Although I’m a lifelong Democrat,
a former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate, and in 1992 a Democratic nominee for the United States House of Representatives, I have for many years now denounced in writing the policies of the national Democratic Party. I have even written a book of denunciation: Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?
(Sophia Institute Press, 2006), and for the past six months or so I have been giving exhibits of this denunciation on the web pages of InsideCatholic.
All this has led some Democrats to accuse me of not being a Democrat — of really being, in my heart of hearts, a Republican. To these critics my standard reply is that the United States is not Stalin’s Soviet Union: Here, party membership is not determined by ideological orthodoxy. It is determined by voter registration; and if you check the records at City Hall in my home town of Newport, you’ll find that I’m still, as I have been for nearly a half century, a registered Democrat.
On the other hand, a lot of Republicans, aware that I agree with them on many things, including my support for the presidential candidacy of John McCain, have asked me why I don’t take the final step in my evolution toward conservatism by simply registering as a Republican. I’ll try to answer that question in this article — cautioning the reader, however, that I’m not suggesting that anybody should follow my example. I offer my account simply as a case study. Maybe it will shed light on why many old Democrats, though disillusioned with their party, remain unwilling to cross the aisle.
So here goes. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons I am not a Republican:
1. It irritates me that Republicans have adopted the habit of speaking of the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party (dropping the final -ic). This is worthy of eight-year-olds hurling insults at a playground. Every time I hear a Republican say “Democrat Party,” I can’t help thinking to myself: “How childish, petty, and stupid Republicans must be to think that this is a clever thing to say.”
2. If I were to register as a Republican, I’d be aligning myself with the Rhode Island Republican Party, and for decades this party has been dominated by the Chafee family, John and his son Lincoln, both of whom served in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, for much of this time the Rhode Island Republican Party could be described, without much exaggeration, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chafee family. While I have great respect for the Chafee family (especially the late John, who, as governor and later senator, was one of the outstanding figures in the history of the state), both father and son were solidly pro-choice.
Since one of the chief reasons I am disillusioned with the national Democratic Party is its support for abortion, what would I gain by switching from one pro-choice party to another? Besides, in Rhode Island, Democratic members of the state legislature tend to be conservative (like me) on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage; on such questions ours is probably the most conservative state in New England.
3. I am made suspicious and nervous by the animus many Republicans have for “big government” and the “welfare state” along with their superstitious belief in the virtual infallibility of market mechanisms. I’m old enough to remember FDR (I remember the day he died; I had turned seven three days earlier), not to mention Truman and Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. I can’t forget that they used “big government” to promote the general welfare (in Catholic thought, more usually called “the common good”).
Think of the roll call: Social Security, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, the TVA, the Wagner Act, the GI Bill of Rights, the FHA, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and so on. I grant that Democrats tend to have too much faith in big government and that they have the very bad habit of believing that you can solve all problems by “throwing money at them.” But that Democrats sin by going to one extreme doesn’t make me feel comfortable when Republicans sin by going to the opposite extreme.
4. Democrats, I concede, put too much self-congratulatory stress on the “compassion” they feel for underdogs. Many underdogs would be better off if, instead of being the “beneficiaries” of compassion, they were told that they live in a relentlessly competitive society and that they’d better get a grip on themselves if they don’t want to remain at the bottom of the league. Nonetheless, compassion for the underdog is a good thing, and many Republicans, I fear, have far too little of it. I am reminded of this almost every time I hear Rush Limbaugh on the radio: Limbaugh makes me laugh, but he also makes me cringe.
5. My fundamental reason for not turning Republican is something I learned reading Aristotle’s Politics. The normal condition of politics in a Greek city-state, as Aristotle saw it, was a struggle between oligarchs (the relatively small number of rich) and democrats (the non-rich majority). In order to maintain a peaceful and orderly society, it was necessary to maintain a balance between the oligarchy and the democracy, with neither party becoming so dominant as to drive the other to revolution-provoking exasperation. In a modern industrial society, it is normal that there should be two principal parties, one dominated by big business, the other by the “little people.” Ever since the presidency of General Grant (1869-77), the GOP has been dominated — and continues today to be dominated — by big-business interests. (My Republican friends, I observe, hate to be told this, but it’s true all the same.)
Now I have no objection to the fact that big business dominates one of our major political parties. It is right that this should be so — what a strange world it would be if big business, with its great intelligence and vast resources, were not able to dominate one of our two parties! It’s just that I, for reasons of temperament and personal history, prefer being with the party of the “little people.”
And this brings me to my fundamental objection to the national Democratic Party. It is no longer the party of the little people; it is no longer a (small-d) democratic party. The United States is today in the odd — and, to my mind, very dangerous — situation of being dominated by two oligarchic parties.