Despite their differences over the years, until recently, every major political party was in agreement about one thing – the definition and nature of rights. The Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans, the Democrats, the Whigs, and the Republicans all subscribed to the philosophy of natural rights, as introduced in the Declaration of Independence and enumerated in the Constitution. Respect and acknowledgement of natural rights is a prerequisite for individual liberty – the cornerstone value upon which our nation was founded.
In recent years, however, many in the Democratic party have moved away from the concept of natural rights in favor of a statist view of rights. As a result, the concept of individual liberty has been deemphasized, if not abandoned, in favor of the domination of the collective. Although these Democrats do, on rare occasions, provide lip-service to the concept of individual rights, this belief in individual rights is very limited and exclusive to narrow and specific partisan preferences. As a general rule, Democrats are increasingly viewing rights as an artificial construct created by the state, rather than a natural condition of mankind.
The dichotomy in the definition of rights is causing political polarization that will not be remedied until and unless there is a common consensus on the nature of rights between the major political parties.
The United States of America was founded upon the concept that every individual possesses natural, equal, and inalienable rights, which are bestowed upon each person by our Creator. These rights precede and take preference over any government or governmental structure. Governments have no ability or authority to create rights; rights already exist solely on the basis of our humanity. Governments may help protect and preserve rights, or governments may infringe upon rights. But governments cannot, by definition, create or modify rights.
Natural rights, which, on a general level, recognize humanity’s rights to life, liberty, property, and self-determination, are universal. Every human possesses them as part of the inherent nature of humanity. No government may legitimately limit them to specific groups of people or create new rights for other groups of individuals.
In addition, rights, by definition, cannot impose any obligation upon anyone else, with the exception of the obligation to respect and not infringe upon others’ rights. Rights are the exclusive province of each individual, and it is up to each individual to assume responsibility for his or her exercise of such rights. For example, one of the enumerated rights in the Constitution is the right to a free press. Although this right recognizes that every individual may express and publish his or her opinions, it does not automatically imply that everyone be given a printing press. Each individual is independently responsible for acquiring the means to exercise his or her rights.
Political leftists, who have increasingly seized control of the Democratic party, do not recognize the concept of natural rights. Instead, they view rights as artificial constructs that may only be granted by benevolent governments, and that those rights may be amended or repealed based upon the preferences of that government. Individuals are not independent beings, each with their own liberties acquired at birth. Instead, all individuals are subjects of a collective government, whose whims and preferences supersede the rights or desires of any specific individual.
The concept of rights as an artificial construct that may be granted or repealed by the will of governmental leaders is a European concept, shaped by its monarchical and feudal history. Most Europeans, regardless of the term actually used, are subjects of their governments, rather than citizens. This is an important distinction because it reflects the hierarchical perspective of a society. In the European model, the state takes supreme precedence, and all individuals in that state are fundamentally vassals laboring for the collective.
The United States of America broke away from British rule primarily because it did not agree with this hierarchy. As a product of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the United States rejected the European concept of government and rights. The Declaration of Independence illustrates that Americans consider individuals to be supreme, and that governments only exist through the consent of the governed. Rather than being vassals to the state, individuals even have the right to “alter or abolish” governments as they see fit. An essential part of the American experience is the belief that rights precede and transcend governments, instead of being the products of the state.
The question that must now be explored is how the differences in the perception of rights really affects society, and how these differences contribute to the increased polarization of politics in today’s America.
In general terms, Republicans, particularly those who identify themselves as true Conservatives, endorse the vision of our nation’s founders and the concept of natural rights. This means that Republicans generally believe in individual rights, the liberty of individual to do as they please (provided they don’t infringe upon the rights of others), the sanctity of private property, individual initiative and responsibility, and limited government (particularly the Federal government).
The Democrats, on the other hand, are increasingly adopting the Progressive/Socialist perception that the collective, as manifested by the state, is superior to any individual. Any rights that individuals possess are granted by the state, and may be limited, expanded, or revoked depending upon the perceived needs of the state. In essence, rather than following the United States’ Constitution and its insistence that rights “may not be infringed,” Democrats are more apt to recognize the conditions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which in its first section, explicitly states, “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Note that the Canadian approach, representing its historical and present ties to Europe, denies the inalienable nature of rights and instead declares that rights are subject to law and must be “justified” by that law. This is the characteristic of the current dogma of the Democratic party in the United States. Rather than viewing rights as natural, universal, and absolute, the Progressives/Socialists believe that rights are conditional – based upon the goals and desires of the state. If public policy, or the ostensible “public good,” is to be served, rights must be subject to restriction or abolition in order to accomplish social goals.
As such, rights that were once universally acknowledged by all Americans are openly rejected by many Progressives/Socialists. The rights of free expression and conscience enumerated in the First Amendment of the Constitution should be restricted, according to many on the left, in order to ensure that such expression is not offensive to anybody and supports the implementation and expansion of their social goals. Rather than recognizing that the First Amendment protects and recognizes the right of any and all expression, the left hopes to limit it to advance their social agenda and restrict criticism of their goals. Ideas in opposition to Democratic dogma are increasingly coming under attack if such ideas may be considered “triggering”, a “microaggression”, “offensive,” or “hateful.” Naturally, there is no universal consensus of the meaning of these terms. Instead, any thought in opposition to the social desires of the left are subject to censure or prohibition.
The left endorses significant restrictions, if not prohibitions, of other natural rights in the Constitution. The right of individual defense, enumerated under the Second Amendment’s right “to keep and bear Arms” should be solely a state, rather than individual right, according to many on the left. Others even advocate to have this amendment repealed from the Constitution, thereby denying individuals the natural right to protect their persons and their property. Likewise, large groups of Progressives/Socialists have attacked the concept of due process and the right to confront one’s accuser in cases in which the accuser may feel “uncomfortable.” They deny the existence of rights not enumerated by the Constitution, unless such rights actually reflect their political preferences. The left also attacks the general principals of Federalism, in which the bulk of political sovereignty is held by the states, which only ceded limited powers to the federal government. The Progressives/Socialists prefer a large, monolithic, all-intrusive federal government that severely constrains the powers and sovereignty of individual states.
In line with their belief that government, rather than our Creator, grants rights, the Progressives/Socialists conjure rights out of thin air when it suits their purpose. In just about every instance, the left misuses the term, “rights.” Anything the public may want or desire, or anything the government determines that people need (particularly if it’s offered for free) is labeled a “right.” If one looks at the most recent Democratic platform, they claim that Americans should have the following “rights:”
- Right to Education
- Right to Retire with Dignity
- Right to Paid Sick Leave
- Right to Healthcare
- Right to Special Accommodations for the Disabled
- Right of all “life forms…to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles”
- Right to abortion
- Right to clean air and clean water
None of the above a true “rights.” In order to be rights, they must exist naturally, be independent of governmental fiat, and not create an obligation or rights infringement on any other party. For example, if healthcare is to be considered a “right,” who is responsible for providing that right? Who is responsible for financing that right? Unless we are speaking of someone providing a healthcare procedure on him or herself, healthcare is a service, not a right. The same holds true for education, paid sick leave, special accommodations, abortion, and even air and water. These may be desirable goods and services, but they have to be financed and provided by someone.
If a good or service must be provided by someone else, it can not be defined as a “right,” because it inherently infringes upon the rights of others. If healthcare is to be called a “right”, it would violate the right of a physician to practice as he or she sees fit, and of a taxpayer financing this “right” of the right to keep his or her own property. Some may argue that healthcare should be made available to all. While some may see some merit in this idea, it does not make healthcare a “right.” At best, it makes healthcare a government-controlled, taxpayer funded service. As a rule, Democrats believe that individual rights should take a backseat to implementing their concepts of “social justice.” Naturally, programs supporting these concepts must be funded, requiring that the government seize the fruits of people’s labor in the form of coercive taxation. In essence, the Democratic party believes that wage earners in America should be forced to work about 40% of their hours (or whatever they momentary consider an individual’s “fair share”) as slaves to the desires of social justice warriors of the left.
The left increasingly argues that individual expression should be limited, as is seen most prominently on American college campuses. Students are not permitted to express themselves freely; instead they are subjected to speech codes to ensure that no person or group can possibly be offended by an idea. Democrats also tend to favor the expansion of “hate” crimes, in which an action is not punished, but instead the thought and motivation behind the action. For example, Democrats seem to think that murder is somehow more heinous just because a perpetrator utters a racial slur while committing the crime, as opposed to remaining silent. I’m guessing that the thoughts going through the murderer’s head are actually far less important to the victim than the act itself.
The natural right of property is one of the primary rights ignored and infringed upon by Democrats. Essentially, Democrats don’t believe that property should belong to any specific individual. Instead, they view property as a community resource, and that it may be expropriated by the state for any reason or any purpose. It is only through the benevolence of the state that wage earners are permitted to retain even a portion of their property. In fact, the direct redistribution of wealth is often instituted as a policy in and of itself, for the ostensible purpose of reducing wealth “inequality.”
The left also tends to confuse social justice with charity. In the view of the left, social justice defines any goal they may have, to be provided by compulsory “charity.” Charity is not designed to be compulsory; it is intended to be voluntary, for both the donor and the recipient. The left, however, believe that their personal social goals are charity, and that donors must be compelled to fund that “charity” and recipients forced to accept it. The right to self-determination, also known as the right to choose, is ignored and infringed upon by the self-righteous Progressives/Socialists. In fact, many Progressives/Socialists believe that private charity should be outlawed, because it limits their power to determine who is worthy of assistance, who should fund that assistance, and the form which that assistance should take.
In essence, the modern Democratic party no longer recognizes universal, inalienable rights, as instituted by our nation’s Founders. Instead, they believe the end justifies the means, and as long as their preferred programs are instituted, the fact that it may or may not have infringed upon individual rights are of little to no consequence. The left believes that rights are fungible and transitory creations of the state. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to view most individual rights as inalienable and sacrosanct. Individual rights, and the protection of those rights, generally takes precedence over the implementation of specific programs.
It should be noted that the perception of Republicans and Democrats on the issue of rights is not always consistent. There is ample hypocrisy and willingness to deviate from a consistent philosophy in both major parties. There are areas in which Republicans are perfectly willing to dispense with rights in order to pass certain favored legislation, and there are instances in which Democrats suddenly discover a fidelity to natural rights when it suits their purposes. In broad terms, however, Republicans tend to follow in the footsteps of our nation’s Founders by defending and preserving natural rights. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to ignore the values that contributed to the American Revolution, and favor a more European approach to government and rights.
With such a wide gulf between their respective values, and a complete dichotomy between representing individuals and representing a collective, it will be very difficult to minimize the political polarization that now exists between the major parties. In order to have a productive working relationship and compromise, all parties must share certain basic values. In today’s political reality, there are very few shared values between the major parties, and their essential premises and philosophies are in violent opposition to one another.