This is the second post in a series on George McGovern’s book, What It Means to Be a Democrat. For links to previous articles, see “Related Items “ at the end of this post.
CHAPTER ONE: COMPASSION
George McGovern’s political career remains a shining example of government working for the people. He has tirelessly sought out opportunities to recognize and serve the neediest among us, and has advocated for his colleagues to do the same. Compassion is a virtue that he clearly embodied during his years in Congress, and he also emphasizes it throughout his book. The very first chapter is entitled “Compassion”, letting the reader know what value and importance McGovern places on this particular character trait. But, even before this first chapter, he begins to clarify his position on the subject, stating in the Introduction that “Above all, being a Democrat means having compassion for others.”
Can you imagine any modern Republican making such a claim? Beyond that, can you imagine the ridicule that would ensue from the pundits on the right if a GOP politician actually did say it?
The sad thing is, even many modern Democrats fail to make this case in a public way today. Many have followed the lead of the right, allowing themselves to be cowed into thinking that compassion is, somehow, a character flaw, or a political weakness. I disagree with this strategy. In fact, I think that the best thing Democrats could do for themselves this election season is to clearly define themselves by their compassion, in contrast to their Republican opponents who do not have time to stop for others in their rush for power and fortune.
George McGovern compares the GOP to “the residents of a well-to-do community…they wish to sit behind high walls and congratulate themselves on the good fortune they and their families enjoy. They deliberately choose to isolate themselves from their fellow citizens outside the fortress.”
This description could be dismissed as overly-broad stereotyping, or an attempt to create a damning caricature based on false assumptions about those on the right. However, it seems quite apt when applying it to the man who currently represents the Republican Party, Mitt Romney. He has failed to demonstrate any particular aptitude for understanding the experiences of the vast majority of America’s citizens. And why should he? He can’t be faulted for not realizing what life is like without multiple Cadillacs and car elevators. That’s all he’s ever known.
But herein lies the danger of Republican politicians setting public policy. There is far less reason for you to address the problems in our public schools when your own kids don’t attend them. It is less urgent for you to pass health care reform when you don’t need to worry about paying doctor bills yourself. It is easy to cut the hell out of food stamps or Meals on Wheels programs when you always have plenty of food on your own table. As McGovern states in his book, “Sympathy is the first step toward action.” But sympathy implies some ability to see things from a perspective other than your own. What opportunity or motivation do the privileged have to view America’s problems from the perspective of the struggling? And what incentive do they have for speaking up on their behalf? Basically, the answer to both of these questions is, “None”. And so, more often than not, the struggling are the first to bear the brunt of short-sighted conservative policies.
A look at the Republican budget, as developed by Paul Ryan, confirms this message with stark clarity. According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 62% of the cuts proposed in the Ryan budget are taken out of programs serving low- and middle-income citizens. At the same time, the budget extends and deepens tax cuts for upper-income Americans. The GOP has defended the proposed measures by citing the need to reduce the deficit and curb government spending. This notion is quickly negated by the fact that the Ryan budget also calls for a protection of current defense spending. Ryan’s budget would, in fact, allow for more military expenditures that had been allowed under the budget proposed by President Obama. In What It Means to Be a Democrat, George McGovern writes, “A budget…is an expression of priorities”. It is obvious that the Republican Party’s priorities do not include meals, health care or educational opportunities for those in need. The focus on cutting aid from those who most need it did not go unnoticed by the religious establishment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) made public their thoughts about the Ryan budget, declaring “…deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test.”
The ironic thing is, by refusing to allow spending on certain necessities now, the Republicans create a need for even greater expenditures in the future. As McGovern notes, “…empathy for our fellow man is not only the moral response, it is often, ultimately, less costly.” To invest in a few cents on an ounce of prevention is to prevent paying big bucks for a pound of cure. Children with good educational foundations are more likely to become successful and productive citizens, and less likely to become criminals who will drain the resources of our law enforcement and correctional systems, or unemployable welfare recipients. Fair and comprehensive health coverage enables more people to obtain regular wellness care, and avoid taxing the system with serious, but preventable, conditions later on. The Republican mindset does not allow them to view these types of expenditures as anything but “socialist” handouts. In reality, they are reflections of a free market strategy that any capitalist should endorse: investing in programs that have a high potential for growth and substantial dividends.
Compassion manifests itself in more than just economic ways. The concepts of tolerance and fairness are also related to compassion. Again, this is an area where Democrats have a distinct advantage over the right. The “big tent” concept of political diversity and acceptance must be a key focus as Democrats spread their message to voters, and this is a point made in the book as well. McGovern, in one passage, describes the positive side of his run for the presidency in 1972. Although he lost to Richard Nixon, his campaign made a point of engaging with, and appealing to, many types of Americans who had not been actively sought out by either political party before that time. McGovern reminds us that, back then, the Democratic Party looked a lot like the Republican Party, and was comprised mainly of “middle-aged white men”. Today, in part due to the groundbreaking efforts by McGovern, the Democratic Party is a rich mix of different colors, cultures, social classes and backgrounds – while the Republicans remain, for the most part, a group of white, upper-income individuals. And as the news comes this week that minorities are becoming the majority in America, it is crucial for Democrats to emphasize this fact.
The Republican Party is exclusive in its outreach and in its political focus. In order to look out for the best interests of their party, Republicans only need to look out for the rich white guys. The narrowly-defined demographic of conservative America reflects its narrow mission: concentrating rights, resources and power within its own terrain. But Democrats must look out for the many types of people who they represent, and this is why the Democratic agenda is so much broader than that of the GOP.
When it comes to the rights and protections offered to many segments of our society, it seems that Republicans would rather roll back existing ones and prevent new ones from being established for those who are not among their core voter base. Can the LGBT community rely on the GOP to look out for them? Or the African-American or Latino communities? Do the Republicans look out for women’s rights, or the rights of immigrants who want to find a legitimate path to citizenship? When you look at the wide variety of actions the conservatives have taken against all these groups – on marriage equality, equal pay, abortion and contraception legislation, voter ID laws, the DREAM Act – it’s clear that Republicans have no desire to represent the best interests of any of them. The willingness to deny others the same opportunities and protections that they themselves would never give up without a fight says a lot about their “”OK for me, but not for thee” attitude. And again, we see the compassion divide between the right and the left in clear, unflinching focus.
George McGovern observes that, as Democrats, “We realize that we are only as strong as the weakest among us”. Compassion for others is essential to ensuring that our government works for all Americans equally. Without it, you have a scenario in which self-interest is the only factor in policy-making; where those with more resources are allowed to run roughshod over those who are less fortunate; and where our government is no longer “of the people, by the people, for the people”. This is the direction we will be heading if Republicans continue to lead America down their current legislative path. It is the duty of every Democrat to stand up against this hijacking of our country, point out other paths and lead in better directions, using compassion as their guide.