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Choosing a Path, Not Merely a Person

This election, the way to select the best choice for office is to focus less on individual personalities and more on the path on which the philosophies of each of the candidates and their fellow travelers will cause us to journey. Continuing our effort to feature different perspectives on the best choice in the upcoming U.S. election.

When we voters mark our ballots, we select individuals for office: President, Senator, Representative, or local official. It is, then, both natural and appropriate to consider the personal qualities of the individuals who seek to govern us. In some ways, we learn more about these people than in the past, as the combination of radio, television, and ubiquitous digital media give us an opportunity to hear and see them directly on a frequent basis. That translates into substantial media coverage, particularly for those being chosen for national office. Yet we are also aware that skillful marketing and public relations efforts, as well as partisan sentiment, superficial reporting, and distorted commentary make it difficult for us to judge character, intelligence, wisdom, and competence in the way we do for someone that we know personally.

This is particularly true in a world where the flaws of each candidate are magnified, sometimes fairly but often not, by a media that applies shifting standards depending on the issue, the party, the candidate, or the cultural moment. Politics is a cruel business, and candidates are often brutalized by the process. It is also true that those with a big ego, a great deal of ambition, and an outsized personality are drawn to the process, and, perhaps, most able to survive its rigors. Furthermore, successful politicians have enormous influence over the distribution of wealth and power, and the temptations large and small, to take advantage of that influence to benefit themselves, their families and their friends are substantial, sometimes in ways that are criminal, but often in ways that while not illegal, are dishonorable.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that many voters view all the candidates with a jaundiced eye and feel obliged to choose who between significantly flawed candidates they believe to be the “lesser of two evils.” In the current U.S. presidential election, the two candidates are often summed up by the critics by their shortcomings: Trump, the playboy and bully, blunt, unconventional and boastful; Biden, the serial plagiarist, rudely overfamiliar with women, with 47 years in government and questionable achievements to show for it, and possibly in cognitive decline.  But given the difficulties of making a full and fair judgment about character and competence, this choice is no easy task. 

But there is a simpler and better way to choose between candidates in this election.  In our complex world, I would argue what is most critical is the philosophical approach the candidates take and the people and ideas that they rely on to implement that approach. 

The Growth of Government into a Sprawling Bureaucracy Has Remade the Leadership Role

These different philosophical perspectives are due to the evolution of our government from a small, predominantly state and local regime, to a vast national enterprise that touches our lives on a daily basis: taxes, health care, education, commerce, social security, welfare, and on and on. And as the pandemic has shown, in some situations, the government is ready, willing, and able to regulate every aspect of our lives and curtail even our most basic freedoms.

These changes have also impacted the roles of our elected leaders. The President, as Chief Executive of a vast federal bureaucracy, will often have his greatest influence by appointments to head the various government agencies and the courts, who, in turn, bring with them thousands of people to actually develop, implement—or sometimes impede, delay and even thwart—the laws intended to govern the country. Senators will rely on their small army, often as many as 60 staffers, to read proposed legislation, develop policy positions, respond to constituents, and do their work (giving them briefs and summaries) and thus wielding considerable influence, and it is not much different among Representatives with large, but comparatively smaller, staffs. Meanwhile, countless decisions deeply affecting our lives are made by people we don’t know and certainly don’t elect—e.g., whether we are deemed eligible for veterans benefits; calculating our tax liability if we are audited; setting the safety standards for our business.

These thousands of appointees tend to be the most committed members of their parties. They have worked on the campaigns, made a huge personal investment in the candidates, and are the most invested in the positions that their parties have taken. They tend to be the purest representatives of what their patrons stand for.

In addition, the Democrat party largely staffs the federal bureaucracy. It is estimated that 90 percent of career civil servants are Democrats. It is not necessary to postulate a “deep state” to conclude the outlook and approach of this unelected, but influential body, is much more in keeping with a Democrat rather than a Republican Administration. Furthermore, every bureaucratic institution tends to seek to increase its own power and influence; that reflects human nature even more than partisanship.

As a result of the changes in government over the years, the implications of our election decisions are dramatic, because the two parties come from very different philosophical perspectives in dealing with the new reality of governance. These perspectives are shaped by the backgrounds and life experiences of both the leadership of each party and the people who reflect their core supporters: the center of gravity of each party.

The Path of the Democrat Party and Where it Leads

Generally speaking, it’s fair to say the philosophical leadership of the Democrats comes from academia and education, the media and entertainment, lifetime members of government, unions, and the corporate managerial elite. Even those party members who speak as representatives of the poor and less educated members of the Democratic coalition are themselves usually university-educated activists and government officials. Although the party seems largely secular in orientation and skeptical of, and even hostile to, many traditional religious views, both its many progressive religious members and its agnostics and atheists are very moralistic.

Using their definitions of equality, equity, and inclusion, they frame almost every issue, be it immigration, taxation, policing, reparations, as well as race, gender, marriage, and abortion, as fundamental moral issues, where the Democrat party holds the moral high ground. Joe Biden, who forcefully identifies as Catholic but rejects Catholic teaching on abortion, gender, and marriage, has repeatedly stated that the focus of his campaign is to “reclaim the soul of America.” When moral claims are made by Republicans, they are disparaged by Democrats as a violation of the separation of church and state. But secular progressives fail to realize that much of their platform is essentially religious—reflecting a dogmatic moral worldview defining right and wrong, but without the traditional belief in God.  Professor Elizabeth Drescher, author of “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones,” notes that many who “identify as non-religious” find in “social justice work” an alternative “social structure to express community cohesion and shared values and…shared meaning” along with a chance to be “part of something that is transcending, that is bigger than oneself.”  These secular moralists are thus happy to make common cause with religious progressives, who assert that their views are fully in alignment with the moral teachings of their denomination.

The universities and, increasingly, public education at all levels, show us where the Democratic Party’s path will lead. In developing its moral compass, the Democratic Party has adopted as dogma the central areas of focus of most of our universities: relativism, an emphasis on race and gender, the centrality of climate change, and the belief that everything is political. As at many universities, the Party believes in curtailing speech by defining as “hate” viewpoints that challenge its moral positions, again, a position shared by those religious denominations who support abortion and the panoply of LGBT positions. Once you are convinced that your political views are morally correct, it is easy to make the leap that your opponent’s views are not merely wrong, but evil (and that which is evil must be eradicated).  

Democrats self-identify as the tolerant party due to their embrace of the LGBT community and historic minority support. But as has been taught in the universities for 50 years now, they increasingly believe “pure tolerance”—the classic, liberal idea of allowing a wide range of diverse viewpoints—is outmoded, and that has drastically narrowed the window of what is acceptable.  This reformed idea of tolerance does not allow for “hate speech” or even seemingly pragmatic positions, such as the necessity of enforcing immigration law, to be permitted, because it is said to be based on morally unacceptable assumptions.  On the other hand, many positions that would seem to be subject to factual argument, from climate change to the belief that America is an inherently racist nation, have become articles of faith that are no longer open to debate. 

“Fighting for the soul of the nation” seems to imply that unwillingness to accept these articles of faith is a profound moral failure, not just a misjudgment. The moral dimension of these claims is reinforced by a growing presumption of the intellectual superiority of Democrat leadership. With the support of the universities, high culture, the educational establishment, the wizards of the technology industry, and many corporate leaders, it’s common to hear insinuations that the political left embodies “the best and the brightest.” Democrat leadership also has the most affinity for similarly situated people in Western Europe—reinforcing their own confidence as a global elite that transcends national borders. If you believe you are both morally superior and smarter than your political opponents, it makes it easy to discount contrary points of view. This arguably contributes to conservative speakers being “de-platformed” at college campuses and the few faculty who take even a mildly contrary view to the prevailing orthodoxy find themselves “canceled”—disciplined, shunned, and losing their jobs.

The Democrat leadership group is well-credentialed, highly confident in its intellectual abilities, facile in the use of language, and accordingly believes that it is naturally suited to provide political leadership. President Barack Obama was such a unifying figure for the Democratic Party because he represented the fusion of an Ivy League-educated minority, who moved from community activist to law professor, best-selling author, state government representative, and ultimately U.S. Senator and President. Joe Biden derives much of his credibility with Democrats for his association with President Obama; otherwise, he represents for many the ultimate lifetime member of government, with 47 years in office plus his years campaigning.

Because of the overall views of Democratic leadership, a vote for a member of the Democratic party is a choice for the path of substantially more governmental regulation and control based upon the prevailing wisdom in academia and the credentialed. This means more top-down control of health care, more nationalized rules, and an ever-greater reliance on legions of experts all-too-ready to provide dictates for society. The Democratic party sees abstractions and symbols as the keys to the policies that ought to drive the country, which is only natural given their orientation in education, academia, government, and large corporate management.

While Biden and the Democrats have been extremely critical of the Trump pandemic response, given the orientation of the party, the likelihood is that the Democrat approach would have been (and will be in the event of electoral victory) reliant on the traditional government bureaucracy, such as the CDC and NIH, as “listening to the scientists” seems to equate with following the government scientists. Yet it appears that these groups were not well prepared and sluggish in their response to Covid 19. As exemplified by states controlled by Democrats, and echoed by Biden’s national mask mandate concept, it is a top-down, tight lockdown approach that Democrats favor. 

Unfortunately, results in the state controlled by the highest-profile Democrat governor, Andrew Cumo, are far and away the worst in their death rate per 100 million population. It increasingly appears based on both scientific evidence and the unintended negative consequences, that continuing lockdowns have been a mistake, with the World Health Organization special envoy on COVID-19 recently issuing an “appeal to all world leaders” based on the rippling effects for world poverty to “Stop using lockdown as your primary control method, develop better systems for doing it.” To this point, however, based on the behavior of almost all Democrat governors, Democrats seem to remain committed to them.

While it is not unreasonable to say that there is a socialist element to much of the Democrat agenda, since that it is the inevitable result of government takeover or extreme regulation, it may be more clarifying to look at this path through a different lens. The ratio of the public sector share of the economy to the private sector is likely to increase under Biden/Harris to over 50% public to private. 

The election of Joe Biden will bring a vast number of new governmental regulations, just as was the case during the Obama administration.

Whether the private sector can carry so heavy a burden is unknown, but substantial increases in taxation will need to be implemented to pay for many of these policies.  While Democrats staunchly contend that more of the tax burden will be made to fall on the wealthy, most of the money will need to come from those who define themselves as middle class. To quote an old gag, this is for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: That is where the money is. The only alternative to increased taxation across the board is more deficit spending, already a potential problem. Such spending is likely to cause inflation, which is essentially a hidden tax that falls most heavily on the least wealthy.

Given its zeal for the moral necessity for change, assuming it achieves power, the Party wants to reduce the system of checks and balances, such as the Senate filibuster, the electoral college, and possibly the 9-member Supreme Court, that frustrate the changes it believes are needed. Multiple changes to our system of government at one time would be risky. The Democrats have repeatedly and properly said that the norms of our system of government should be followed; this would be completely contrary to that sound position.

The election of Joe Biden will bring a vast number of new governmental regulations, just as was the case during the Obama administration. If there is a Democrat House and Senate, there will be a momentous additional amount of legislation that will revamp the health care system, housing, energy policy, education, and individual liberty.  Because the center of gravity of the party, and the ideas that it seeks to implement, come from the academic establishment, what you see in the universities will further permeate the country as a whole. The enforced conformity of opinion in the academy and cultural establishment to the country as to climate change, gender identity, the primacy of racial identity, and ideas of critical race theory will be implemented into law.  

For example, because climate change is deemed an existential threat, there will be a vast expenditure of money to prove that we are doing all we can to deal with it, with limited concern about any cost-benefit analysis. Because equity and inclusion are seen as fundamental moral imperatives, traditional religious views about marriage and gender will be restricted and institutions run by religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies, will either conform or be fined or regulated into compliance or closure (as is already happening in Democratic-controlled states). The Little Sisters of the Poor will be back in court. Since abortion at any and all times is deemed a primary right that cannot be abridged in any way, all restrictions against it will be swept aside and taxpayer support for abortion as health care to which all women are entitled will be ensured.

In foreign policy, the Democrat Party seems to remain committed to the Obama-Biden approach. Despite the success of the dramatic change of course made by the Trump administration in the Middle East, there is an insistence on a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Other initiatives, such as the Paris Climate Treaty, from which Trump withdrew on the grounds that it was burdensome and costly to the US, benefitted China, and was ignored in practice by Europeans who lauded it the most, would be brought back. If nothing else, the Trump administration arguably shifted the world consensus on China, showing it to be a highly aggressive, duplicitous, and dangerous world power; it is unclear how much a Biden administration is prepared to do to deal with this new understanding if indeed, it even agrees with it.

Several states, such as California, offer us a preview of the Democrat agenda in action. Effectively a one-party state, California has already enacted a vast variety of laws and regulations that would be replicated on a national scale. However well-intentioned, the result in terms of the treatment of the homeless, environmental impact, crime, and deteriorating education is genuinely concerning.  Elimination of cash bail in some Democrat states and cities seems to be benefitting the criminal class, not the unfortunate innocent that it was supposed to help, leading to an increase in crime and public disorder.

The changes enacted by the Democrats would likely be enforced with enthusiasm, just as they are on college campuses. A similar set of people will be responsible for carrying them out. Those thousands who come to Washington with a Biden administration and as Democrat Senators and members of Congress, will be among the most committed, “woke” and enthusiastic supporters of these policies. Believing in the wisdom of what they have learned at university, heard in the media, and had amplified by cultural institutions, they will bring a missionary zeal to the implementation and enforcement of the new laws. The existing heavily Democrat bureaucracy will be reinforced and become even more powerful. Laws and rules will be ever more broadly interpreted to achieve progressive ends.

Perhaps most troublesome of all, because of the certainty of their moral position, the more extreme allies of the Democrats continue to believe that their policies need to be brought about “by any means necessary.” (I say allies because they are more radical than the Democrat party and even ridicule it, but they have a strong preference for Democrat policies over Republican, and the Democrat party views them with sympathy and takes pains not to denounce them to win their votes.) This includes adherents to ANTIFA and the Black Lives Matter organization (as opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole). These extreme elements have led to serious violence in many cities; while the Democrats have denounced violence, they seem unwilling to take the necessary steps to bring it to a rapid conclusion. The hope that a Biden administration would bring this to an end is a false one; it happened under the Obama administration, and most places where it occurs are almost wholly run by Democrats, and increasingly, self-proclaimed socialists as in Portland and Seattle. These groups will continue their tactics as long as they believe them effective, and the Democrat party is too sympathetic to them to bring them to heel.

Where the Republican Path leads

While it is also the case that much of the Republican leadership has come from lifetime members of government, the center of gravity of the Republican party has shifted from big business and “country club Republicans” (of which there are still many) towards small and medium-sized family business owners, the less college-educated working class, those who are committed to traditional religious beliefs, and the university-educated who are disaffected from the current climate in their schools. It generally respects traditional religious views, rejects relativism in favor of more old fashioned views of right and wrong, is highly skeptical of the race and gender theories that have come from the academy, and views the political as having a less critical role in their daily lives. Donald Trump is both reflective of this new Republican center of gravity and a cause of it; family businessman par excellence, and non-politician until four years ago, yet Ivy League-educated and a media celebrity; a billionaire who cemented the Republican party’s appeal to the working class begun under Ronald Regan and someone who has made an appeal to minority groups.

The Republican approach involves reversing the trend of governmental regulation, emphasizing individual autonomy and reliance on non-governmental institutions, pointing to disappointment and even outright failure of progressive social welfare policies and the incremental loss of freedom that increased reliance on government necessarily entails. Republicans point out that large government programs become self-perpetuating, unaccountable for results, and ever more costly, and it seeks to bring more private sector concepts like competition and cost-benefit analysis into play. It argues for preserving existing checks and balances, seeks reforms based on experience with existing governmental activity rather than academic models, and proposes retention of the classically liberal definitions of equality and tolerance.

A vote for President Trump and a member of the Republican party is a choice for another type of change occurring in the last three-plus years: a strong economic focus based upon returning manufacturing and “making things” to the United States, based upon revised trade deals, lower taxes, and additional deregulation, albeit with targeted regulatory initiatives in some areas. There will continue to be efforts to restrain what Republicans see as the excesses of the Democratic party from the Obama era, most of which are the things to which a Democrat administration promises to return and accelerate. It is also a repudiation of the “free trade” orientation of the big business faction of both parties, including rewriting trade policies such as was done with NAFTA, that formerly enjoyed strong Republican support. The Republican party, especially due to the approach of President Trump, is to prioritize economic solutions to problems, both in domestic and foreign policy.

In contrast to Democrats, who see more expansive education and training based on ideas such as critical race theory and systemic racism as a major part of the solution to problems of race, Republicans see economic levers as the way to improve the life of minority groups that are disproportionately poor and underserved.  Entrepreneurship, good-paying jobs in a resuscitated manufacturing sector, and rising wages through a booming job market are seen as a major part of the solution. 

In addition, Republicans are beginning to coalesce around school choice as the way to improve the disastrous educational system for most poor and minority groups. The teacher and school employee unions have a strong bias against non-unionized competition in K-12 education, whether charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling. Because those unions are part of the Democrat coalition, the Republican party is willing to take them on, while the Democrats are not.

In keeping with its small and medium-sized business orientation, the Republican party emphasizes competitiveness and private sector solutions located in the United States. It has become evident that big business, which has moved from Republican to Democrat in orientation, is better able to flourish in a highly regulated marketplace because it has the capital and scale to hire the lawyers and lobbyists such a system demands, while upstart competitors are at a significant disadvantage in these areas. Thus, for a large enterprise, support for more government regulation can actually align with the goal of maintaining market position. In addition, big business is global and seeks low-cost labor worldwide; the Republican push under Trump to push policies that foster America’s interest in producing things in the United States is a hindrance to that aim. However, the benefit of such policies is that they help reverse the problems revealed by the pandemic, namely a reliance on other countries, some of whom have conflicting or even hostile interests, for critical needs, such as medicine, medical equipment, commodities, and even high tech parts and equipment. The Democrats are now imitating some of the Trump approaches with a “buy American” campaign promise, but for its entire term, the Trump administration has been pushing for not just buying American, but making more in America to buy, and is “all in” on it.

Trump’s pandemic response showed the Republican tendency to pivot toward the private sector and decentralized solutions. The inadequate response of the CDC and other bureaucracies to the initial stages of the pandemic led to a successful push to mobilize more private sector resources; ultimately there were no shortages of resources such as hospital beds and PPE and multiple vaccines are already in human trials. Republican preference for state and local flexibility and adherence to the principles of federalism meant leaving most decision making at the state and local level. Given the vast differences among the states and the corresponding differences in results in terms of Covid 19 hospitalizations and deaths, the Trump approach of national guidelines but state decision-making seems more sensible than the Biden idea of national mandates. Overall, it is too soon to fairly judge the overall Trump Administration response to Covid 19, as the pandemic continues to run its course. Most of the Western world is suffering as much or more than the US; as the case of Sweden shows, the lesson is not likely to be “trust the scientists” but rather “which scientists should be trusted”.

The Trump foreign policy mirrors its domestic emphasis in economics, and it has been remarkably successful.

Immigration was a central issue in 2016 and remains an important point of difference between the parties.  Republicans maintain the need to enforce existing immigration laws and deplore “sanctuary cities” where state and local governments refuse to cooperate with federal officials in enforcing immigration laws.  For Republicans, there are two simple aspects to the issue and one complex one. First, the immigration laws were duly enacted; Democrats think they ought to be changed but haven’t succeeded in doing so via the democratic process. Accordingly, the law ought to be enforced. Second, illegal immigration creates a pool of low-paid labor, operating outside the law, and hurting employment, especially of lower-skilled workers, while imposing large costs on local schools, hospitals, and social service providers. The third, complex issue, is twofold: how to deal with the immigrants who have lived in the United States for years, despite having come illegally, and how to deal compassionately with the many people who are desperate to escape their current homelands to achieve a better life for themselves and their children. Most Republicans, Trump included, are of the view that once you enforce existing law and staunch the flow of new immigrants who come illegally, it will be possible to integrate long-term immigrants and come to some compromise agreement on how many new immigrants the country should admit.

Despite Democrat claims that Trump and the Republicans cannot be trusted to follow the law, it is hard to understand how an insistence on halting rioting and looting is problematic. The notion of “mostly peaceful” protests is a clever public relations concept, but the fact that injuries to over 150 law enforcement personnel, many deaths, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, makes clear that there has been a serious problem. Republicans point to the fact that the elimination of cash bail, and the failure to prosecute supposedly lower-level crimes, seems to correlate with increasing criminality in the cities and states where these policies are in effect. Republicans believe that “broken windows” policing that rescued New York in the 1980s was a success and that the new Democrat approach is merely a return to previous failures.

The Trump foreign policy mirrors its domestic emphasis in economics, and it has been remarkably successful. Economic growth in the energy sector due to fracking and less regulation has eliminated dependence on foreign oil, which gives the United States far more options in the Middle East. Trump correctly saw that the Obama tilt toward Iran and the Palestinians was a major strategic mistake, empowering those with the least interest in peace. He renewed the US embrace of Israel, refused to be cowed by out of date concerns about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and brokered the developing relationships between Israel and Arab States, for which he has rightly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has angered NATO allies for embarrassing them about their long-standing failure to meet their financial commitments to a common defense, but he has gotten results. Trump has broken the cycle of entering into agreements with allies that provide public relations benefits but no one expects to be followed and has refused to accept a status quo in trade based upon circumstances that were true in the 20th century but not the 21st.

In Summary…

If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, and especially if there is a Democrat House and Senate, there will be a transformation of the United States that will result in much more government control of every aspect of our lives, serious limitations on religious freedom, and the implementation of policies that, in the name of tolerance and equality, make the country less tolerant and less equal in the ways we have traditionally understood those terms. The increasingly stultifying conformity of American college campuses will likely continue exporting itself to the country as a whole, as an army of those young recent college graduates who helped create that climate at their schools bring their energy and zeal to implementing these ideas throughout the country, while their faculty mentors are brought into leadership positions throughout the administration. 

Biden’s Green New Deal lite, and Public Option health care will gradually result in great disruption at a huge cost, for what are likely to be only marginal improvements at best. Taxes will increase significantly, and economic growth will be no better than sluggish. Foreign policy will revert to the approach of the Obama era, which will embolden China, and fall back on empty posturing in Europe.  Yes, there would be a great outpouring of enthusiasm on the part of the media, the educational and cultural establishments, and the bureaucracy, which may give temporary respite from the non-stop anger of the last three and a half years, but that would eventually be replaced by the protestations and resentment of those who feel their liberties and freedoms being taken away.

If Trump and the Republicans are elected, especially if there are a Republican House and Senate, there will be even further emphasis on economic solutions to problems at home and abroad, further deregulation, an effort to make the bureaucracy more accountable (as was done with the Veteran’s Administration, for example), and a push for school choice and entrepreneurial empowerment for minorities, with a rejection of government embrace of critical race theory.  Immigration reform might be possible. There will be a continued pushback on China for its misbehavior, more pressure on NATO allies to be more self-sufficient in providing for their own defense, and further realignment in the Middle East to continue to isolate Iran and create an Arab-Israeli alliance, which, if achieved, could ultimately induce the Palestinians to agree to a realistic, long term settlement.

The biggest wildcard will be the reaction to a Trump/Republican victory. A replay (or significant escalation) of “the Resistance” which followed the 2016 election would be extremely unhealthy and divisive for the country. While it is almost certain that there will be some rioting by radical groups, the degree to which Democrats choose to enable them will be key; if they accept the results of the election and cooperate in a traditional fashion, things will fairly quickly calm down. If not, it will be a bitter and ugly spectacle. Hopefully, another four years of Trump and Republican governance would cause the Democrat leadership to be a bit more introspective about the moral and intellectual superiority that they project, and to revert to the role of the “loyal opposition,” which is a concept that has served the country in the past and would do so again.


About the author

Carl Herstein

Carl Herstein retired as a partner from a large, Midwestern law firm. He is a past recipient of the St. Thomas More Award from the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Lansing, Michigan. He has a J.D. from Yale Law School.
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