The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky
in my last column, I raised the issue of the weak Republican organization in New York City and in Rockaway, and what might happen should the proposal to eliminate party endorsements on election ballots (so- called "non-partisan elections") become law. The thrust of my point was that Republicans in New York City are now so weak that they’re largely surviving on the largesse of non-Republican candidates who co-opt them in order to find a slot on local election ballots. Eliminating this option for Republicans might very well push them into a state of local extinction. Even without formal extinction, their current weakness leaves us, in essence, a one-party town. This is bad for our community and bad for democracy and it’s even more eggregious, given that next summer the national Republicans are coming here to hold their presidential nominating convention! We now have an historic opportunity to revive the loyal opposition in New York City and it would be a shame to flub it.
In response to these comments, a reader (no names since that wouldn’t be right without his permission) responded by asking why anyone should be a Republican, especially if he or she were comfortable with many Democratic positions. He wanted to know what the differences were between a "left-leaning Republican" and a "right-leaning Democrat" and if a lifelong Democrat could find happiness in the party of Richard Nixon? Since I’d noted in my column that I’d been a Democrat in an "earlier life," I suppose he figured this was a fair question, as it was! Herewith, then, my response (slightly edited, of course).
WHY I AM NOT A DEMOCRAT!
The American party system (which usually shakes out as two main parties) is really one of overarching affiliations within which many different sub-groups, often reflecting greater philosophical purity, can find a home. I happen to come from the libertarian side of the spectrum which means I have some affinities with modern day liberals although other Republicans have somewhat different philosophies.
Both modern liberalism and modern libertarianism came from the same source: classical 18th century English liberalism which had two main strands, the desire to make society better for those at the bottom and the belief in constraining government so that it would not impinge on individual freedom. (Conservatives in those days were people who favored the monarchy, the class system, the existing governmental institutions, etc.)
In the modern United States, at least going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time, these two strands have become separated, i.e., those who favor helping society’s weakest have latched onto the idea of government as the solution. Hence they favor larger, more robust government, the exact antithesis of what those who most prize individual liberty want! Libertarianism is that strand of classical liberalism that still hangs onto the idea of individual liberty as being paramount. It hearkens back to the earliest days of this country when the main concern was to break away from a government perceived as oppressive and to set up a new one that would not be as dangerous to freedoms as the one we broke away from. So libertarians today are actually considered conservative in America in that they want what the founding fathers struggled to establish.
Among other things, libertarians are uncomfortable with government’s involvement in personal issues, like abortion, and are not all that friendly to things like capital punishment because we’re all fallible and execution is forever. Personally, I’m also sympathetic to people in need and do not favor a complete gutting of social programs, only reining them in so they don’t continue to spur runaway government growth, both because it impinges on our liberty and because it creates a drag on the economy and society, i.e., it crowds out private effort and initiative and encourages a harmful attitude of social dependence in people.
Needless to say, my positions do not appeal to all Republicans. This is because there are several groups in the larger party, just like there are several groups in the Democratic Party. The social conservatives, for instance, want to enforce morality on society overall, and when they are representing what seem to me to be morally right positions, I am often in sympathy with them. But, on balance, I do not favor giving government the power to enforce a social agenda on the rest of us, even for the good. I don’t like smoking and always drive with a seatbelt, but I don’t like government banning the one or mandating the other . . . or looking over my shoulder all the time to check up on me about it!
On the other hand, given what we experienced with 9/11, I also recognize that we are in a war with a gang that despises us and wants to destroy us if they can. If they succeed, then liberties won’t be worth squat and so I bite my lip and accept the judgment of this administration as to the necessity of things like the Patriot Act. Much of the opposition against it strikes me as either hysterical (as Ashcroft noted) or opportunistically partisan, driven by the left wing’s drive to recapture government in this country, anyway.
So while I am instinctively on the libertarian side of things, I am not dogmatically so. (If I were a purist, I’d have joined the Libertarian Party instead of the Republicans!) I think that much as we might all prefer minimal government interference in our lives, in today’s world that just isn’t feasible. So I settle for the best we can have in what I see as an imperfect world: a government that is brought to heel and held to account and is not allowed to grow to the skies and tax us into economic oblivion. Although once a registered Democrat, I switched parties in the early nineties and have never had cause to look back. I respect the Democratic viewpoint as perfectly legitimate. But I think it is largely wrong and that we can chart a better way for our government and society by turning back to the libertarian principles on which this country was largely founded.
Stuart W. Mirsky can be reached at rockirreg.aol.com if you have comments or questions.