Overcoming the Self-Destructive Two-Party Mentality

Last October I attended an event at the Center for American Progress about laws that require employers to offer paid sick leave days to their employees.  It was a crowded event, with more attendees than the large room could seat.  The audience was very well dressed and finely groomed.  Likewise, three of the four speakers wore suits.  The exception was Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys and Poets, who wore an orange sweater and casual looking pair of pants.

As the event progressed, I began to see Shallal’s distinction in dress as both appropriate and commendable.  While each speaker had interesting things to say, Shallal—even though a business owner—seemed to care most deeply about providing paid sick leave because it was the right thing to do, rather than because it was good for business or politically expedient.  What stuck with me most was when he pointed out how the event itself reflected how perverted our political system had become: A room full of elites, probably all of whom had paid sick leave days through their employers, were discussing whether or not it would be a good thing for the working-class in the country to have the same privileges.  I doubt many others in the room would have noted the irony of the situation on their own.

Shallal’s observation signifies the “problem” that the Advocacy Center for Equality and Democracy hopes to solve:  Our government is run by a small group of very privileged people who mostly serve other elites.  Even when they are well intentioned, they address problems ineffectually because their own interests and worldviews are so different from the many who suffer from the inequities in our society.  The Center for American Progress event symbolized that, but so does almost every television program about politics.  Instead of inviting everyday people who have lost their homes because of fraudulent lending, for example, to explain what they need and what would help them in their situation, “experts,” pundits, and politicians monopolize the airwaves.  That is not to say that the latter groups do not have a place in the discussion, but the situation now is undeniably one in which elites tell people what they need rather than the other way around.  In a democracy, one would expect the people-at-large to have a greater say so that politicians could listen to them and respond to their concerns.

The problem is not the disparity in power and control over discourse that favors the elite so much as the consequences of it.  For one, the disparity obviously affects government policies.  Second, the disparity is so great and so consistent that our society has come to view it as proper that elites tell the masses what is good and bad for them.  Insidiously, this in turn produces a population that cannot think for itself when it comes to politics.  A democracy cannot survive without free-thinking citizens.  If the citizenry abdicates its role as sovereign of our nation by accepting uncritically what a group of elites tells them, a plutocracy emerges.  And that is basically what we have in the United States.

As a result, even though it is not at all controversial to say that both major parties have been corrupted by elite private interests—which can be easily demonstrated by the struggles of the poor, middle class, and organized labor while the richest in our society become even more affluent—it is anathema to suggest that society should remove those corrupt parties from power.  There is systemic (by which I mean academic, legal, partisan, and media) opposition to any political alternatives.  The opposition is so strong that even ideas that do not fit neatly into the major-party, black-and-white, left-right model (yet that would still be consistent with a more broadly defined Democrat and Republican paradigm) are attacked like white blood cells swarming and destroying a foreign cell.

The response to Glenn Greenwald’s piece Progressives and Ron Paul Fallacies exemplified this.  Aware of the systemic reaction described above, Greenwald expressly stated at the beginning of the article that he was “not ‘endorsing’ or expressing support for anyone’s candidacy.”  Moreover, he concluded that it is “perfectly legitimate to criticize Paul harshly and point out the horrible aspects of his belief system and past actions.”  However, he also noted that such criticism is “worthwhile only if it’s accompanied by a similarly candid assessment of all the candidates, including the sitting President.”  Again anticipating the response, Greenwald suggested that such a balanced assessment of candidates might be “too subtle for the with-us-or-against-us ethos.”

And, indeed, the response to Greenwald’s article proved him right – in particular Megan Carpentier’s Ron Paul’s Useful Idiots on the Left.  Initially, Carpentier blatantly misrepresents Greenwald, attributing motives to him that he expressly disavowed.  Greenwald responded saying as much.  In her response to Greenwald, Carpentier wrote:

“That you insist your pro-Paul Salon pieces don’t say what I and (as you well know) plenty of others think they do is either a function of your inability to effectively communicate your position or an effort to back away from what you did write given the backlash.

Even though Greenwald throughout his article explicitly said he was not endorsing Ron Paul and expressly lamented the inability of people like Carpentier to distinguish agreement with a particular candidate’s policy and support for the candidate, according to Carpentier it is Greenwald’s own “inability to effectively communicate” that causes her to think he means what he say he does not mean.  Or, she writes, Greenwald is backing away from what he wrote.  But Greenwald’s response to Carpentier’s article relied almost entirely on what he did in fact write to show that what she wrote was false.

This episode reveals an alarming fact about American politics:  Pundits in the media (as well as politicians) can easily and credibly divorce words from their definitions to completely distort a speaker’s message.  At that point, the value of one’s political speech is practically nothing if more powerful voices want the message silenced.  Of course, if you want progressive social change, you have to be able to counter the voices of the powerful to organize people with your own message.  George Orwell in The Politics of the English Language said people have to constantly guard against the pernicious effects of bad political writing.  Having failed to do so, our society has reached the point where the specific political message almost does not matter.  Instead, preserving the two-party system matters.  Accordingly, the normal response to an article like Greenwald’s is to attack it and its author (Carpentier uses a number of ad hominem gibes, beginning with her title) so that everyone can see that such ideas do not belong in our political discourse, without regard to their underlying merits.

The tactic works.  The systemic opposition to political choice (that is, any choice other than the Red and Blue options) has worked so well because it consistently and severely defends the “two-party system.”  You see it in pieces like Carpentier’s, in the exclusion of third party candidates from presidential debates, and in the repetition of myths regarding the effect of third parties.  Indeed, the defense must be consistent and severe in order to impose the “two-party system” in people’s minds.  People would not accept the two-party monopoly otherwise.

Think back to what you learned in government class in grade school.  If your experience was similar to mine, then you learned that our system of government was based on democratic principles like fairness, equality, and choice; and that people elected leaders to represent their interests and voted out those who failed to do so in office.  You were not told that your choices were limited to the two candidates put in front of you by the major parties.  You were not told that representatives of the two major parties have made it extraordinarily difficult for alternative parties/candidates to compete because of ballot access laws and control over who participates in political debates.  Nor were you told that you should not vote for your preferred candidate because doing will “spoil” the election.

It is clear why – any open-minded person capable of thinking clearly about an electoral system would immediately recognize that description as elitist and undemocratic.  Moreover, it is fundamentally at odds with notions of democracy and freedom that the process of socialization through education is meant to inculcate.  Most socialized adults are not open-minded.  They are cynical; and they are heavily invested in our system of governance and too frequently subjected to anti-choice, two-party messaging to think about politics clearly.  Accordingly, they can strongly disagree with Democratic and Republican policies while at the same time believing not only that the solution to America’s political problems will come through those same two parties, but that any alternative actually hurts our democracy.

There is an obvious tension between the belief in democracy and the recognition that the major parties have failed the majority of citizens on the one hand, and the insistence that same the two major parties belong in power on the other.  Assuming that the people of the United States have a diverse set of political views, the lack of options is fundamentally at odds with the notion of democracy.  And of course they do hold distinct views – at least from politicians.  For example, polling shows that people are more dissatisfied than ever with their government, that most in theory would like more choices, and finally that on specific and very important policies they disagree with both parties.  There is also a more general tension:  In how many other situations would people generally agree that fewer choices are better?  Not very many.  It is strange that as a democracy and freedom loving society we would steadfastly oppose choice perhaps where it matter most.

Strange from the point of view of citizens, that is, though it is perfectly rational for the powers that benefit from the two-party system to discourage political choice.  If people believe that they have no choice but to support a Democrat or Republican, then they cannot escape bi-partisan policies.  This may sound innocuous.  After all, the media floods us with evidence that the major parties agree on almost nothing.  However, their disagreement over details conceals their consensus on broader principles.  Democrats and Republicans have both acted as overseers of a single regime that serves elite interests, increasing economic inequality, creating a huge disparity in criminal prosecutions between the wealthy and poor, waging unjust wars, and debasing our constitutional protections.

Admittedly, while they share certain policies, it is nevertheless obvious that the Democratic Party is different than the Republican Party.  It is equally obvious that because of their differences people reasonably prefer one party to the other.  Thus, it makes some sense that people will fear voting for an alternative if doing so will increase the likelihood that the other will win (although this fear—that a third-party will split the vote leading to victory for the least desirable candidate—appears to have little to no basis in fact).  But there must also be a point for individual voters when the harms of either major party’s rule outweigh the benefits of the “lesser-evil’s” victory.  If there is no means to reject the two-party rule, then their rule corrupts us indefinitely.  That is to say, there is no limit to the number of unjust policies, or to the degree of injustice of those policies, if voters accept no alternatives to the Republican-Democrat dichotomy in which the one is always and necessarily superior to the other.

Perhaps for that very reason people couch so many of their criticisms of the “other party” in moral terms – a way of justifying to oneself a vote for a candidate with otherwise troubling policies.  Democrats often think of Republicans as bigots, anti-women, elitist, and generally backwards.  Republicans cherish their own conservative values, and blame Democrats for the moral debasement of American culture; many also think of Democrats as the elitists.

Since systemic opposition to alternatives to the two parties has effectively produced a society with political tunnel-vision, framing the Democrat and Republican choice as a moral one makes sticking to the two-party system as a voter the “right thing to do,” despite its own moral costs.  But if we do not take third parties seriously in the first place, how can we ever be sure that we are voting for the best candidate for our own interests and values?  This question shows why enforcing the myth that we have a “two-party system,” as opposed to a two-party tyranny, is so important to elites:  That we have a “two-party system” is the only effective answer.  Only if people believe in the first place that third parties cannot succeed—worse, that they “spoil” our democracy—can one persuasively argue that citizens should unceasingly vote against their own interests for the “lesser-evil” candidate.

The situation is reminiscent of the prisoners’ dilemma in which two arrestees could go free if they both stay silent, but instead they both confess, worsening their collective outcome.  Without question, our democracy would benefit from more political choices and from leaders who are held accountable by the public at large rather than by elites.  However, even though alternatives already exist to the two major parties—even a few that broad portions of the population could probably agree on (in the very least for strategic purposes)—most people probably will not take them seriously enough to vote for them… until more people vote for them.

It may sound like an impossible solution when put that way, but it is not.  The foundation for change already exists in the tensions described above.  George Goehl of National People’s Action said that the key to organizing is getting “people to do things they didn’t know they wanted to do when they met you.”  As discussed above, people already want more political choices.  People want new leaders.  In short, many people want to vote for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, and we can organize voters around that.  We just need to overcome the biases and fears systemically imposed on our society to suppress political expression – a realistic goal precisely because people in the abstract already tend to disagree with them.  If we do that, people will begin to realize that they do not have to remain prisoners to the myth of a “two-party system.”

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