Republican Generalities

June 26, 2011

In the political propaganda wars, the Democratic Party coalition of white professionals, Blacks, Hispanics, and fading trade unions is badly outgunned by the Republican Party forces which include Corporate America, and the ignorant masses, especially those in the Bible belt. However, Niccolò Machiavelli made an observation about the deception of the masses that may offer the Democrats some hope.

Niccolò made his observation by way of an example concerning the   republican period in ancient Rome.  At this time there were two political factions: the nobles and the commons.  At first the nobles dominated, but through a process of rabble rousing, struggle, and series of hard won reforms, the populous gained political power.  In one such reform the commons gained the right to elect four tribunes to represent their interests in government affairs.  However, having been excluded from government there were no qualified candidates among the commons themselves.

The people clearly believed and fought for the general idea that they were just as good as the nobles.  We might expect that given the opportunity, they would have elected Tribunes from the commons, qualified or not.

In his Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Machiavelli tells us what actually happened on the occasion of the first election.

“When the four tribunes came to be chosen, the people, who had it in their power to choose all from the commons, chose all from the nobles. With respect to which election Titus Livius observes, that “the result showed that the people when declaring their honest judgment after controversy was over, were governed by a different spirit from that which had inspired them while contending for their liberties and for a share in public honors.” The reason for this I believe to be, that men deceive themselves more readily in generals than in particulars.”

CHAPTER XLVII – That though Men deceive themselves in Generalities, in Particulars they judge truly

In contemporary America, the public clearly believes the general tenants of the Republican Party platform.  Americans accept the notion that the U.S. should swagger on the world stage, that free-loading minorities are ruining the country, that homosexuality and other forms of moral degeneracy are threatening our social cohesion, and that we must return to traditional values.  You might think that in this environment the Tea Party’s message of rage and self righteousness, would propel it to victory across the board.

However when it comes to specifics, as it did in the special election in New York’s 26th district, people are not easily deceived.   The voters (who have elected a Democrat only 3 times in the last 100 years) elected Democrat Kathy Hochul, 47 percent to her Republican opponent Jane Corwin’s 43 percent.  Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, got approximately 9 percent.

The Democratic Party won that election, not by battling the Republicans about generalities, but by making the election about something very specific, Social Security.

The same contrast between the public’s support for Republican generalities but Democratic specifics applies to several other important issues, such as health care and financial industry reform.

From the Republican perspective, the recent events in New York are more ominous still.  On Friday (24 June 2011) New York’s Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill to recognize same-sex marriage on a 33-29 vote.  According to the New York Times, Nation-wide 50% of the electorate supports gay marriage versus 34% who are opposed.   Only two years ago, the numbers were 42% in favor versus 54% opposed.  I believe that what accounts for the difference is that two years ago the issue was seen as an instance of a generality.  People’s opinion reflected their general opinion about homosexuals. Now the issue is seen as a specific choice.

We can hope that the Democrats take a lesson from recent events in NY, position themselves as pragmatists, and fight their election battles on specific issues.  If the Democrats fight on specifics, they will force both parties to craft proposals that are less extreme and we can hope, help form a practical political consensus.

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