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Vote for Us! They’re Evil, and We’re Merely Incompetent!

In some of the workplace settings where I have been employed, one of the professional development tools taken by employees has been the Clifton “StrengthsFinder” assessment.  It is one of many more-or-less sophisticated tools that companies use to identify each individual employee’s working style and preferences. The main idea of tools such as this is usually to identify and build on those work preferences, and to respect those of others, in order to enhance company performance. 

Many of these tools provide some insight, and most of the time the hours spent on them seem worthwhile.  My leading StrengthsFinder strength is Individualization.  In brief, people strong on Individualization intentionally take people one at a time, and resist putting people in boxes or categories because such generalization and labeling reduces artificially and harmfully the complexity of each individual and unique human being. To these Individualizers, to categorize folks is to disrespect their individuality, which is far more complex than even a long list of socioeconomic and demographic boxes. Individualization advocates, when they are part of a work group, are likely to be good at figuring out how people who are different from each other work together productively, as they believe differences and individuality are strengths to be encouraged even on a tightly knit and production-oriented team. 

The description of persons with this strength goes on to state two special obligations such persons bear toward the good functioning of the group and respect for the Individualization perspective. The first is to help others understand that true diversity is found in subtle characteristics of each individual and those differences among all individuals, and not just in big categories such as race, gender, denominational affiliation, college of graduation, age or national origin. The second obligation for people with this strength is to press to treat each individual in a distinctive way. From their view, it is both more just and more effective in a work environment to treat each person differently because the differences among people means “the same” treatment is essentially unfair to everyone. 

Persons with the Individualization strength are frustrated and impatient with generalizations of “types” because it obscures the special nature and distinctiveness of each person. I start with this personal revelation to explain my frustration with the prompt this month to comment on the Republican Party in the United States and how (a disembodied) “its” values and priorities comport with Christian values. It is not that simple, and to make it simple is not fair. Political parties in America have at least four different centers of activities—elected officials, full-time employees (employed directly by a party group at some level or indirectly as full-time consultants of one type or another), core grassroots activities who are dedicated but essentially volunteers, and then fairly passive voters who typically vote for one party. These four party centers—elected officials, consultants, core volunteers, and voters, to be sure, sometimes overlap. But in the main, they are distinctive centers with tensions across, and even within, each of them.  In the main, the key determinants of what political parties stand for are not the most public groups—the voters or the elected officials—but rather the two centers of activity within the middle—the consultants and the core activists.  Later in this essay, I will detail my hopes for the GOP, with particular attention to suggestions directed toward the core paid and volunteer activists.

To complicate matters further, I can come up with a dozen political party functions undertaken by one, some, or all of these four activity centers, depending on the function.  Briefly, this is what American political parties do.  A major reason mass parties were created in the U.S. in the early 1800s remains their major function: to help (1) socialize people into the political system.  The Democratic Party machines of large cities (mostly, although there were GOP machines as well) are known for including new Italian and Irish immigrants (not inconsequentially largely Catholic) into their spoils systems to increase Democratic Party voting clout.  The GOP has also reached out to new groups of voters—that was one reason progressive Republicans supported suffrage for women—and helped develop political skills in them.  This socialization purpose is connected to a second purpose, to (2) mobilize voter blocs on election day. Losing political parties in elections obviously receive fewer votes than winners. The losing party has a strong incentive to get more voters to vote for it next time, converting from one side to the other, but also reaching out to recruit persons who have never voted.  They do so by reaching out and probably promising new policies.  In this outreach to get more voters, parties (3) educate the public about the political process and the issues and candidates that align with the party. Formulating policies (4) that are targeted to keep long standing voters or to attract and reward new voter blocs is a fourth function of a political party.  In this process of formulating new party policies and integrating them with more long-standing party planks, necessary (5) conflict resolution and compromise skill identification and development often takes place. Given that our two major political parties have been in existence for more than a century and one half, and have changed significantly in their constituencies and positions, conflict resolution also leads to an important sixth societal function, (6) stability in electoral choices which helps to provide continuity and a measure of assurance to the political system. 

Several other functions show up in election campaigns. Because parties seek to win elections, and may have had poor candidates in the past, party leaders often (7) recruit candidates to run whom they believe can win and serve well.  Parties and their identities, labels, and stereotypes help (8) simplify voter choices, because few voters have deep or broad interest in issues or candidates and appreciate decision making shortcuts.  Simply knowing whether one is a Republican or Democrat is a crude, sometimes misleading, but usually helpful cue, and often the only piece of information that they want. When one party wins and the other loses, and when there is a particularly large or surprising shift, parties help (9) legitimate change by claiming mandates for a new policy course. Within the government institutions they might control after elections, political parties (10) encourage accountability by rewarding cooperation and punishing dissent, and help (11) link the different branches of government and various levels as well, to enact the policies that they have developed to attract voters and promised to pursue if voters gave them the influence to do so. When it works well, this linkage (12) makes government more responsible and responsive to public opinion as expressed through the common simple act of voting.

A few more points are appropriate. First, I make the obvious point that political parties are essential to democratic politics, and healthy political parties help politics achieve its ends in nations where voters matter. From the early years of the republic, government leaders looked for allies inside and outside the formal government structure to help them achieve their political goals. Parties were created to help in this task. In an electoral democracy, political majorities are always changing composition as historical events shape expectations and demands on government, and as the voter pool changes over time. As such, in a healthy political system well-functioning political parties are always growing and changing, always seeking new allies while trying to hold on to what and whom they have.

Second, what is politics really about? One well-known political scientist, Harold Lasswell, stated that “politics is who gets what, when, how.” Another, David Easton, said that politics is “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Although different in detail, these definitions are both widely used, and nearly consensual among political scientists. They both imply that politics is about the allocation or distribution of things of value within a society or nation.  That thing of value may be material, such as income, wealth or necessary or luxury goods.  But things of real value may also be largely symbolic and without a formal price tag—things like the value of life or the sense of belonging to, respect of, or participation in a society. Political parties help structure and prioritize these allocations of things of value; In the United States, Republicans and Democrats have different views about the list of valuable things government and politics should allocate, and if, how and when they should be allocated. 

Third, politics takes place inside of a political culture that determines what is acceptable and not. That political culture, in turn, is downstream and dependent on the broader social and popular culture of the nation. While a very few perpetuate, profit from, and celebrate this coarseness, I believe fear and anxiety over this coarseness is far more widespread.  It is common to “hate on” the vulgarity of politicians and political parties, but I believe that understandable hate is largely misplaced. Much of what we hate about politics and parties is not the fault, in a causal way, of politics, but a reflection of the state of American culture today. The coarse elements of politicians and parties are largely a function of these same elements within American culture generally. If this is true, it is logical (but perhaps not always morally defensible), for political parties and candidates to both exploit this fear and anxiety while simultaneously using the course attention tools used by the shapers of the broader culture. 

I believe we are at a moment in the nation’s history where most Americans are rightly and deeply anxious and fearful about the nation’s future health. We are a short-term society, and both families and governments have borrowed funds to enjoy today without any thought to how the next generation will pay those debts.  We have lost our rootedness in neighborhoods, local schools, nuclear families, local congregations, tight-knit voluntary associations, vocational expectations, and the like.  (Often for some good reasons—I am not pining for a return to the ‘50s and its many tight structures that unfairly punished even small deviancies.  My purpose is merely to note, as many scholars such as Robert Putnam have documented, that our human and geographic social networks, or spheres as Kuyper might say, are fraying).  It is not a coincidence that the crisis of rootedness, and anxiety and fear about it, is particularly acute among the working class with high school educations or less.  These are the demographic of voters that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attracted, in different ways, into the primaries of 2016, and who live all over the nation, but most prominently in the South and Border states and the industrial upper Midwest.  

Polls showing declining trust in institutions, including government institutions, illustrate that most Americans doubt that politics or government can do much to solve this anxiety and fear. Both political parties have responded in essentially the same way—not by trying to address the underlying issues but by accepting the widespread doubt and cynicism of government and blaming the failures of government on the other political party and its candidates.  Both national political parties today have essentially the same message: “We may be incompetent and flawed, but our intentions are good and the other party’s candidates and those who vote for them are evil.  Vote well-intentioned incompetence over evil.”

Neither Republicans nor Democrats need to continue down this path. Both should go down a new path—to clarify their views of the scope and purpose of government and parties, and show voters real plans to address substantive and material issues, not merely symbolic ones. A brief return to the first four party functions described above—socialization, mobilization, public education and policy formulation—help explain what I mean. The party’s work on socialization and mobilization in the 2016 election was fine.  Key candidates in both parties went after a latent, potential, demographic that has been imperfectly described as the white working class.  It is an imperfect description for many reasons, including that the working class has individuals of all ethnicities and that in a differentiated economy the “working class” is a highly ambiguous term.  Both Sanders and Trump went after these voters, and in a completely fair primary system both insurgents might have made it to the general election.  However, as a general comment, it is a sign of a healthy party system that insurgents in both parties identified and tried to attract this demographic and, in Sanders case at least, without alienating other traditional parts of the party coalition. It is a strong and perhaps ironic sign of the deep distrust of government and politics by the public that the traditional party of business, the GOP, was more easily invaded by a segment of working class voters.

Of concern to me, however, were the policy formulation and public education strategies of GOP candidates that were allowed and acquiesced to by core Republicans.  Campaigns are not classrooms; little substantive teaching or learning happens in the exchanges between candidates and voters, and campaigns that try to educate almost always fail. Nevertheless, the winning GOP candidate, or another party candidate, could have stuck to promises to rework free trade agreements for fairer terms, to rebuild traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rails and shipping lanes, to start new infrastructure such as universal internet access for rural areas and small towns, to propose other new rural and small town development programs, to promote ideas for strong local schools, health care facilities, churches, and the like, and to advocate for other matters that would create a financial and economic infrastructure to help non-urban areas.  These would have been substantive policy ideas aimed at attracting the non-urban voter, particularly in the South, in ways and through means in which government is competent. Instead, the campaign was characterized by attracting these voters by appealing to their fears and prejudices, not their interests. 

In the short term, and at the superficial level, it is no surprise that few in the GOP establishment resisted the tone and tenor of the successful presidential nomination and election campaign. The three established planks of the party are, as I noted in my first essay, a muscular foreign policy led by the military, free global trade that produces overall wealth, and acclaim for a set of values rooted in traditional religious expression that provide social stability.  These are defensible positions, of high and worthy symbolic value, and with some material and tangible benefits to all, although more thoroughly for the upper classes. Their benefits to the working class are mixed, not very material, and Trump, at least, noted that and ran on that.  After his successful election, however, the establishment GOP is now faced with a difficult choice in its strategy to keep Trump voters voting for the party.  One choice is to alter significantly the standing Republican view of the role of the federal government in local economic development and in the material strains on the non-urban working class and their communities.  This position proposes real, constructive, and appropriate ways to attract Trump voters over the longer term. In general, it is the road I believe should be taken. The other choice facing all three elements of the GOP establishment is to continue to tolerate, or at least acquiesce to in an offensive communication strategy that demonizes as evil the other party and the more varied socioeconomic and demographic groups that tend to support it in elections. It will be interesting to see which path is taken.  The choice Republicans make will interact in some ways with what Democrats choose; but one could do worse that have a debate between the two major parties on how best to improve the material condition for all individuals in the nation.


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