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At 70, discerning the difference between Republicans and Democrats

Upon entering his eighth decade in 2007, Joseph Epstein wrote an essay titled “Kid Turns 70,” in which he asserted that 70 was a funny age to turn. “Despite misgivings,” he wrote, “I have gone ahead and done it.” Last week, in spite of my own misgivings, I did too — and having done it,  seem to have attained a certain sagehood in my neighborhood.

One fellow, who is a tad shy of 50, asked what it was like to be 70. I responded it was just fine, thank you, when considering the alternative. Amused, he pressed me. “Well, what have you learned in 70 years?”

I thought for a moment then said, “That there’s only one fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats.”

My two brothers and I were issues of a mixed marriage; our mother was a Republican and our father a Democrat. The respective parties seemed to suit our parents’ ethnicity, with Mom’s Scandinavian stoicism at home with the more reserved nature of Republicans, while Democrats’ proclivity toward the boisterous fit Dad’s Italian temperament.

A canceled vote in each election
The folks seldom argued politics, but Mother obdurately canceled Dad’s vote in nearly every election. Our mother simply felt in her heart that Republicans claimed the higher moral ground. 

Dad was drawn to the Democratic Party through his long association with the Duluth teachers union — an organization he helped found, and where he served several terms as president. He was unrelenting in his efforts to secure benefits and safeguards for members. Even Mom — also a schoolteacher — admitted conditions improved for educators during Dad’s tenure, and she admired what he’d accomplished.

Yet she remained convinced that most other unions were run by thugs who encouraged featherbedding (a term unfamiliar to people under 50 today as union influence wanes).

All this goes by way of saying that during my adolescence and early adulthood I was more influenced by my mother, who maintained Republicans were persons of optimism, gentility and refinement, while Democrats — Dad excluded — were cynical, coarse and profane.  She had been uncomfortable with President Harry S. Truman — who shared her Baptist affiliation — because he uttered barnyard vulgarisms she was certain never parted the lips of Republican gentlemen.

In those days, as a reserved and shy young man, I also aspired to culture and refinement. And I envisioned a career clad in Brooks Brothers habiliments, an executive with a country club membership.

An evolution over time
But the passing of time has seen the optimism of my 20-year-old self evolve into my father’s skepticism. And history has contributed to my take on matters political. Herbert Hoover’s seeming laissez-faire approach to the Great Depression was a hallmark of my father’s reluctance to entrust Republicans with elected office. He said the Hoover administration believed that if industrial and banking moguls had been left alone, they could have navigated the country’s emergence from the financial crisis. Herbert Hoover’s optimism, epitomized in the 1928 campaign slogan: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” appeared constructed around the premise that an economy thrives when corporations and CEOs, free of government interference, are allowed to resolve issues.

It took World War II and firmer banking regulations during the Democratic presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reverse the economic slide of the 1930s.

The last Republican president who didn’t share his party’s line of minimizing government intrusions into private enterprise was Theodore Roosevelt. He dissolved monopolies in 1908, but some re-emerged under Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “Government is not the solution to the problem. Government IS the problem.”

Lost jobs, houses, health insurance
Recent events seem to indicate otherwise. Under-regulated financial and insurance institutions have contributed to millions of Americans losing jobs or facing foreclosure, with 18 percent of our citizens under age 65 having no health insurance at all. According to a February 2009 report from the Congressional Budget Office, this number is expected to grow from its current 45 million uninsured to 54 million in the next 10 years. The bromidic Republican response hearkens to an unfettered marketplace producing salutary results.

So finally, as I have attained three score years and 10 (which, according to the Psalmist, is about all we can expect from these mortal coils), I have discerned the essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans believe if corporations and citizens are free of government interference they will naturally do the right thing. Democrats, on the other hand, know that they won’t.

Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” “The Man From Lake Wobegon” and other books.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/30/2009 - 08:31 am.

    Very well said. I would add that, since the takeover of the Republican Party by those for whom President Reagan was a very effective mouthpiece, our Republican friends’ chief concern seems to have been, how can I restructure government and the national economy to allow myself to gather resources sufficient to build the biggest, most impressive, most ostentatious boat possible and thereby prove that I’m OK as a person.

    Of course, since whether or not you’re OK is not, ultimately something you can prove by material means, but is an issue of psychology and/or religion, that boat can NEVER be big enough to prove you’re really OK. The most dangerous side effect to this approach to life is that the quest to prove your own worth by material means ensures that your focus remains only and completely on yourself.

    The Democrats, by contrast, have and are currently continuing to ask and seek answers to the question, how can we restructure the economy and government to be sure that everyone at least has a boat (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).

    Of course there are dysfunctional wingnuts on the fringes of both sides – those on the Republican side who believe that the fact that someone needs help is proof they aren’t worthy of it, and those on the Democratic side who believe that the fact that someone is in need is proof they should be handed whatever they need without any attempt to motivate them to meet their own needs.

    The bottom line for this particular day and time is probably this, the “Rising Tide” that was supposed to “lift all boats” didn’t turn out to be a rising tide at all. It was, instead, a massive shift of resources from the poor and middle class to the rich. Instead of “lifting all boats,” it simply stripped the wood right off the sides of the millions of smaller boats in order to build more ostentatious yachts for the fortunate few.

    Now that the real economic tide has (inevitably) gone out, those small, stripped boats are sitting on the bottom, but they didn’t have far to fall. The yachts, on the other hand, have mostly run aground and aren’t going anywhere for a good long time (except, of course, where the government was forced to create a special pool for the “too-big-to-fail” yachts, lest all commerce come to a screeching halt lasting several months if not years, but their day of reckoning is coming, soon enough).

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/30/2009 - 09:09 am.

    Gosh, Michael; I scarcely know where to begin, so perhaps it’s best to go with convention and just start from the beginning.

    If one believes that the proper focus for the public school system is the creation and retention of high paying union jobs, your mom’s admiration in dad the union guy is well placed indeed.

    One cant help but wonder, however, what mom the teacher, and dad the teacher might think today as they compare the academic achievements of the students that sat in their classrooms with those leaving those hallowed halls today.

    You suggest that under-regulated financial and insurance institutions are to blame for the collapse of the mortgage industry, and the attendant economic disaster the President is attempting to backfill with borrowed Chinese dollars.

    However, if one cared to look, one would find the mortgage banking industry labored under volumes, reams and piles of regulatory mandates. Perhaps the lesson one might learn in a decade or two is that the problem with regulation is that it can be manipulated to serve the goals of the regulator with ease.

    A closer inspection of those reams, volumes and piles would reveal a shift from protecting the integrity of the banking system towards using it as a tool for a socio-economic experiment gone terribly wrong.

    FDR’s contribution to American life has been scrutinized in depth by people much better suited to the task than I, so I suggest hitting the books. Here’s a good one to start with, IMO.

    While I shrink from untangling historical folly, I thank you Michael, for the opportunity to set you straight on one important point.

    You say you’ve learned that “Republicans believe if corporations and citizens are free of government interference they will naturally do the right thing. Democrats, on the other hand, know that they won’t.”; a premise with which I take great umbrage.

    Republicans are not under any illusions as to the nature of our fellows. We understand that human nature directs us all to look first to ourselves and our kin; it’s as natural as breathing.

    Unfettered capitalism in no way guarantees corporate entities will “do the right thing”; that is no more capitalism’s job than academic success is a NEA union bosses job.

    Capitalism guarantees nothing more than our God given right of freedom to succeed or fail on the merits of our skill and dedication.

    A company headed towards failure might give every employee a fat raise. Of course that would bring an immediate collapse, but everyone could head to the unemployment line with the knowledge that they’d shared in picking those bones clean equally.

    Or, that company could cut salaries and lay off some workers and remain in a condition that allowed it to continue to offer employment while working its way out of financial duress. It might fail anyway, but then everyone could head off to the unemployment line with the knowledge that they’d done everything in their power to avoid it.

    Which is “the right thing”?

    The answer to that, Michael, is what I believe illustrates the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/30/2009 - 09:22 am.

    You comment “underregulated banking” is an understatement. I would refer you to the book “Looting of America” by Leopold to fully understand how the past years of unregulated Wall St. practically destroyed American capitalism.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/30/2009 - 09:57 am.

    Greg has succeeded in succinctly stating the single most important motivation and goal of the Democrat wing of today’s Democratic Party; I heartily congratulate you sir.

    “Their day of reckoning is coming, soon enough.”

    I see T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/30/2009 - 02:28 pm.

    Michael, I have you beat by a year and a half and can relate almost perfectly to your party switch. I breathed Republicanism in my 20’s thanks (?) to what I was reading at the time–“The Wanderer”–a far-right publication to the right of Ghengis Khan. I thought it reflected the beliefs of the Catholic Church to which I was devoted at the time. “A Communist under every bed!” and “We must fight in Vietnam for the good of the world!” were the mantras of the time.

    My revelation/revolution occurred by listening to people who had been impoverished by family circumstances (alcoholism, etc.) and had been helped to live successful lives with the help of that same government so infamously maligned by Reagan.

    Now I follow news and opinions which offer reality-based information, far from the beliefs of “The Wanderer” and the latter’s worthy heir, Fox News, and I continue to observe the political/social scene as it unrolls under those two almost totally different philosophies. So far, I see nothing that would make me lose my faith in liberalism. Reality rules!

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/30/2009 - 07:36 pm.

    Nice sentiment Mike, thanks for sharing…

    Now for something completely different….

    Democrats make plans and then do something else. Republicans follow the plans their grandfathers made.

    Democrats keep trying to cut down on smoking but are not successful. Neither are Republicans.

    Republican boys date Democratic girls. They plan to marry Republican girls, but feel that they’re entitled to a little fun first.

    Republicans sleep in twin beds–some even in separate rooms. That is why there are more Democrats.

    Democrats buy most of the books that have been banned somewhere. Republicans form censorship committees and read them as a group.

  7. Submitted by Brian Thiel on 08/06/2009 - 03:24 pm.

    I am also 70 but I see a different difference between Republicans and Democrats: Democrats appear to trust that government programs will just naturally accomplish good things and that the more massive they are in scope, the greater the benefit. On the other hand, Republicans know they WON’T.

    As for me, I do NOT TRUST EITHER PARTY. And especially not when either has a huge majority.

    Soon enough we will see if the bills slammed through in DC actually improve the general economy right away. After all, most recessions get better in 2 years anyway, and the bulk of the current stimulus is spread over 2 years. Seems like a sure-fire bet to be self-fulfilling. But even the proponents are hedging lately. Opponents see all the rancid bacon stuffed into them expressly to shore up political gains with little expressly targeted to rapidly boosting the economy.

    Here in MN the debacle would have been no better had there not been an inter-party stalemate. What we need is a modern rethinking of our entire public structure, not a tweaking here and there to do more of the same. The demographics have changed, the economic climate has changed, the minerals are mostly gone, and the technical revolution has created a new platform for interaction, yet the DFL legislative leadership won’t face the music and re-purpose our political policies and structures.
    Whenever the pendulum swings the majority the other way, we’ll see if the GOP is any better.

    Regardless, MN no longer has the resources to simply keep doing what we have been doing or to do even more. Maybe we don’t need to keep doing some things at all, or not in the same ways.

    In my case both my parents were mostly New Deal Democrats with an occasional favor toward a Republican or two. But I am a moderate-conservative and that mostly aligns me with the Republicans.

    Mr. Fedo characterizes Republicans as ignoring the evil tactics of business while the Democrats were valiantly striving to be protectors of the public by favoring strong supervision of business. Who, after all, was more instrumental in protecting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than Rep Barney Frank with the undying support of that partial term senator from Illinois? Who looked the other way there? Seems to be enough blame to embarrass either party.

    Even if one accepts the Democrat huck-muck that our problems stem from Republicans ignoring the hi-jinks of business, it is getting real clear now that swinging to the opposite extreme of government being able to act with little restraint is not more comforting to enough Americans that they are being demonized by the Democrats as adopting their own “community organizing” tactics.

    Again and again we see the pointed finger of the president blaming the “slow down and get it right” guys… like the blue dogs of his party or the non-partisan guys from the Congressional Budget Office.

    “We must hurry,” he says. But many are balking, asking whether we risk losing personal choices, paying even more ourselves for government services that are unproven and pushing off a bigger burden on our kids.

    The only hopeful sign I see coming in both Minnesota’s stalemate the resistance in DC is that there are enough people in place to make a large majority slow down and take the time to really interact with the minority to craft a better plan. Haste inevitably makes waste, perhaps trillion$.

    Sorry, Mr. Fedo, my 70-year old eyes also require glasses with a tint, but just a bit of rose color for me, not a denser blue.


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