I grew up in a family that didn't talk politics much. My Dad would never even say who he voted for in an election, although I usually thought I could guess. In my younger years there was never a decision of voting Republican or Democrat, except at general election time, because everybody around us was a Democrat. We actually didn't know any Republicans, except on the national level, and early on I didn't really know what a Republican was.
So far as I know, in Benton County in the 1940s and early 1950s there were no Republican primaries, because there so few Republicans in the county, and no one was running for public office as a Republican. If you won your Democratic primary, that was tantamount to being elected, because in all likelihood you would not have anyone running against you in the general election. How different today, when things are basically reversed, and even candidates from families that have long histories as Democrats have to run under the Republican banner in order to get elected.
Another major difference I see in today's political parties is that all the parties are now more aligned around certain major persuasions. In the earlier days, for example, the Democrat and Republican parties were considerably broader in their composition. The parties were not so much defined by liberal and conservative contrasts, as we see today, but both were broader in the viewpoints they included. There were liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, and conservative Democrats; and there were liberal Republicans, moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans.
This meant that a legislator working to initiate a certain program proposal might realistically expect to find supporters for the idea across the aisle. So, proposed legislation could often be bi-partisan. Today we tend to see the legislators from the major parties at loggerheads against the other party's representatives, so cooperation across party lines is much less likely to occur these days. Sometimes I wonder if the Social Security program were being proposed today, rather than in the 1930s, would it pass? I'm not at all sure it would. I wonder if the Rural Electrification Administration were being proposed today rather than back during the Great Depression, could it pass? I'm not at all sure it would. We seem to be too divided among ourselves today to take on such major endeavors.
I recall that when I was a young boy in school, we were presented with the idea that we might reasonably aspire to become president of the United States someday. One of the expressions of our freedom was the possibility of beginning in poverty, but rising not only in prosperity, but being able to reach a respected and influential position as an elected public servant. I'd like to emphasize that sense of a politician as an influential and respected public servant, because I'm afraid that we are losing that attitude toward our elected officials.
In our public mood, we seem to be redefining "politician" not as a respected public official who works for the good of country and people, but as a corrupt figure who only uses his position to advance himself without regard to the good of country or people. We even have politicians running for office on the basis of claiming "I am not a politician." Such a claim often seems to be seen as a virtue, rather than as an admission of inexperience and naivete. We now have widespread ferment for placing term limits on the service of elected officials, based on the idea that once in office they will soon be corrupt and no good, and we have to send fresh, virtuous replacements often in order to be sure we root out the corrupted ones. We used to think that the best term limit system was to hold an election, and let the people decide if a politician should continue serving or should be dismissed from his position.
Another difference that seems to have developed across the years is the idea of valuing and honoring a career of public service. We used to see people elected to the U.S. Senate or to the U.S. House of Representatives who would proceed to serve many terms, and continue to be highly respected for their service. Now the idea seems to be that if a person has been in office for a term or two, he or she has become a "politician," and is therefore inevitably crooked and due to be sent home. I observe that many term-limited politicians go on to run for a different public office, and there is no hue and cry to stop them from doing that, thank goodness.
I'm of the view that we the people need to be re-examining our attitude toward politics and public service. The prejudgment that all politics and all politicians are suspect and unworthy is detrimental to a democracy which seeks to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge, is a retired Methodist minister and on the board of the Pea Ridge Historical Society. The views expressed are the author's. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com, or call 621-1621.Editorial on 06/06/2018
Print Headline: Consider political changes across the years