Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new dueling columns feature. In our very first feature, Michael Johns ’20 and Giancarlo Valdetaro ’21 debate, “How have the stakes of American politics risen so high?” Read the counterpart column here.
In his State of the Union address last week, President Trump extended an invitation to members of Congress to set aside their differences and begin to work collaboratively — not on their respective Republican or Democratic agendas, but on “the agenda of the American people.”
“Many of us,” he argued, “campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our Nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first.”
It is an important message, and yet one that sadly is poised to be ignored. Congress, for at least a decade now, has been entrenched in bitter, dysfunctional partisanship where success or failure is measured solely by political victory. In pursuit of this end, the well-being of the nation has too often become little more than a tertiary concern. Does any reasonable onlooker really believe that today’s congressional Democrats want to see President Trump succeed in his bid to create millions of jobs, drive gross domestic product growth above three percent for the first time in over a decade and forge or restructure successful trade agreements? Of course not. In fact, Democrats’ greatest nightmare may well be this precise scenario: A President Trump who can stand before the Republican National Convention next summer and credibly boast that he has delivered on his campaign promises and that, by every metric, the nation is better than when he took office.
How have the stakes of American politics risen so high? Two factors are largely responsible.
First, the federal government’s partisan dysfunction has grown proportionate to the size and scope of the federal government itself. In 1961, the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the government spent less than $100 billion (not adjusted for inflation), even while expanding its welfare offerings, defending American interests amid Cold War tensions and pursuing an ambitious space program. But by President Trump’s arrival, $100 billion had grown incrementally to over $4 trillion, largely allocated to an unelected bureaucracy that is corrupted by an agenda of self-preservation.
The expansion of governmental power, as evidenced by the hand-off of regulatory rulemaking and other democratically vested authority from Congress to the federal bureaucracy, has increased the political stakes by leading each party to fight for control of this bureaucracy. Today, seemingly no area of American life escapes the federal government. As the size of this political prize has grown, so has the partisan pursuit of it. As such, big government holds a large amount of responsibility for today’s coarse politics in Washington, D.C.
Second, as President Trump correctly stated in his address, the country’s success rests on the premise that American citizens have more shared values than points of contention. Should that basic value structure break down much further, however, the country is faced with a reality more severe than just harsh partisanship. At some point, the nation’s very foundation is jeopardized.
In its firm leftward shift of late, the Democratic Party has abandoned that shared value structure. The Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy cut taxes, maintained an appropriate skepticism of big government and was hawkish toward America’s Cold War enemies. Like Ronald Reagan, JFK believed the U.S. political system of constitutional liberties and a vibrant free market economy placed it in a position of moral superiority on the world stage. Like Reagan, JFK Democrats viewed socialism with contempt; there was no fanciful romanticization of the ideology that claimed the lives of tens of millions and immiserated tens of millions more.
Today’s Democratic Party of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) shares almost no ideological commonality with the Democratic Party of JFK, or even that of Bill Clinton. JFK proudly cut the nation’s marginal tax rates; the Democratic Party of Pelosi, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez openly support increasing them. JFK boldly associated himself with the anti-communist Cold War crusade of his day and wore his Catholic faith in the open. Today’s Democrats, conversely, hold no contempt for socialism and have increasingly demeaned those of faith in the public square.
It is not that Republicans do not wish to identify common ground with Democrats. Rather, it is that Republicans see little common ground to be identified. How does a political party that sees socialism as a totally delegitimized and even anti-American ideology do business with a party that increasingly embraces it? This debate has transcended mere policy disagreements. Instead, in today’s zero-sum national politics, many Americans see a struggle for nothing less than America’s identity.
In an ideal world, all would embrace a common set of values, and policy proposals would live or die on their merits alone — not on partisan association. Ultimately, the 535 representatives the American people send to Washington, D.C. must safeguard both the constitutional responsibility of the legislative branch and uphold the founding principles on which our republic stands. This may ultimately be the secret recipe to de-escalating our inflamed politics.
Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.