A Generation In-Between the Extremes
The upside of a two-party political system is we are virtually guaranteed a majority of participating voters will determine our political fate (except when the Electoral College screws things up). Given a binary choice, people gravitate towards the more emotionally-appealing side and adopt it fully, the good and the bad. Parties become both slaves to popular opinion and drivers of prevailing social customs. The downside is for far too many, neither side can fully represent our ideals. Politics over the past decade has been a battle to control the popular conception of Americanism in all or nothing terms. Lost in this shuffle is the concept of a modern man who embraces wisdom regardless of the source and never engages in political absolutism.
The prevailing narrative this election season concerns fiscal responsibility, just as it was in the tide-turning midterm elections in 2010. The woeful state of our economy the last four years and the rate of unemployment the last three years make an argument for change based on economics an easy sell. Beyond the party rhetoric, there is an important set of values to be considered.
Austerity, the tea-party cure-all, cannot be an overarching economic philosophy in a modern economy. But austerity applied wisely is imperative. Fiscal responsibility is essential to our long-term health. Spending limited resources requires frugality where investments produce inadequate returns. The difficult part is determining how and where our collective resources will benefit the greatest good. A conservative approach to spending, especially when entering long-term contracts, is something we all learn to adopt with maturity as necessary to guaranteeing our future financial health.
This fundamental issue, the way we collect and spend resources, has divided us politically in regrettable ways. The conversation has skewed towards an either-or choice between absolute austerity and reckless debt accumulation and taxation. This over-simplification masks the critical nuance. Our national budget is dominated by Medicare (21%), Social Security (20%), and National Defense (20%). The major discussion points though are debt (interest payments – 6%), our ability to provide social programs (13%), and taxes. Talk of austerity rarely extends to military spending, the fastest growing segment of our budget in the last decade (wars will do that). We cannot have a rational conversation on Medicare and Social Security because it’s political suicide to make a serious effort to reform them and anyone who does will be lambasted publically for turning their back on our nation’s seniors.
There is no dignity in shying away from difficult choices, less so in refusing to negotiate solutions in the best interests of the country to win short-term political gains. The options before us are not austerity on one side and oppressive taxation on the other. It sounds that way only because our parties have chosen political stalemates over leadership. We have the means to increase investments in ourselves – education is 2%, scientific research is 2%, transportation is 3% – without reckless borrowing or substantial tax increases, if we make a collective effort to reduce spending in our largest programs.
The other major dividing line between our political parties is drawn on social issues. The Republican position advocates government dictating what is socially-acceptable through rule of law. The platform is built on a set of values largely dictated by Christian principles. There is nothing inherently wrong with social values dictated by religious beliefs; there is a problem with integrating those values into laws meant to govern a diverse population of varied religious values on concepts of morality. The Democratic Party has embraced groups left out of the Republican platform, creating a social divide with unfortunate racial overtones.
Social progress has been hard fought and slowly won in our history. 100 years ago, the conservative position was women should not participate in the political process, racial minorities were an inferior species, and homosexuality was a mental disorder. Today we still struggle with gender, racial, and sexual equality. Throughout the American workplace people speak of jobs women do not want or industries they are better suited for. Our legal system punishes minorities more harshly than non-minorities. We deny homosexuals equal rights with legal impunity.
The result of the political divide on social issues is an ideological quandary for the modern man. If you support conservative fiscal policies, but believe in social equality, you are a man without a political home. For too many people in the generation on the verge of leadership in this country, there is no coherent political message to embrace. For a two party system to work in modern America there must be intelligent compromise. Dignified leadership demands it.