There have been many attempts to explain American politics in terms of two competing ideas, from Tories and Rebels, Whigs and Tories, Democrats and Republicans, Conservative and Liberal, even male and female. And I suppose it’s no original contribution to note that there is another dichotomy, change vs. status quo, that underlies much of our political life. But I rarely hear these words used in our political discourse, which I think is a disservice to our society.
It may be that the change/status quo pair is more or less synonymous with the unsatisfied/satisfied. While one can look at things from a variety of perspectives, looking at our political life as a contest between those who would change things and those who would preserve things as they are explains quite a bit, and illuminates just how far our culture has swung to the preservers, and how far it has to go until the changers have their day.
Of course, I use the terms preservers, conservatives and Republicans more or less synonymously, as are changers, liberals, progressives and Democrats. I think, however, that the impulses toward change (for/against) are powerful motivators and drive much of our political rhetoric.
Currently, Republicans and Democrats are locked in what appears to be a dead-heat death match for the White House. Republicans tell voters that the world is uniquely dangerous, and that their man Bush is uniquely able to defend (preserve) their safe, comfortable lives. Further, the Republicans argue that if the other man should win, terrible and disruptive things would ensue: taxes would rise, government would become fat and lazy, schools would return to the “soft bigotry” of the past, and the government would take over our healthcare system and ruin it. Democrats insist that while security is paramount, we aren’t doing enough (dissatisfied with the status quo), and that other areas of our lives – jobs, healthcare, education – are in desperate need of change.
In short, Republicans are running on a platform of preserving the status quo, while pointing out that the other party is proposing all manner of scary changes. The Dems acknowledge that preserving our physical safety is key, but propose to make changes to further that goal. Further, they propose numerous changes designed to address areas of dissatisfaction. They point to the other guy as a do-nothing leader whose efforts to implement change have been a failure.
I believe that there is an ideal balance between change and anti-change, and that the interplay of these opposing forces in our society generally serves our interest well. Consider a world made up entirely of anti-changers – Republicans, if you will. It’s easy to guess that we wouldn’t have Medicare or Medicaid, or Social Security or even the minimum wage or anti-child labor laws. Indeed, I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder whether we’d still be living in an essentially feudal society, where those who controlled wealth and power used it to advance their own interests, and helped others only as their consciences dictated.
Now consider the opposite world where there are only those who desire change – liberals run amok. Would it be a society where basic concepts like private property and the rule of law had trouble persisting? I confess it’s a little hard to imagine what it would look like, but it’s easy to imagine that we’d be pursuing change for change’s sake, and that our standard of living would be far lower as society’s resources were routinely used to effectuate changes. We would, however, probably have free cable tv with all the premium services for everybody – and therein lies the problem. Without a semi-permanent infrastructure of institutions and conventions that resist change, wealth creation becomes much more challenging, as generations of communists can attest.
No, the ideal world is not one-sided. It is the constant friction between the two forces that produces the best results over time, though in a majority-rule society, a slight advantage to the forces for change is probably desirable, for it is in the end the forces of change that light the way to the future, even if they are stronger for having overcome the forces that would have us stay right where we are.