If all you watch is Fox News, you get no sense that the basic ideology that most Democrats represent is justified, or even potentially effective. If all you watch is MSNBC, you assume that all Republicans are money-grubbing millionaires who just want to feather their nests at the expense of those less fortunate. And those divergent perspectives are seemingly irreconcilable in a country that has always had political parties and that has almost always had differing ideologies represented by those parties.
But stripped of the angry rhetoric that both sides consistently spew, the ideological differences represented by Republicans and Democrats can be seen as seeking the same basic goal: maximum prosperity for the largest number of people. At various times in my life I have been either a staunch conservative or a devout liberal. And while I am probably closer to a socialist now than to either of the major ideologies in American politics, I think I can represent the best perspectives on each. So, consider what follows as my attempt to create greater tolerance of each ideology, if not to make both palatable to everyone.
At the core of conservatism is a desire for personal freedom. In political terms, this desire flows from a strict reading of the Constitution, which carefully delineates and limits the role of government so as to provide the greatest amount of personal liberty and freedom to all citizens. With regard to economics, conservatives view free markets as the source of a strong economy. And to a conservative, a free market is one that is unencumbered by government regulation. Conservatives are committed to letting the law of supply and demand work freely. Consumers can, for example, best decide what products are desirable, how much they should pay for those products, and whether they are safe or healthy or worthwhile. Government decisions on these matters, to conservatives, are intrusions on the freedom of individuals (and society collectively) to make their own choices. Simply stated, conservatives seek to preserve the freedom to pursue opportunities.
The current health care debate (whether to repeal and how to replace Obamacare) is a good example of how conservative ideology directs political arguments (albeit you won’t often hear it expressed in this way). The pure conservative approach to health care would be to remove all government involvement. Instead, health care providers (doctors and hospitals) would be free to provide their services to those who wanted to use them at a cost that reflected what the market dictated (i.e., what consumers were willing to pay). Insurance companies could then offer to cover some or all of those expenses to those consumers who chose to purchase policies from those companies. In other words, everyone – health care professionals, patients, insurance companies, and consumers – would be free to establish how they wanted to provide for their medical needs. The free market would then find an equilibrium in which some doctors and hospitals would serve those able to pay more and others would serve those only able to pay less. Insurance companies would provide policies to some who wanted maximum coverage (and would be willing to pay for it) and to others who wanted minimal coverage (and would be paying much less for it).
The market for health care would dictate the level of coverage and the degree to which the society as a whole was healthy. Government would have a role only if criminal conduct occurred (as in the instance of insurance fraud or perhaps gross medical malpractice). Things like mandates to be insured and policies that covered pre-existing conditions would not be required. They could be offered, but only as the market showed the need and provided the impetus for them.
Liberals view markets with suspicion. Their ideology is less tied to a strict reading of the Constitution and is more concerned with how to deal with the realities and complexities that create undue burdens and injustices for many in a pure market approach. Liberals try to make the Constitution relevant to modern times. They believe that government regulation of free markets is necessary to preserve the personal freedoms that are explicitly detailed in the Constitution (and especially in the amendments to it). Liberals seek to preserve equality in the pursuit of opportunities.
With regard to health care, liberals would prefer that it be a right that the government made available to all through legislation and regulation. Ideally, to liberals, health care would be provided to everyone through a government-run system. It would replace the market by establishing payment schedules to doctors and hospitals for the provision of medical services (much as Medicare does now). Insurance companies could supplant the government-run system (much as they do with Medicare now), but they would not be needed for basic coverage. The system would be supported through taxation, which would fall heaviest on the wealthiest. And that point marks another significant difference between conservative and liberal perspectives.
Conservatives believe that the acquisition of wealth should always be honored as the goal of a free market capitalist system. Thus, heavily taxing the wealthy, for a conservative, is a disincentive to those the markets are intended to reward. Conservatives view graduated tax systems that most heavily tax the wealthiest as anathema to the unfettered capitalism they espouse. They favor minimal taxation that is spread equally (e.g., the flat tax you’ll hear much about if and when Republicans take on tax reform later this year or next) and only favor any taxation for the purpose of providing essential government services (primarily police protection and military defense; less so for education and transportation; little, if any, for health and human services; and as close to nothing for culture and the arts).
Liberals favor graduated tax plans that heavily tax those who have profited the most from their labors. They regard such profits as being largely enhanced by the capitalist system the country offers and thus feel it is a patriotic duty of those who have benefitted from that system to “pay back” into it for those who have not so benefitted. In this regard, liberals place less emphasis on the reward that wealth represents and more on the good fortune that provides it. And, looking at those who have not benefitted from the system, or have suffered because of it, liberals regard it as the responsibility of those who have succeeded to assist those who haven’t. (Conservatives, on this point, tend to view askance those who haven’t “lifted themselves up,” perhaps acknowledging minimally the many possibly justified reasons why they haven’t.)
So, if I’ve adequately presented the legitimate ideological bases for the political positions the respective parties take, much of the rancor and outright hostility for the left that is expressed by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and their conservative colleagues should be dismissed as disrespectful political rhetoric. And the boogie-man view of Republicans that is seemingly the central message of much of what is presented on MSNBC should be similarly discounted.
All of which is my humble way of suggesting that we should all be a lot more civil towards and respectful of each other. We will always have our different views of how to secure America’s great potential, but we should also seek to understand and appreciate those differences.