After delivering a scathing critique of the Democratic Party in the United States – on foreign policy, fiscal policy, welfare issues and entitlements – Gary Hart, Democratic senator from Maine, was asked if he then would consider switching parties and becoming a Republican. The Senator paused for a moment and then spoke with a wry smile. Paraphrasing James Joyce, he said, “I may have lost my faith, but I haven’t lost my mind.”
After about eight years of conscious involvement in American party politics, I believe I feel much the same way. I used to be an unabashed liberal, believing that government intervention was not only a workable system, but also the only workable system. I thought that my political beliefs were based on that piece of ideology and that was the basis of politics in the United States. I think I was wrong on both counts.
One of the fundamental principles of the United States is that it should be a meritocracy. I don’t think that there’s really any question as to that principle. The best man (or woman) gets the job. If a man or woman works hard, he or she should be successful and if he is successful, then it should be because he worked hard. These are pretty standard principles. But I don’t think they hold in the United States, and that is why I remain a Democrat.
I think of the people I’ve known in my brief 21 years and of the many who have worked hard all their lives, trying to get ahead and remain just getting by. Is this their fault? As far as I can tell, the Republican Party seems to think so. They won’t say it, but the understanding seems to be that if you’re not successful then the fault must lie with you.
Take welfare, for example. It was dismantled under the argument that it was contributing to poverty rather than ameliorating it. The poster child of this movement was the black unwed welfare mother who was having children just to get extra money every month. The message that the Republican Party was sending was that those people on welfare were just trying to take everyone else’s money and live off of the work of others.
I don’t believe that. In some cases these conditions may exist, but in the overwhelming majority, those on welfare are struggling to provide as best they can and would like nothing better than to be off of it. Yes, the existing welfare system was unworkable, but the removal of the system didn’t mean that there were not millions of people who had no way to improve their lot in life. The Republican Party’s beloved market had doomed them to poverty.
Conversely, there are many people in this country who are wealthy and successful not through their own merit or hard work, but rather through sustained privilege. A family passes down money and status that perpetuates itself. I just don’t think this is right. Why is a man born to wealth necessarily more deserving of it than one born to poverty? Thomas Jefferson was similarly troubled by this problem and believed in taxing 100 percent of inherited wealth. That solution is unworkable due to certain economic factors, but the principle is a sound one. Our pure capitalist system doesn’t lead to a meritocracy, but rather a preservation of the elite.
This is not to say that all Republicans favor this scenario. I don’t believe John McCain did, and I don’t think Bob Dole did either. But, by and large, the Republican Party has represented and acted in a manner consistent with this system. For them, if you’re wealthy, it must be that you deserve it and if you’re poor, it must be because, again, you deserve it. George W. Bush said it time and again during his debates. When referring to the amount of money his tax cut gave to the wealthy, he said, “It’s their money, they’ve earned it.” I just don’t think that’s necessarily true.
We live in a country where quite often, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor through no act of their own, but merely because they are rich and poor. The Republicans Party doesn’t see it that way, probably because they are viewing the issue from a higher perspective.
The Democratic Party is an imperfect institution, but its core beliefs are with mine on this question. For me, that’s the defining test and why I remain a Democrat.