The Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

and the separate issue of Liberals and Conservatives

All links good when this was originally written in April, 2004.

Terror alert levels, from lowest to highest: Low, Guarded, Elevated, High, Severe, Bush On Vacation.

For several decades now, I've been hearing that "there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans. They are all part of the same establishment." That's true, but highly misleading. Political parties are trying to gain political power, so by definition they are the establishment. Any successful political movement is the establishment, and Democrats and Republicans have been the most successful. But that doesn't mean there aren't big differences, and it means that if you opt out of the system and don't vote, they win.

Simply put: Democrats want to convert power to money, and Republicans want to convert money to power. People like Ralph Nader, for whom neither money nor power are important, these look the same. They are not.

Traditionally, since the early 1800s, Democrats have been the party of the people. Immigrants who don't have a lot of money gather together for political power. The large working class gathers their votes to balance the power of their bosses. To a large extent, we have the Democratic Party rather than mobs of angry peasants storming the Bastille. The US Constitution gives power to the people who in previous systems simply had no say in the government at all. In our modern formulation, Democrats are also people who formerly had no power, and remember their roots.

Since the mid-1800s, Republicans have been the party of the upper class, or at least the people who wanted to keep the power structure as it is. In other cultures, these would be the feudal lords, knights, landowners and wealthy merchants. That is, the people who always tend to run things, usually at the point of a sword. The US Constitution, before the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, codifies the power structure of the people who owned land and slaves. In our modern formulation, Republicans are also people who are convinced that the feudal lords should continue running things.

Personally, I think this is brilliant on the part of the writers of the Constitution, all of whom were wealthy landowners and many of whom were slaveholders. Democracy for all (or at least all white males) was a new, radical idea... but our government is structured such that the people who have always run things continue to run things, but the rest of us can complain about it. Noblesse Oblige is written into law. Nobility is an obligation AND peasantry is an obligation. What an astonishing document!

Meanwhile... Liberals are people who are under the only partially mistaken impression that altering the structure of goverment is the best way to influence people and resources. Conservatives are people who are under the only partially mistaken impression that altering the people in power is the best way to influence other people and their culture.

Let's see how this works in some examples.

Problem: Immigration. A liberal Democrat sees a large number of people who are in need but without a say in government. He or she then proceeds to alter the structure of the various services to ensure that they don't starve to death or get beaten up by cops or their fellow immigrants. Greater control in admission to the country for ID purposes, state sponsored services such as health care and family planning, civil service exams as a way to get a job in government, welfare, unemployment and so on. A conservative Democrat alters the power structure, appointing immigrants to positions of authority with the plan that they will inspire others and make decisions based on their own experience. Appointing a second-generation Water Commissioner is more important than fixing structural problems with low-cost water distribution. The downside is that the most racist people are those that are only one or two generations from being the victim of racism themselves. Immigrants really hate anyone else showing up at the doorstep. For a long time, the Democrats were the party of racism. A liberal Republican sees a new influx of workers and customers, but is wary that they won't won't want the same things that everyone wants now. They expand the police force to keep everyone following the same rules and help build schools so that everyone picks up similar cultural cues. The structure of society is preserved and the grandchildren of immigrants may rise to the ruling class once they've gone to the right schools and speak with the right accent. Conservative Republicans want these new people to understand their place in society... at the bottom. Sure they can find work here, but at the lowest wages possible. Don't rock the boat and don't get uppity and you can live in that shack over there. If your kids want to get ahead, fine. But you have to work hard for it, and you have to do it The American Way.

Problem: Wars. A liberal Democrat is against wars on principle because they disrupt the carefully planned structure (or the self-perpetuating unweildy beauracracy) currently in place. But they recognize that wars need to be fought and armies need to be trained, fed, housed and armed. They will pay more attention to the army (and veterans), figuring that a an army travels on its stomach and if we're ready no one will dare attack us. Everyone who serves honorably deserves recognition and a place in society. A conservative Democrat wants strong generals who fight wars and are popular with his troops. Find military leaders with a proven record and give them the money they request, and trust them to look after their men. A liberal Republican wants to make sure that our army is a fit weapon to extend our policies. Merely winning wars isn't enough, we have to win the right wars which will extend our power and influence (and markets). Our army exists so we can buy and sell with little interference. Gunboat diplomacy is a useful tool, since the threat of power keeps the trade going more than bombing the people who we trade with. Most wars are fought for control of resources not ideology (blood for oil is the norm, sorry folks), though our heros must be acknowledged. A conservative Republican is perfectly willing to bomb anyone to hell if they want to buy their stuff rather than buy from us. Parades and medals keep our troops in line because they're cheaper than giving troops a decent wage or taking care of veterans who can't fight but do serve as inspiration. Flag waving is patriotic, cheap and keeps the feudal lords on top.

"I don't belong to an organized party -- I'm a Democrat." -- Will Rogers
"All politics is local." -- former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill
To a liberal Democrat, those two statements are equivalent. As the disenfranchised gain political power they enter the structure of government on the local level. School boards, library councils, city aldermen, etc. The structure of how they rise is similar -- voting rights, dealing with police -- but how the different ethnic and religious groups want their schools run may be quite different.
To a conservative Democrat, O'Neill's statement is more important than Rogers'. They rise to political power by reflecting the views and needs of a specific set of constituents. Once in power, they gain more influence by banding together with other Democrats who are in power because of a similar political structure even if their views are vastly different.
To a liberal Republican, Rogers' statement is more important than O'Neill's. Politics isn't local, but business interests are. Keeping the landowners wealthy means keeping the feudal lords in power. Local economics are secondary to national interests but they raise a lot of campaign money by convincing local businesses that keeping them in power is the best way to keep the trade flowing.
A conservative Republican doesn't understand either statement. The whole point of being a Republican is to continue the reign of the ruling class, they think, and class issues outweigh local issues. The feudal lords are happy to send a knight to fight in another feudal lord's war, since all battles serve the ultimate goal of keeping them in power. This is why a Republican Congressman like Bob Barr from Indiana can champion a class-issue cause like Elian in Florida and conservatives don't blink. If a Democrat tried to champion an issue outside the interests of his district, his constituents would wonder why he's wasting his time.
We saw this played out in the 2000 election. Many probable Democrats were illegally prevented from voting, in several states, but every case was considered a local issue even though the problem is endemic. The Democrats didn't (and haven't) fought hard enough at the federal level to prevent voting abuses by conservative Republicans who think the playing field is national politics. When the Florida vote was so close, Republicans from across the country rushed down and swayed the Florida recount. Democrats let the locals handle it with just a few outsiders coming in to advise. When it got to the national level, the conservatives on the Supreme Court, predictably, voted to let the feudal lords tramp on the serfs.

This is a complex subject crunched down to a few paragraphs. I hope these examples are illuminating, and the next column on the difference between Socialism and Communism will expand on this analysis.

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