Commentary: The State Of Politics In A State Of Disarray

Apr 19, 2021

Dr. Robert Smith
Credit UIS

The following is a commentary from Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to not share some reflections on our general political scene in this country in 2021. Our divisive political environment is alive and well in localities, states and in the nation. There seems no end in sight. And there is a malaise is hanging over our public life these days!

Differences and entrenched beliefs about ones political identification have always existed. That’s why there are Democrats, Republicans and Independents and more! Although there are lots of reasons and research on political identify, I’m going to put my money on one fundamental issue dividing our nation more than any other and forcing them into their political corners!

I’m going to suggest that the question about how big or small government should be…is probably the fundamental disagreement in politics today.

Big government probably means high taxes, more bureaucracy, lots of regulations, centralized health care, social programs, domestic over military spending, environmental action, global trade, looser immigration, federal supremacy over state and local units, collective rights over individual rights, “liberal” policies, and so much more. On the other hand, small government means low taxes, less bureaucracy, few regulations, less social programs, market competition, military spending over domestic spending, less environmental controls, stricter immigration, America first in trade, states and local governments before the federal government, individual rights over collective rights, “conservative” policies, and lots more.

And probably, just probably, that may adequately distinguish most Democrats from most Republicans, right?

Now, big versus small government is certainly an oversimplification. An essay arguing this point from any of my students would likely get a critical review from me. But, there is some fundamental truth or accuracy to that “big” versus “small” government comparison. Don’t you think?

And even in the few elements I highlighted to distinguish between the two political views seems to precisely describe the political divide in our country today!

I realize that the “divide” is a function of a lot of pieces, many of which I have not identified. Those are typically more divisive and sensational and involve deeper societal issues of how human beings interact with one another. That’s why I’d like to keep with the above list. Wouldn’t you agree?

If, let’s say, Democrats (fringe and mainstream) and Republicans (new or old Party) could focus on these issues of big versus small government, there may be a basis for compromise and moving forward on a host of pressing policy issues. More significantly, keeping other volatile and divisive issues to one side may offer a window for governance and compromise and a level of civility to return to our political system. Don’t ignore those divisive issues, but place them in a proper context with a means to examine and find solutions. All these issues in one big box seems to not be the best way to solve problems big or small in society.

Politics today is about who shouts louder, who has the last word, who is the purest Party loyalist, biased news coverage favoring one side or the other, sound bites, not listening, not thinking, whose got the most money, pointing fingers, and sometimes chaos and disorder. I’m not sure that’s how the Founding Fathers (and Mother’s) envisioned our democracy working. Sure, its’ disorganized, sloppy, noisy, not efficient, and rancorous. That’s ok…as long as the rules and foundation of democracy still prevail.

On the big versus small government thing, I think it is fair to say each of these issues/areas falls along some continuum where people want some things and other people want other things on the opposite ends of that spectrum (e.g., small military versus large military or high taxes versus low taxes). Living in a collective society (e.g., the United States) citizens try to work out their respective positions and achieve some “middle ground.” And in a democracy that is made palatable because future elections can allow for that compromise to shift more in someone’s favor than the other in the next election cycle. Hence…we have politics!

American’s have always been a pragmatic people. They have worked out funding, leadership, programs and policies this way for two centuries. Sure, it hasn’t always worked the best or necessarily achieved society’s goals and it sure has been a rocky path at times. I’m not making excuse for those lapses.

Nothing I can say or present now will necessarily deflect or reduce the vitriol in politics at all levels, but I hope a reminder about staying focused on the policies and the programs and the direction of government (big or small) should remain the focus of our political life and exchanges.

Name calling and demonizing and posturing and sensationalizing is sometimes a very real part of politics (which is why many citizens avoid participating). But those approaches make compromising and balancing viewpoints difficult. Presenting chaos and “end of the world” scenarios if one Party or the other wins is not the American Way.

For example, I’m probably not smart enough to figure out the best “mix” of social programs in society. But I do have a sense that Social Security payments to older Americans seems to be the right thing to do and that Medicare and Medicaid seem to play a positive role. But I equally don’t know the right level of support or scope for these programs. Hence there is a basis for discussion. Are these programs too big or too small or not expansive enough, etc.?

I may think one way, and you another, and we can discuss that. Where is the proverbial kitchen table (or Zoom Room) where neighbors could pull up a chair and be best friends yet divided on town, state or national politics?  As neighbors we all equally knew that whichever way the debate went, we would take the next door neighbors kids to school the next morning, or help in a community cleanup that weekend, or cosponsor a fundraiser for a disabled veteran’s family at the end of the month!

There are a lot of things wrong in society today and many things you and I don’t like (or have very different views on). And politics in 2021 seems to be in disarray. But if it is in disarray, we have no one to blame but each other. Let’s return to that proverbial “kitchen table” and laugh and talk and cry to one another about the things or changes that we need to move forward in our democracy.

Anything less, and we are not doing our jobs as citizens of these United States.