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What do the parties stand for?

Jack Lessenberry

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics; they have lives instead. They go to work or practice their professions; raise their kids, spend time on their hobbies.

Many of them do get somewhat interested every four years, when the time comes to pick a new president. Slightly more than half of them actually vote, which doesn’t happen in other elections.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is what an average person must think of the candidates and the parties this year.

Based on everything I’ve seen, my guess is that a lot of them have an impression of Hillary Clinton as a career politician and an accomplished liar who will do anything to get elected.

Meanwhile, others see Donald Trump as a vulgar brawling clown who is dangerously inexperienced in government and is hostile to minorities and immigrants.

In fact, millions of Americans seem to believe both things, which can’t be great for democracy. Not to speak of the impressions little Susie and Tommy, and especially little Ahmed and Rosalva, are forming of their government.

The election itself is still exactly four months away, and the images I’ve just painted are sure to be further reinforced by the candidates themselves, who are already indulging in ad hominem attacks on “Crooked Hillary” and the man Democrats plainly want us to think of as “Deranged Donald.”

Now, I know that some of this has been going on since John Adams first took on Thomas Jefferson, though until recently the nastiest insults were doled out by supporters and surrogates, not the candidates themselves.

Things were so comparatively genteel half a century ago that it made a splash when President Lyndon Johnson called Richard Nixon a “chronic campaigner.”

But apart from that, it seems to me that the two parties have almost stopped trying to define themselves.

Republicans originally burst on the scene as the anti-slavery party. Democrats later became the party that stoutly defended a low tariff on imported goods; Republicans, the party of the high tariff.

Later, Democrats were the party of the New Deal, of a social safety net that included Social Security and later Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans became the party of lower taxes.

Nowadays, however, it is sometimes clear what the parties are against, but not what they are for. I know Republicans are almost universally against what they call “Obamacare” and that to run for office as a Republican, you have to be against a woman’s Constitutional right to have an abortion.

I know both parties are bitterly against allowing a president from the other party to fill seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But ask yourself this: What positive change is each party promising? Aside from the Supreme Court, do you hear Democrats saying, “give us back control of Congress and we’ll enact these laws that will benefit you?”

Are they even promising sensible gun control, on this day after the massacre of the police officers in Dallas?

They aren’t, any more than Republicans are telling you what they would do to “make America great again.” You are going to hear a lot of complaining that so many of us can’t be bothered to vote.

I just told you a big part of the reason why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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