Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You

In a two party system different people will vote for one or the other party for different reasons. Many people have supported the Democratic Party for years because of what they thought the government could do for them. In recent years an increasing number of people have voted Democratic in protest over what the government is doing to them. Yesterday at Huffington Post Dave Johnson quoted Chris Dodd as to what he believed it took to get support. The post was discussing impeachment, but my interest in this post isn’t specifically impeachment but the role of government on all issues.

One subject we talked extensively about was impeachment. He said something that will shape my views and helped me understand how a politician at his level has to think about serving the public. I’ll characterize it here. He said that when he considers how he should be spending his time a key question that he has to ask is how is the average person understanding this. The average person might not be paying very much attention to the news, might not consider him or herself to be “on the” left or right. That person is trying to get by and deal with life’s problems, like paying the mortgage, getting health care, etc. So when THAT person looks at what the Congress and Senate are doing, the question is, “How does this help ME?”

And if the Democrats spend time on impeachment they are open to the Republican lie and spin machine telling the public they are not serving THEM.
So Dodd says that unless the average person understands what HE OR SHE GETS out of Congress spending time on impeachment instead of all the other important things, he doesn’t think we should aim for that.

This sounds like a the stereotypical Democratic special interest politics. On the surface it appears logical. Offer people enough from government and they’ll vote for you. John Edwards is basing his entire campaign on this premise.

If this really worked, why have the Republicans been the majority party for so many years? The Republicans have won by understanding something that too many Democrats to not. Republicans have tapped into a common belief that the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

Chris Dodd underestimates the average American. The average person is not simply looking for what they can get out of the government. The Republicans won with Ronald Reagan making a promise, even if he didn’t deliver, to get the government off people’s back. The Democrats lost control of the government when they went too far under Bill and Hillary Clinton in offering universal health care with an overly complex system which most found far worse than the status quo.

Obviously this view of government does not apply to all Republicans. The reality of the Republican Party is far different than their rhetoric as they use government to provide benefits for their allies. However Republican corporate welfare benefits a much smaller number of people than those who vote have voted Republican.

This also isn’t to say that the government should never be there to help. There are few left who disagree that the government is needed to assist in extraordinary situations such as Katrina. Some problems, such as achieving affordable health care coverage and energy independence, require government action. This does not mean that all decisions by the voters come down to “what’s in it for me?”

The Democrats need to apply another principle that the Republicans understand far better–getting people to vote based upon their values. While readers here would find their values rather depraved, preventing a woman from receiving Plan B, keeping people from benefiting from stem cell research, and keeping two people from the same sex from marrying is seen by many as a reason to vote Republican. The people who vote this way do not benefit personally, but they vote Republican because they enforce their values system.

Democrats need to trust that people will also vote based upon liberal values. There are people who will vote for a candidate who will really get government off people’s back, and keep them out of personal decisions of religion and morality. Fighting for separation of church and state, preservation of civil liberties, and reducing the power of the Executive Branch doesn’t benefit us in the way Chris Dodd discussed, but these are values worth fighting for, and worth voting for, if only Democratic candidates would really stand up for these values.

Even impeachment might remain on the table if Democrats the values upon which this nation was founded as worth fighting for. While there are many arguments pro and con, impeachment can be seen as a method demonstrating the values we hold with regards to defending the Constitution and fighting excessive centralization of power in a corrupt Executive Branch which has done so much harm to the country since 2001.

Most likely the Democrats will take control after the 2008 elections. Hopefully they will understand the values which caused many people to abandon the Republicans and vote Democratic. Just as importantly, they must understand the values which caused a majority to vote Republican for many years. They must avoid returning to special interest politics and thinking that throwing around taxpayer’s money is what voters necessarily want. Many voters ask neither “what your country can do for you” or what they can do for their country. It is time to really get government off people’s backs whenever possible, while avoiding the Republican mistake of not allowing the government to act when really necessary.

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  1. 1
    FreedomDemocrat says:

    Great point. Politics can be more than just giving voters a bribe. The Republican Party coalition recently has been focused conservative values, both social intolerance and imperial jingoism. The Democratic approach of special interest politics only comes into the GOP equation at the margins: rural voters not motivated by faith but by the farm; the handful of minority voters Karl Rove thinks he can pick up with vouchers and faith based initiatives, or seniors who voted for Bush in 2000 looking forward to their prescription drug plan.

    I look forward to a Democratic Party defined more by liberal values, specifically socially and a shift toward a more responsible non-interventionist foreign policy. The “non-Christian” aspect of the Democratic coalition that Chris Bowers and others at OpenLeft talk about would be the ideal base in my mind, along with similarly motivated voters like GLBT and single women.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    “…along with similarly motivated voters like GLBT and single women.”

    These groups also show that politics is often a combination of voting based upon principle and personal interest. Many of us support legalization of gay marriage out of principle, while for GLBT grops this is also a matter of personal interest. We may support abortion rights and oppose restrictions on birth conrol out of general principle. Single women may be more likley to see this as also being a matter of personal interest. (While many single women may never even consider having an abortion, many would still prefer to have this option open to them.)

    Of course the same can be said about civil liberties issues. . Libety is not only an abstract principle we defend, but something which is in our self interest.

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