Democrats actively want women to end their pregnancies while in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. Even the term “pro-life” leads one to believe that the other side must believe in “pro-death,” which is ludicrous.

The best way to avoid abortion would be through education and counseling, but the Republican party, though anti-abortion, is also against educating high-school children about the dangers of premarital sex. (Oddly enough, the Democrats also push for health care for children, a position the Republicans oppose. Even though they would force a woman to bring a child to term against her will, they would not share in the responsibility for caring for the child.)

National Security

This is, again, a stereotypical difference between the parties that needs revisiting. Conventional thinking holds that Republicans are strong on national defense and Democrats are weak. Modern political history shows that this is simply not the case.

Contrary to the Republicans’ belief in small government, they believe in a large military. This would lead you to believe that the Democrats believe in a smaller military, but that’s not necessarily the case. For the most part Democrats would like to ban nuclear weapons (who wouldn’t?) and restructure the military-industrial complex to ensure fair competition and therefore lower equipment costs, thus lowering the budget OR allowing for more troops in the budget. Democrats also believe more strongly in negotiation (not appeasement) before resorting to violence. This was seen most starkly in our current conflict in Iraq — the Republican Bush administration made only token negotiations before sending troops in to conquer the nation.

A key issue to watch is how the parties treat the nation’s veterans. The Republicans have repeatedly voted to cut veterans’ benefits, soldier’s pay, and even the gear our combat soldiers are given while the Democrats have tried to increase benefits and pay, and wanted to increase military spending to ensure our troops are well-equipped. This tells me volumes about how the parties view the average soldier and the worth of our veterans’ sacrifices.

Both parties have made mistakes when it comes to the use of the military, there’s no denying that. The Democrats got us into Vietnam, the Republicans got us into Iraq. But neither party wants to weaken the United States’ defenses, nor does either party want to see the U.S. weakened on the world stage.

What does all this mean?

Basically, this all boils down to a couple simple statements. Neither party is intentionally evil. The Democrats do historically work more for the common man than the Republicans (enacting Social Security, regulating business to protect workers, etc.) and the Republicans do more to foster big business growth (such as the record growth in the oil industry the past few years). Both parties have valid arguments on almost every issue. It’s my contention, though, that the last decade has seen a dramatic rise in the amount of rhetoric, distortions, and misleading statements from the Republican party, trying to force the Democrats into retreat. This trend is, in my opinion, destroying American just as surely as al-Queda might. Neighbors are afraid to talk to each other because of the poisonous misrepresentations and stark black and white beliefs that we’re forced to accept. It’s a societal ill that must be rectified!

In short, the bottom line in all this is that the Democrats are not loonies. The Republicans have shown more of a trend towards socialism, increased taxes, weakened military, and confusing social messages than the Democrats. Please don’t let all the current mud-slinging blind you to this core fact — we’re all Americans, and we all want the country to be strong.

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