freedom and independence are not the only American values

Just for fun, I'm illustrating this with a pic of me pretending to be a Tea Partier in the Smithsonian gift shop. The fact that I carry Jasmine Green Tea around in my purse probably reveals that I'm really an elitist liberal.

My friend Adam posted a great link to his Facebook today.  It’s an open letter to the Tea Partiers by John H. Richardson in Esquire. Many of these protesters, opposed to what they call “big government” like to claim that things like health care are part of “big government,” are antithetical to American values, and are perhaps even unconstitutional.

Claims like those make me wonder if perhaps these patriotic protesters somehow missed US history.  Taking care of each other, interdependence, and community spirit are founding American values.  Most of our early colonies were founded as “commonwealths,” where the good of everyone was considered crucial to the good of the colony.  According to the Esquire piece:

Way back in colonial times, Americans spent between “10 and 35 percent of all municipal funds” on what was then called “relief,” according to Walter I. Trattner’s standard textbook on the subject, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. Aid to the poor and sick was the largest single government expense, providing crucial sustenance to the widows and orphans of the Indian wars, the survivors of epidemics, starving immigrants, and a surprising number of abandoned bastard children (during the Revolutionary era, between a third and 50 percent of all first children were illegitimate — take that, nostalgists of family values!).

I’d also add that a democracy is only ever as strong as its citizens.  Only people who are free from basic want, secure from preventable disease, protected in the event of catastrophic illness, and ensured a basic level of education and employment are able to be the kind of citizens who can participate fully in a system of representative democracy.  Our constitution’s preamble asserts that the purpose of the document and the government it establishes includes a responsibility to “provide for the general welfare.”  It is for this reason that our founders, notably John Adams (who is my favorite and for whom I am crusading for a monument in Washington D.C., although that is a subject for another post), were so adamant that public education be a cornerstone of our democracy (which is why I am personally very passionate about the subject of public education and not a huge fan of private or home school, though of course people should have those as choices).  I see public health as an extension of that concept.  If medicine had been more of an established science at the time of our nation’s founding, I’m sure providing for the public health would have been more explicitly mentioned. (As an aside, I’d encourage any vaccine doubters to see the John Adams miniseries and observe what a miracle early innoculation was for this nation.)

The bottom line is, for all the rugged individual John Wayne-iness of this nation, there’s an equal tradition of people coming together to create communities dedicated to the good of all.  We can’t be the shining city on the hill if our image is tarnished by people in this great nation unable to access even basic medical care, with people always at risk of poverty and homelessness if a catastrophic illness should befall them or a loved one.

I sure hope we get a vote on a final health care reform bill this week.  Bills have already passed the House and the Senate, and now we just need those two bodies to come together to get something passed for President Obama to sign.

I’m a two-partier

Gotta love a Flight of the Conchords reference. Image is available on a tshirt from snorgtees.com

Today, I posted a link to my Facebook, encouraging friends to check out the New York Times‘ story on the Tea Party (I’m using great restraint here to type Tea Party instead of my preferred Teabagger) Movement.  In linking to the piece, I wrote, “An interesting piece. I’m still hoping that these people won’t destroy the Republican party (I think we need two functional parties for democracy to function) or the country.” A friend (whom I respect! and like!) left this comment: “I’ve got to disagree with you. I’m with Evan Bayh: the 2 party partisan system is killing America. Most people don’t adhere 100% to one side or another. There is definitely room for a Centrist movement.”  Which is when I took to my blog to explain why I think a two-party system is crucial to the American way of government, and life. (I am leaving aside the part about how I think Evan Bayh is a hypocrite, a dirty rotten traitor, a selfish slimebag, and utterly in the pocket of big companies like Wellpoint.)

I got my college degree in both English and Political Science.  As such, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to take comparative government.  It was in this class that I learned that our Founders (look at me! talking about the Founders like a Tea Partier! let me fetch my tricorn hat!) very deliberately chose a two-party system.  More than anything, the Founders feared tyranny, and they believed that factionalism (we might say extremism) was the major cause of tyranny.  In crafting a two party system in which the majority rules, our Founders created a system that would tend toward centrism.  Each party would have to play toward the middle in order to secure the majority they needed to govern.  In trying to secure a majority of voters, each party would have to tend toward moderation.

In contrast, look at governments that have more than two parties.  I seem to remember my professor (himself a conservatve/libertarian, and yet my favorite in college) pointing at Italy as a particularly grievous example of the problem of more-than-two-party systems.  In these systems, any party that can secure a bare minimum of votes is rewarded with seats in the legislature.  This means that each party plays to its own small audience, and their specific needs and beliefs, in order to win their votes.  If they don’t, those voters can simply choose from among a plethora of possible parties.  In turn, with each party that can secure a bare minimum of votes being rewarded with seats, multiple parties have to form coalitions in order to govern– a coalition will elect the leader of the legislature and decide on committee heads, for example.  While these coalitions might sound great in theory, they have a tendency to fall apart regularly, with each party holding the whole process hostage to get what they want, or leaving the coalition and forcing new elections if they don’t.  Multi-party systems lead to every party playing toward the fringes, NOT centrism.

So this is why I believe a two-party system is the only way to centrism and moderation.  I may not always personally LIKE the slow, incremental, glacial pace of change that results from a two party system, but it’s nothing compared to the gridlock that results in systems with more parties.  The only reason I’d vote third-party is to teach my own party a lesson.  And here’s where I break faith with the folks waving tea bags: I think that the current Democratic party is pretty darn centrist.  Most of the proposals of the dreaded health care reform package, for example, are things Republicans were proposing back in the Clinton years.  If anything, I find the Democratic party too moderate, and might consider voting Green Party in order to teach them a lesson about abandoning their Progressive base.

(I feel like I just took a test in one of Dr. Gitz’s classes. Give me an A!)