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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Altered Consciousness: A strategic switch of roles

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Opinions

During the past few weeks, an interesting paradox in American politics has emerged: Republicans, on the state and federal level, are acting as radical reformers while Democrats are the defenders of the status quo.

Traditionally, conservatives have a healthy, Burkean respect for institutions and are highly skeptical of radical changes that can disturb, subvert or replace the preexisting order. If reform is necessary because the current situation has become corrupt and intolerable, it should come in a gradual and incremental fashion, as opposed to any drastic and sudden transformation.

And yet Republicans in America, who presumably embrace these and other virtues of traditional conservatism, are seeking to alter the status quo fundamentally on both the federal and state level. Conversely, Democrats, who often are in favor of centralized, rationalized and far-reaching changes as embodied, for instance, by the recent health care reform bill, find themselves as the de facto defenders of the present state of affairs in America.

This dynamic is emblemized by the scene in Wisconsin, which faces an unprecedented budget crisis. Instead of making tepid modifications to ameliorate Wisconsin’s current fiscal condition, newly-elected Republican Governor, Scott Walker, has used the occasion to transform completely the behavior of public sector unions, the nature of collective bargaining and the pensions and benefits system. At the same time, unions and their Democratic representatives, who are usually in favor of progressive reforms, bear an extremely reluctant attitude toward this change. Similar situations have already or will play out in states like New Jersey, Florida,and Michigan.

On the national level as well, Republicans, particularly those who are associated with the Tea Party, are emboldened to bring about radical restructuring to the nature of administrative institutions. When President Obama recently presented a budget that would make minor cuts to federal programs, barely reduce the deficit,and would hardly touch gargantuan entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the Republican caucus was furious. The GOP is far more intent, it seems, on seriously downsizing the role, impact and size of the federal government than the Democrats, as proven by their recently passing a bill that will cut over $60 billion from the budget.

The question that faces American political leaders today is whether or not such huge changes are necessary. Do drastic circumstances call for such drastic measures or should a more cautious and traditionally conservative approach take precedent?

In answering this, one must also consider the nature of institutions such as government and whether or not something is fundamentally wrong with the current state of our social contract.

Some individuals, such as Scott Walker, respond to this inquiry in the affirmative, and believe that when government, and the benefits and entitlements it provides, becomes overly excessive in size and scope, it can become a corrupting force that diminishes individual freedoms, liberty and responsibility.

Others, like Barack Obama and the public sector unions, hold the opposite view, deeming government as a very positive force in the utilitarian sense that is part of the solution as opposed to being a major problem. Cuts to it, therefore, only ought be a measure of last resort.

The Great Recession and the symptoms associated with it, such as unemployment, deficits, and debt, demands action from responsible policymakers. However, as opposed to a unified pragmatic vision, these calls have been met with two conflicting philosophies concerning the necessity of structural political, social and economic reform. Only time and the changes it brings will tell which one will prevail.