February 8, 2011

One Partisan Nation, Divisible

Democrats and Republicans will always have plenty to fight over (or better, "respectfully disagree"). In the quest for votes, and especially in our increasingly static political landscape dominated by safe districts, politicians from both sides find it pays off to find new issues to label as "ours" or "theirs". This is too bad, because these are issues that deserve responsible treatment by our political leaders, issues that could determine our physical survival and moral worth, issues that do not intrinsically belong to one side or the other.

GUNS. Many Democrats as well as Republicans support gun rights, and the National Rifle Association gives generously on both sides of the aisle. Sensible gun control was not always a partisan issue, and it just makes sense. Members of Congress are now being advised to surround themselves with police protection and metal detectors, which would be less necessary if high-volume ammunition clips weren't freely available. The rate of gun deaths in America is staggering on its own, even without comparison to the low numbers in other industrialized countries. And yet, "gun rights" are still seen as a Republican cause.

ENVIRONMENT. PCBs, arsenic, lead and other toxins pervade our ecosystem, and global warming is an objective fact -- the aggregate temperature of our planet is increasing at an alarming and consistent rate, and it's impacting our climate and raising sea levels toward an eventual showdown with hundreds of millions of unlucky coastal dwellers. Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, so this should have been easy.

CIVIL RIGHTS. Republicans extol the virtues of individualism, they're "the Party of Lincoln," and yet the last 60 years have been a partisan showdown over African-American voting rights, the right to abortion, the right of gays to serve in the military. What happened to "all men are created equal" and government not interfering in people's lives? Perhaps the combination of racist southern "Dixie-crats" dumping the Democratic Party for the GOP, and the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushing so hard on voting rights and Great Society programs, was too polarizing and too beneficial to Republican candidates to resist (and Democrats locked in the African-American vote for two generations).

IMMIGRATION. The business community needs unskilled workers for jobs few Americans are willing to perform, and our employee base is short on some skills that are needed, included nursing and certain high-tech fields. Additionally, thousands of persecuted individuals seek freedom and refuge in the United States. This is a big part of what makes America great, and it honors our stated commitment to individual rights. But when an election is close, frightening voters rarely fails.

MUSLIMS. The idea of building an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero, where thousands of Muslims, Jews and Gentiles still work every day, should have been celebrated by Republicans -- and it was, at first. But strangely, as the primary elections neared, and then the general election, it became a cause for Republican candidates across the nation. A religious-based institution was being called upon to prove itself beyond the letter of the law. Since November, it had faded from public attention, though now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, hearings are addressing the threat of Muslim-American extremists. So much for individual rights.

(UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE). "Socialism"... OK, I get it. Although the United States is the only industrialized nation without universal health coverage, it is government telling insurance companies what to do. As with social security and financial regulation, it probably qualifies as Democrat vs. Republican. But how does limiting how much I can sue my health provider advance individual rights?

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was a pioneer of sensible limits and reporting for campaign contributions, especially from large corporations, until the Republican leadership imposed its discipline. Republicans have generally done better than Democrats at pulling in corporate donations, so there is a strategic -- if not entirely principled -- justification for them to oppose such reforms. Still, getting back to the ideal that each citizen gets an equal say in electing the Congress and President should not be the province of one party or the other. Although breaking the incumbency stranglehold on "representative" government is really a case of career politicians vs. the people, Republicans still find support -- popular and financial -- for their rejectionist position.

Not one of these issues is advanced by being labeled either liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. But in our automated two-party system, they are fodder for career politicians to divide and rule, and for upstarts to make enough of an impression to win a seat in the clubhouse.

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