Today the political system is dominated by two giants: Democrats and Republicans. The two parties first fought it out in the election of 1856, but they didn’t take their current forms until sometime between 1968 and 1980. Last week we discussed the conservative perspective of the Republican Party, asking how they could retain their goal of smaller government while also embracing compassion and intellectualism. This week, we turn to their #1 competitor: the Democrats.
As before, we are going to rely on Wikipedia and the Democratic platform for our conversation. We don’t want to attack the party as an outsider but seek to understand it from the inside.
In contrast to the conservatism of Republicans, the Democratic Party is composed mostly of centrists and progressives. This composition can be seen most clearly in 2016’s Democratic primary and its two frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While Hillary is more progressive than her husband, she and Bill represent a more centrist form of Democrat. Bill, during his presidency, was even associated with what was called the “Third Way,” a centrist movement advocating center-right economic policy and center-left social policy. (Barack Obama would likely be included in this group.) Sanders, on the other hand, is one of many Democrats that would be classified as progressive—seeking to dramatically reform the country.
These sorts of differences make the ideology of the Democratic Party hard to pin down; however, a wide enough net might be to describe the party’s philosophy as advocating both social and economic equality, partly by means of the welfare state.
Democratic candidates find most of their support on the West Coast and in the Northeast, and recently in Colorado and New Mexico. They also appeal more to women and minorities as well as to educated individuals. This gives the Democratic Party its current membership lead over Republicans.
The modern Democratic Party emphasizes social egalitarianism. As an extension of this, they push for increased minority rights, including those of LGBT+ but especially of race groups. They also champion feminism, multiculturalism, and secularism (i.e. the division of church and state).
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Democratic Party is their desire to reform various social issues—if they sense a wrong in society, they incorporate a fix into their platform. Their solution may not always be the best, but they nonetheless have the right priority. As a party, Democrats have pushed for gun control, more open immigration, and the removal of the death penalty. They seek to defend the marginalized and the minority. At one time, they were considered the party of the working man and the impoverished.
However, Democrats’ expanding social agenda has, in some cases, led their party to become increasingly authoritarian. As they identify perceived problems in the culture, they campaign for legislation to fix those problems. With the best of intentions, they seek to align the country with their version of perfection. This can, in turn, mirror the insults we discussed last week—but instead of calling opponents “stupid” or “fragile,” the left calls those on the right bigoted, sexist, or racist.
To fix the problems they find, Democrats are usually pretty hands-on with the economy, making use of government intervention and regulation. This can take the form of social programs, support for labor unions (though this has decreased in recent decades), supplementing college tuition, expanding health care, protecting consumers, and enacting environmental regulation.
In as much as I support their social agenda, I like their economics—doing what is necessary to help the impoverished and giving people the medical attention they need. I also think the political left is right to emphasize environmental regulation as much they do. Making responsible economic decisions that help our poor and the earth around us should always be favored. Moreover, while I praise the power of the free-market, Democrats are right to point out that capitalism is not the answer to every market.
Still, the Democratic Party doesn’t always make the responsible decision in economic matters. In efforts to solve social issues, they have often chosen solutions that inflate government bureaucracy and spending—which in the long term hurts everyone. Where private enterprise can help, we should let it; where it can’t, only there should we look to the government.
Like last week, we want to step back from the specifics of the party’s platform and look at their driving ideologies. It seems safe to say that most Democrats’ beliefs are linked by their emphasis on equality—there is an orienting concern on making all groups equal, be it socially or economically. Beyond that, though, it gets a little harder to identify themes in left-wing thought. If we give any credence to the order of issues presented in the Democratic platform, we see after issues of equality, they discuss environmental policy, education, and government (specifically, campaign) reform.
As mentioned above, part of the difficulty in condensing the Democratic Party is the two pillars of thought holding it up—its centrists and its progressives. The centrists among the Democrats are largely classical liberals, and—if you’re not familiar—because of America’s abuse of the term, the difference between liberals and progressives is mildly complex. For the moment, all you need to know is that generally liberals are more concerned with freedom (which can result in conservative economic policy) and progressives are more concerned with reform.
I’ve written before on my preference for centrism, and so that’s one element I really like about the Democratic Party. Over the years, they have proven to be a more centered party (see figures below). However, this has begun to change. Partly in response to changes in the Republican Party, partly in response to changes in American culture, partly because of the vision of new leaders—whatever the case, progressivism is gaining more control in the Democratic Party. That’s not my ideal future, but it’s not inherently bad—it’s just part of what’s happening.
So what does it take to be a good Democrat? As with anyone, Democrats have to be willing to hear out and listen to those on the other side. Part of that is refraining from judging the character of people because they disagree—people aren’t racist if they don’t affirm affirmative action, or misogynist if they are pro-life. Being a good Democrat also means retaining one’s passion for helping the disenfranchised and the working class. It means caring about the environment because, as old as it is, it’s never dealt with the modern world. It means continuing to pursue equality—as long as that means pulling everyone up, not dragging anyone down.