The American government is frozen because the two parties are completely at loggerheads. Neither is willing to work with the other or willing to compromise in any way. The two party completely distrust each other. Each party seems convinced that the other is nefarious, engaged in politics and championing policies that are harmful to the nation.
In order to address the nation’s problems we first need to figure out a way to get our politics unstuck. But in order to do that, we need to understand how it got stuck in the first place. How did politics become so divisive?
First, I should note that there have always been times when politics was nasty. Often the periods of extreme nastiness corresponded to eras when the nation felt it was at a crossroads. The first truly nasty election was in 1800, when the first big battle over the direction of the government, between the John Adams and the Federalists, who believed in a strong and activist national government, and Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who believed that government should occur mostly at the state level, and that the national government should leave the states largely alone. Throughout history the most raucous politics occurred during periods when there were serious differences in the views of how government should work.
(Curiously politics tends to be less bitter and divisive when the nation faces real existential crises, like during wartime.)
We are clearly in the midst of such a period, as some Republicans try to dismantle government, and as both parties try to figure out how to deal with the future. But one new element seems to be a visceral suspicion of the motives of the other party. I call this the destructive duality. It is a duality because we have two parties fighting it out, and it has become destructive because both largely refuse to work with the other.
The destructive duality starts with the fact that we have two – and only two – major political parties. So every political issue because a head to head fight between Democrats and Republicans. Then you add to that our cultural fascination with competition and conflict. Our elections are “first past the post” and winner-take-all, elections, and most campaigns are fought as one candidate against another. Most often this is Democrats versus Republicans, and occasionally it is liberals versus conservative, but mostly today, despite the rhetoric, it is moderates versus conservatives. And so most political discussions are framed as Democrats versus Republicans, and issues get framed as having a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. Our cultural fascination with conflict and a belief in the value of competition ads a nasty element, and makes elections frantic and mean.
The next component involves the way people think about their beliefs. Most people tend to believe that their ideas are right. That is why they believe them. Most political parties, their candidates, and their partisans, start with the idea that their political ideas are right. They believe that of all the ideas out there, of all the possible options, theirs is the best, it is the most correct, it is, in a word, right. So Democrats think that their ideas, their policy choices, the programs they endorse, create, fund, and support, and the best. These, Democrats believe, are the best solution to the problem, they are good for the nation, and good for the people. Republicans, likewise, think that their ideas, policies, programs, etc., are right. That makes sense. But over the years each side has also come to believe that the other side is wrong. This is largely a product of the dominance of our two major parties. Because we have only two major parties, we discus political ideas in the framework of only two possible positions, the Democratic position and the Republican position. The reality is, of course, that there are any number of possible ideas, views, policies, positions, programs, etc., but that tends to be ignored, and we (meaning the media) present most every idea as if it is a choice between two, and only two, positions. And those two positions are the Democratic position and the Republican position. And since each side is convinced that their ideas are right, the only logical conclusion is that the other side’s ideas are wrong.
Far too often this simplistic view is then taken to the next step. If an idea is wrong, isn’t it, almost by definition harmful? If the right solution is good, doesn’t that mean that the wrong solution is bad? In the real world it doesn’t because there are many possible solutions. But in the warped world of American politics, where there are only two possible alternatives, if one is right the other must be wrong, and if one is good then the other must be bad. And if an idea is bad, doesn’t that mean, almost by definition, that it is harmful? Again, this is almost logically follows. So, in the warped world of American politics, each party has come to believe that the other party isn’t just presenting an alternate solution to a problem, it is actually presenting a solution that is wrong and harmful. There is one more step: what kind of person actively supports, endorses, and advocates for policies that are wrong and harmful? The answer is almost inescapable. A bad person promotes ideas (policies, programs, etc.) that are wrong, bad and harmful.
If Republicans, for example, are convinced that tax cuts will always help the economy, the corollary is also probably true, no tax cuts may hurt the economy, and tax increases will certainly harm the economy. And so Republicans become convinced that Democratic politicians who are preventing tax cuts, or proposing tax increases, are actually – and purposefully – trying to harm the economy. This is but one example, but many Republicans have come to believe that most Democrats are prompting policies that will harm the nation.
For many Republicans it is so obvious as to be painful that welfare harms the recipients, and abortion harms the nation. It is clear beyond words that liberal policies have harmed the nation in the past, and liberals continue to promote similar policies. Women’s liberation destroyed the family, and now liberals are advocating for gay marriage. Liberals have pushed policies that have hurt the country, and they keep doing it. (Liberals, of course disagree.) What kind of political party advocates policies that are bad, that are wrong, and that are harmful to the nation? Why a party that is bad and destructive. And how should you react to a party that is promoting things that will harm the nation? The answer is obvious, you stop them at all costs.
If you listen to the rhetoric of some of the more extreme politicians, or partisan commentators, you hear this message loud and clear. Listen to Rep. Louis Gomert of Texas, or conservative commentators like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter. They are clearly convinced that Democrats are a danger to the nation. Many Republicans believe this, and so refuse to work with Democrats on anything in Congress.
This view causes people to distrust not only the actions of their opponents, but also their motives. In this view a bad person is capable of anything, willing to lie, cheat or steal to achieve their nefarious ends. Even when they seem to be acting responsibly, there is always the possibility that they are trying to dupe you. So every word and deed is mistrusted.
I use Republicans as an example, but the reality is that there are Democrats who view Republicans in the same light. I think there are more conservatives who think this way than liberals, but there is no doubt that some extremely partisan Democrats feel this way. I know because I’ve worked with them. But again, I think it is more prevalent among conservatives. There are a couple of reasons it is more prevalent among conservatives. The first reason is that conservatives tend to view recent history as the story of the fall from grace, and that fall was hand delivered by liberals. Liberals don’t view the modern world in the same light. On the whole they think that the modern world is a pretty good place, and they certainly don’t blame conservatives for every ill facing the nation. Conservatives feel like liberals have destroyed their world (see the Roots of Conservative Rage) and they are not happy about it. The second reason is that conservative media feeds this narrative. Conservatives have hours upon hours of commentators blasting away at liberals. They have talk radio, with dozens of prominent hosts. They also have FoxNews, and a host of television commentators. Liberals, on the other hand, have never had successful radio programs (although there are a few out there) but they do have MSNBC.
This idea – that the other side is bad, evil, and must be stopped – has always been around to one degree or another. But the problem today is that this has become the dominant view. One reason for this is the rise of partisan news outlets, first conservative talk radio, then FoxNews, and now MSNBC. Demonization is their stock in trade. Each focuses on the idea that those with different views are not merely people with different ideas, but people with bad and potentially destructive ideas.
The other reason is far more troubling, and that is that the ostensibly “non-partisan” news media has effectively lost the ability to think rationally. The “main stream media” present almost every issue as if it were a battle between two sides, when the reality is that most issues don’t break down that way. Take, as but one example, the issue of global climate change. More often than not the MSM (Sarah Palin’s Lame-Stream Media) will have a story and present a climate scientist, and then a conservative (politician, economist, commentator, etc.) for “balance.” They want to present balance even when there is no disagreement. The do this, in part because conflict sells. So if you can present an idea as a simple, head to head conflict, you can get people riled up, and get ratings. The news no longer (or rarely) looks at nuance, they rarely dig deep into ideas and try to present them as complex issues. And they virtually never present more than two possible solutions to any problem. So the news media is deeply complicit it the national descent into triviality and stupidity.
And so we have the destructive duality. Democrats present their ideas without wavering, and Republicans do the same. Each presents the other as stupid at best, and criminal at worst. Each side is convinced that the other is wrong, their ideas bad, and their policies dangerous. And so they refuse to budge. How can you compromise with a party that is hell bent on destroying the nation? You can’t.
There are many recent examples that prove the point. Take the debate over setting the maximum rate for student loans. The Democratic and Republican positions barely differed, yet it took months of acrimony to reach an agreement.
So how do we deal with this destructive duality? The easiest first step is to understand it, and see through it. Parse the partisan rhetoric, and laugh at the silly duality. Once you understand it, almost every political statement becomes amusing. Mitch McConnell says basically two things: liberals are evil, and conservatives are here to save the world. Both are absurd caricatures.
Another step, if you are in politics, is to avoid it when you can. Treat your opponent as someone with a different view of how to solve a problem, not as someone with a bad or destructive view. Present your ideas as one choice among many, and treat your opponent’s ideas seriously.
But these two steps only get you so far. The real problem is that our “culture” treats every issue in a simplistic way, and as a destructive duality. Virtually every issue is presented as liberal versus conservative, or Democratic versus Republican. And this has become destructive because it has impacted our ability to think critically. Real issues are more complex. There are many causes and many possible solutions. By ignoring this, the destructive duality has impacted our ability to reason, and to solve problems.
We need to figure out a way to get past this. We need to figure out a way to convince the public, the media, and the major political parties, that every issue is not a battle between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans. We need more than this simplistic and destructive duality.
Perhaps the best way to do this is to allow for the participation of viable third parties. If the debate in Congress is over a Republican proposal, a Democratic proposal, and a Tea Party (or a Green Party) alternative, it will be obvious that the choice is not between left and right, and hence not a choice between right and wrong, or good and bad, but a choice between policy alternatives. In my view the only way to break the destructive duality is to bring third (and fourth and fifth) parties into our political system. This is why I’ve developed a proposal to allow multi-seat districts. It will allow more parties, and more ideas, in to politics. It will destroy the destructive duality and break the back of political gridlock.