Human nature and the political process

Crouching leopard looking at the reader

For the past 230 years, two parties have dominated the American political system: today, we call them Democrats and Republicans. We’re also one of the few (if only) countries whose political system flows from the bottom up: that is, authority ascends from local governments to a central government, ultimately resting on the electorate. The men who wrote the Constitution didn’t have much of a choice: in 1787, the states were the only game in town, but this model also fit their belief in a decentralized decision-making process. No king—or central authority—would ever tell Americans what to do. And, the best way to accomplish that was to broadly distribute authority across the political, economic, and social spheres.

cartoon kapow!

Fast forward to 2022: the country is in the throes of a cultural and political struggle played out between two opposing parties acting within a structure designed to disaggregate political power.

How do we distinguish these two political parties?

I would argue, at heart, Republicans believe human nature doesn’t change and is geared to survival. Over tens of thousands of years, Homo sapiens has evolved in myriads of ways. At a fundamental level, though, our one basic instinct remains the same: self-preservation. This instinct is expressed in our own desires, obligations to our loved ones, and willingness to defend our democratic ideals on the international stage.

Republicans fundamentally believe human nature doesn’t change . . .

Republicans, whether tacitly or otherwise, acknowledge this basic truth. And, there’s no better place to look than Donald Trump. Mr. Trump was wildly popular among the Republican base before he was elected President. And, if anything, that belief may explain his actions during the January 6, 2021 riots: self-preservation. Contrary to expectations, his hold over the Republican base (and others) endures.

We ask, why can’t Trump act more like our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln? Different times, different people, but didn’t Lincoln himself feel the same: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Politically courageous at the time, Lincoln understood that our self-preservation as a nation depended on ending the moral depravity of slavery.

President Biden and the “progressive” wing of the Democrat Party claim to play to our “better” nature: forgiving loans to college students; free breakfast and lunch for poor kids; taxing the wealthy; and recently, abruptly extracting America from a 20 year war and diluting our electoral process in the name of “everybody votes.”

In so doing, Democrats overlook a basic pillar of our survival: individual responsibility and private initiative. Sure, we can do everything the Democrats advocate, but that is not who we are. Or what has made America the land of opportunity for those who have been willing to arrive early, stay late, and persevere: give, and your country will give back. Didn’t President Kennedy make the same point?

If nothing else, Republicans are more honest: yes, we’ve come to live with social security, Medicare, and other government mandated programs; but these programs remain exceptions to our reliance on individual choice and responsibility. And, I contend, this belief is key to Mr. Trump’s support. (He errs when his instincts for self-preservation morph into a personality cult, a subject for another time and place.) Our model is very different than the authoritarian leadership of China and Russia. At its best, our way is to forge an agreed path forward reflecting shared opinions across the land. Hence, the dilemma we face today: we can be honest with ourselves and say who we are. Human empathy is also fundamental to Americans. Or we can pretend, “we’re better than that.”

We will always create ways to help others, but we should agree that leopards don’t change their spots. And, if we believe they can, they are no longer leopards; and analogously, the principles that form our country’s foundation no longer hold.

Dan Schwartz served as Nevada State Treasurer (2015-2019) and is currently a candidate for LT Governor in 2022.