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The 2016 presidential election demonstrated (although it seems many have not yet gotten the message) that voting to “shake things up,” or to elect candidates because they “tell it like it is” may not yield the desired result. Never in American history had voters been handed two such widely disliked candidates. Given that choice, in fact, nearly 100 million people – roughly 43 percent of Americans who would have been eligible to vote -- didn’t even bother to go to the polls. As we approach the 2018 midterm, and with the 2020 presidential not looming, we cling to the hope voters will be not only more careful, but more plentiful.
Americans have long voted more or less along party lines; perhaps following parents or friends, or because of general agreement with assumed ideological affinities. In short, it used to be that if your parents voted Republican or Democrat, you would likely vote Republican or Democrat, too. It wasn’t necessary to do a huge amount of research on individual candidates, because Republicans were perceived to be the more conservative bunch, holding that government should be no bigger than necessary to provide for the basic shared things like a military to defend the nation, some kind of transportation infrastructure, and some standards of interchange to address international diplomatic and trade relations. That thinking prevailed in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the Republican banner (despite a campaign finance scandal that swirled around Richard M. Nixon, his running mate). Democrats were the “progressive” people of the “New Deal,” (think Franklin D. Roosevelt), who wanted to help the less fortunate have at least the basics of health, education, and living standards, and who were more likely to help the less fortunate.
Before our nation was founded, even before we had political parties, we’ve had a division of opinion on whether we should be a republic or a democracy, or a combination of the two .(Some pundits say we’ve become a kleptocracy, but that’s another essay. )
Times have changed.
Political parties have adjusted their ideologies – and their names – almost from the nation’s founding, when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, his political rival, debated differing political philosophies to the point of a famous duel in 1854. (Hamilton lost.) Founding President George Washington disliked the very idea of political parties, and even warned people against becoming involved with them. But the eventual outcome of the duel was the formation of two dominant groups with different notions of how the country should be governed. Hamilton’s followers formed what was called the Federalist Party. Their rivals were known as the Democratic-Republican Party.
Basically, the early Federalists, before becoming the nation’s first political party, supported a strong central government. By 1790, when Hamilton rose to prominence, the distinctions broadened almost along “class” differences, with the Federalists backed by the wealthy “upper class,” and the Democratic-Republicans supported largely by working class “commoners.” The Federalists followed Hamilton’s support for the notion that “whatever is not forbidden is permitted. The Democratic-Republicans insisted on strict interpretation of the Constitution, which came down to insisting that without a constitutional delegation of power to Congress to do something, it couldn’t happen.
The Rich and The Rest
The Federalists had support from wealthy people and from the upper class. The Democratic-Republicans were supported largely by commoners and the middle class. The Federalists had a loose interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Alexander Hamilton stated that whatever is not forbidden in the Constitution, can be done. Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand, stipulated that the Constitution is to be strictly interpreted, meaning the Government must only do things that are stated in the Constitution. Unless the Constitution gives power to Congress to do something, it can’t be executed at all.
It’s beginning to sound familiar, isn’t it?
While the names of our parties have changed over time, and there are other parties, Republicans or Democrats have won every presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress to some degree since at least 1856. The Civil War (aka “War Between the States”), underscored a major philosophical distinction – whether or not slavery should be permitted – and, in addition to being the nation’s most divisive, most deadly war, marked the first of many identity shifts the two parties would go through.
Even now, historians and political analysts disagree about the significance and degree of these changes, involving platform planks, party leaders, factions, and voter demographics. The Democratic Party was originally favored in the rural south and had a “small government” platform (which southern social conservatives embraced), and the Republican party was the more urban, more liberal party. Now, in many respects, the poles have shifted, essentially flipping between 1896 and 2000. Today it is the opposite in many respects. And, although subject to interpretation and debate, the demographics of the nation have changed, and the changes have been reflected in the control of Congress, which makes our laws. Look at the distinctions in economic factors, population changes, and other demographic factors over time, and consider how they are reflected in the difference in control of government from the 71st Congress, under Herbert Hoover (1929-1931), and the 115th, under Donald Trump (Since 2017). Fast-forward to the present, and consider how things have changed even in the decade or so since the Great Recession.
A more detailed explanation of how the parties have evolved is presented in an insightful online essay by Thomas DeMichelle, lead author and content strategist for Factmyth.com.
Republicans used to dominate the northern states and orchestrated expansions of federal power, while Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. This video helps explain what happened.
As onetime Democrat President Donald J. Trump explains in this 2015 interview with CNN's Don Lemon, it is not unusual for politicians to switch between Republican and Democrat.
In addition to the philosophical changes between and within political parties, consider how politicians have also shifted their positions and their party associations, too. Ronald Reagan was a Democrat before he switched in 1962. Hillary Clinton was a Republican before she switched in 1969. As CNN’s Don Lemon learned in the 2015 interview above, Donald Trump also switched from Democrat to Republican. And since then, the political identities of many well-known figures in both parties have shifted with the emergence of influence from the conservative, somewhat libertarian Tea Party upon the GOP, and the more recent introduction of broadly socialist positions embraced by younger, more diverse activists aligning with the Democrats.
Reading Between the Lines
It is becoming increasingly difficult to parse the political stance of almost any politician based solely upon whether their name on the ballot is followed by an R or a D. And it is even more tricky to weigh whether a candidate’s position on issues is reflected in relation to official party platforms, or platform differences at the local, state, or national levels. While we should know by now that politicians can be economical with the truth in their campaign rhetoric (on both sides), it’s even more difficult to determine whether what they say while campaigning and what they do upon taking office.
Perhaps the most stark – or most egregious -- example of that can be seen in the campaign and tenure, so far, of Donald J. Trump as president. In the running assessment of Trump’s campaign statements in relation to what he has or has not achieved since taking office in January 2017, Pulitzer-winning Politifact is among the research-oriented media organizations that find his record is, at best, not very good. To be sure, most of his performance has been a work in progress. But many of the most significant promises he made have either been broken, reversed, or stalled by court actions or Congress. Similarly disappointing assessments have come from research by the Washington Post, NPR, ABC News, and the BBC, among others.
The disconnect between Trump’s public statements and Twitter rants and reality and demonstrable, documented fact is so vast, it is difficult to understand why or how down-ticket candidates self-identifying as Republicans claim to “stand with President Trump,” especially after Idaho voters in the 2016 presidential primary preferred Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by 45.4 percent of the vote, against 28.1 percent who voted for Trump. Trump went on to draw nearly 60 percent of the Idaho vote in the fall of 2016. By March this year, ahead of the May primary, as Trump was sinking in most nationwide polls, Idaho gave him a 52 percent rating, according to the results of a 50-state poll by Morning Consult.
In a TV ad during the Idaho gubernatorial primary campaign, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who proclaimed proudly his support for Trump, and who admitted voting for him in 2016, emerged victorious from the expensive, three-way contest against Tommy Ahlquist and Raul Labrador, had declared, "Tommy Ahlquist is so liberal he wouldn't even vote for Donald Trump over Hillary." (Ahlquist had declared his unwillingness to endorse Trump following disclosure of the infamous Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape.) In any case, although Idaho is widely regarded as a “red state,” having voted heavily and predictably Republican since 1990, voters say Idaho’s concerns are often not shared at the federal level. They tend to declare a distance between Gem State politics and Washington, D.C., politics, and many from across the spectrum of very conservative to very liberal say they agree on the need for a change from the status-quo of repeatedly electing “old, white males” to public office.
Given the disconnect between truth and verifiable fact in current national political discourse, and considering the sharp increase in use of social media especially Facebook and Twitter, it is even more difficult to determine the degree of influence TV ads have in voter decisions. Still, candidates at all levels and in both parties (although the Republicans invariably outspend the Democrats) seem willing to use them, and willing to spend more than ever in the process, according to data compiled by independent political watchdog Open Secrets.
Idaho and the Trump Train
The point of all this is the futility of selecting candidates based upon whether their names are followed by an R or a D. Since Trump’s inauguration, with many of his campaign promises stalled, shot down in Congress, or broken by Trump himself, it has also become increasingly less clear how White House or even majority Republican policy positions will play out in the Nov. 6 election. Idaho voters, while predominantly electing Republicans to state and national offices for two decades, reject the notion they vote in lockstep with the GOP establishment. While Trump’s “Donald Trump in 2020” pep rally tour has made more than a dozen whistle stops so far this year, the overtly pro-Trump element in Idaho politics has generally been muted since the May primary.
State-level political platforms of the two parties are as different as apples and oranges. That said, however, for voters hoping to understand what the parties say they stand for, they are at least revealing, if not informative.
The Idaho Republican Party platform is here.
The Idaho Democratic Party platform is here.
Idaho is the nation’s fastest-growing state, having picked up more than 10,000 new residents and grown nearly 1 percentage point a year for each of the past five years. Census data also show the ethnic diversity, gender spread, and age ranges have shifted to result in fewer white, elder males. How these factors may bear on voter opinions about such issues as gender equality, income disparity, education quality, and access to affordable healthcare for the first time since the early 1990s. It is clear that the dynamic demographics in Idaho will be reflected at the polls in November. Among signs of the changing political mood since 2016 was the dramatic increase in voter registrations ahead of the state’s May primary, and an accompanying increase in the number of votes in the Democratic primary, even with registered Republican voters outnumbering Democrats by nearly four-to-one.
In the past decade, the two political parties have struggled to define themselves, at the state level as well as nationally. For Republicans, the Trump presidency places the party at the tender mercies of a man whose background, temperament, and personality have been at odds with some of the most fundamental tenets of what GOP stalwarts long claimed to value most. Factored into the platform challenge for Republicans has been the effort to accommodate at least some of the principles of the Tea Party, the quasi-libertarian element that has been most outspoken against such things as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public education, and even equal pay for women or retention of the Postal Service.
For Democrats, the definition effort has been a crudely overt attempt to draw in some of the more traditional Republicans by soft-pedaling efforts to advance social welfare and central government oversight, while facing an increasingly restive challenge from younger, more diverse voters demanding a stronger social safety net, including a national healthcare program, free or at least subsidized education and job-training, stronger social justice support for LGBTQ people and a broader, more welcome attitude toward immigrants. A groundswell of support for Vermont’s outspoken Social Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders has helped push the central Democrat structure away from what looked like an increasingly centrist agenda to one that might even go for such once-radical notions as legalized marijuana or universal single-payer health insurance.
The Trump presidency’s hollow “Make America Great Again” slogan seems to evoke some vague, “Ozzie and Harriet” cliché notion of America that probably never existed at all, and certainly not in this century.
Idaho’s Democrats and Republicans have distinctive party platforms that list things they support. The GOP platform is the longer of the two, with 18 articles that describe in sometimes contradictory terms views on a range of things from making all able-bodied prisoners work (While this hasn’t been settled by the Supreme Court, the limitations on requiring prisoners to work while incarcerated seem fairly clear in the 13th Amendment.) to limiting legal marriage to weddings between a man and a woman (This conveniently overlooks the reality of the Supreme Court’s 2015 recognition of same-sex marriage ,as set out in the 14th Amendment, in Obergefell v. Hodges.). However, in light of the party’s failure to agree on any platform at all in 2014, when First District Congressman Raul Labrador headed the GOP convention, perhaps voters should be thankful for what they got this year.
Idaho’s contemporary Republican platform begins with a lengthy preamble addressing statements of belief, more like a religious credo than a set of positions on actual political issues. For example: “We believe the strength of our nation lies with our faith and reliance on God our Creator, the individual, and the traditional family.” As the First Amendment sets out, government does not make laws for or against religious beliefs. As we all should know by now, there is no uniform definition of “God” among the world’s religions, and the question of what citizens may or may not believe, in terms of religious faith, is a personal issue, most certainly not a political one. Similarly, the phrase “traditional family,” as noted above, is not only outdated and naïve, but all but meaningless in modern American society. For a variety of reasons, about half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce. And Idaho, even with a low population density, a low unemployment rate, and a relatively high (13th in the nation) marriage rate of marriage of 15.8 per 1,000, has the nation’s second-highest divorce rate.
The hypocrisy is almost palpable in the GOP platform’s declaration that “We believe in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, creed, sex, age or disability.” Idaho’s Add the Words campaign, to include the phrases “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in the state’s 1969 Human Rights Act under way since at least 2010, has been rejected by Republican leadership in every session of the State Legislature. Incumbent Gov. The state spent nearly $650,000 in court costs and legal fees in 2016 that resulted from a failed attempt to defend an unconstitutional state law banning same-sex marriage.
This outtake from the opening season of HBO's "Nework" series underscores the danger of arguing politics on the basis of a false premise: "What makes America the greatest country in the world?" (Written by Aaron Sorkin)