Thursday, November 04, 2004

An Open Letter To A Divided Nation

This was submitted to me by Russell Dalferes, a friend of mine. It is long, but a good point I believe.

The last two Presidential election cycles have shown this country to be evenly divided -- and not in the warm, fuzzy "democratic" way of emotionless voting and then ambivalent acquiescence to the candidate with the plurality, but seemingly bitter, passionate division the likes of which this country has not truly seen since the Civil War. Even the bitterness and struggle surrounding the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s doesn't truly compare with the stark dichotomy that election results are showing this year. Just look at how many states had election margins of only one or two percentage points, between candidates that are so vastly disparate that the "undecided voter" should have been as extinct as the T-Rex. And yet, despite the immense rhetorical, personal, and political differences between President Bush and Senator Kerry, the country seems to have chosen sides as if the two camps needed equal numbers for a grand game of touch football.

I don't believe it for an instant. I truly do not believe that this country is evenly divided into two completely divergent ideological camps. This is not just a personal hope, or a wish, or a pipedream -- I think it is a statistical impossibility for a country of 300 million or so citizens, with 200 million or so eligible voters, to be perfectly split down the middle into two equally sized camps. Even among my friends, who have had similar life experiences and political indoctrination as I've had, we can find a plethora of political differences in only a brief conversation.

I truly do not believe that everyone who voted for George Bush actually thinks the President has performed well over the last four years and deserves to have another four in office. I truly do not believe that everyone who voted for John Kerry thinks the Senator has performed well as a Senator and deserves to be President. While there may have been more "anyone but Bush" voters than the opposite, there are sizeable numbers of voters on both sides of the issue who are voting not for the candidate's (or even the party's) views on the issues, but for some other purpose.

So why do we get the results of the last two elections? Because we have no other choice.

All we get, as the allegedly all-powerful electorate, is two choices, fully sanitized and vetted for the purposes of appealing to as many people as possible without presenting any real ideas. OK, maybe we get two-and-a-half, since the Ralph Naders and Ross Perots of the world give us a little election-night sideshow every once in a while. But realistically, we're left with two choices. And that's just wrong.

Clearly, the two choices are whomever the Democrat and Republican conclaves deign to present to the world, like debutantes who have been coached on the proper etiquette of: not causing a scandal by maintaining the status quo; being as likeable as possible, even if it means lying to the crowd; and, Heaven Forfend!, never appearing to be more intelligent than the person you meet at the ball, for fear that he may resent you for it and not ask you to the cotillion at the big white house. The obvious problem is that in order to get the parties to make the proverbial "smoke-filled room" choice of candidates to present to the public, those candidates have to please the party. Otherwise, who's going to pay for the debutante ball in the first place?

But this is where the false-positive ideological split in this country comes into play. Even inside each of the two major parties, there are factions, subgroups, parties-within-the-party, even bitter differences.

I truly do not believe that every Republican is in favor of reversing Roe v. Wade, or that every Republican favors denying gay people the right to marry or have civil unions, or that every Republican cares only about protecting large corporations, or that every Republican desires to see the country run strictly by the moral mandates of the Bible, or that every Republican believes that we do not need the good graces of international public opinion in order to function in the world. But strong voices inside the party believe all of those things.

I truly do not believe that every Democrat wants bigger governmental intrusion into our lives, or that every Democrat wants to raise taxes to pay for entitlement programs, or that every Democrat would rather save the spotted field mouse instead of jobs for his constituents, or that every Democrat favors the right to choose over the protection of the unborn, or that every Democrat is a card-carrying ACLU member who doesn’t give a damn about victim’s rights. But strong voices inside the party believe all of those things.

So what happens is we have two large groups of supposedly like-minded political players, the members of each not necessarily agreeing on the entire party platform, but joined in a never-ending battle with the opposition – a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” pact, that has the pleasant side effect of coming with a big war chest and a national political machine. It also makes it easy for the electorate, since there are only two real choices, and the choices can be made easily based on buzz-word issues without presenting any choices that really require thought or education on the issues. Don't like abortion? Then you're a Republican. But what if you want universal health care? Then you're a Democrat. Easy, for both the candidate and the voter. How much of our "informed" electorate really chooses the President based upon more than one or two factors? It's a telling signal that the two best possible predictors of how someone is going to vote are how often they attend church and how much education they have. If your biggest problems with the country are based on moral principles (such as abortion, homosexuality, “family values”) that you develop from reading the Bible, then you’re a Republican; if your biggest problems with the country are based on social principles (such as civil liberties, environmental issues, corporate globalization) that you develop from reading college-level textbooks or newspapers, then you’re a Democrat. And the voters pick a couple of issues that are important to them, then choose sides for the fight.

That's the point of it all: the fight. I truly believe that many, if not most, of the elected officials from the two major parties care more about beating the opposition than actually accomplishing something meaningful. Otherwise, Presidential campaigns would not start two years before the election, sitting elected officials would not need to raise $10,000 or more per week during their terms of office, and election ads would not be focused on only a handful of “swing states.” I live in New Orleans, and in the time from the Democratic primary until the weekend before the election, I did not see a single Presidential commercial on TV – and I watch a lot of TV. Both parties knew that Louisiana was going to break for the Republicans, so we the people of the great state of Louisiana just got no political speech in the most hotly contested political race in a century. If it were about ideas, or ideology, such a stark absence from an entire state would never be tolerated.

The media plays into this fight as well. Every news channel, political talk show, magazine, and newspaper plays straight into the hands of the two opposing forces. There is always the Democrat spin-doctor seated across from the Republican spin-doctor, the liberal editorial on one page facing the conservative editorial on the other, an aphorism on one side answered by a sound byte on the other. The only coverage is for the two choices that the vast majority of the electorate did not tap for nomination, further reinforcing the “us versus them” staging of a national political campaign. There is almost never an independent voice.

It doesn’t matter that there might be someone who is pro-choice, AND anti-big government, AND concerned about the environment, AND in favor of maintaining this country’s corporate and economic power, AND in favor of a strong military, AND in favor of legalizing marijuana, AND pro-death penalty but anti-discrimination in the application of the death penalty, AND in favor of raising the minimum wage, AND who considers himself moral and ethical without being religious, AND who thinks the rule of international law is a good thing, AND who thinks that the United States can still be the most important economic and military superpower in the world. Where does that member of the electorate look for his candidate? I’ve looked, and I can’t find such a candidate, because I’m not allowed to see anyone but the two hand-picked, plain-spoken, starched-collar puppets of the two-party system.

Where is the voice of moderation? Of pluralism? Of DEMOCRACY? The constitutional republic in which we live can no longer be deemed a democracy – if it ever truly could – because a democracy necessarily includes the consideration of all political thought, not just the thought presented by the two big bullies on the block. What the United States has become, as evidenced by the last two Presidential elections, is an oligarchy, in which all political decisions are made by a small number of people in both major parties and then packaged to the public as if the public had a true choice in the matter. But in a true, ideal, Aristotelian-Platonic oligarchy, decisions are made by a group of benevolent elites, coming together to make decisions for the population because the group of elites understands what’s best for the country far better than the masses. Instead, the current system in the U.S. is an oligarchy of opposition, in which the elites are not benevolent, they rarely come together to make decisions, and they look to the uneducated populace to tell them what is popular, rather than what needs to be done.

To return full circle to the impetus for this tirade, I truly do not believe that either the Republican or the Democratic party is populated by like-minded people. I believe there are moderates and extremists in both parties, social liberals and conservatives in both parties, economic liberals and conservatives in both parties, hawks and doves in both parties, religious and secular people in both parties. A center-left Democrat may look surprisingly like a center-right Republican on all but a few issues. And when it’s all considered, I truly believe that the surprising majority of Americans are fairly centrist, despite (or maybe because of?) the election results.

So why is there no moderate party? Why do we always have to choose between a pendulum swing in one direction or the other? Where is the party that proclaims, “We believe in conservative economic issues, but we’re liberal on social issues?” as many Americans believe. Where is the party whose platform says, “We may believe in God, but we don’t think God should run the country?” Where is the party that states, “A candidate can be moral and ethical without being religious?” Where is the party that says, “We are both pro-worker and pro-company, because when one does well, the other usually does, too?” Where is the party that says, “Compromising two opposing views will lead to better lives?” Where is the party whose candidates proclaim, “I want to be elected, but I don’t need it. Vote for me if you like my ideas?” Where is the party that actually reflects the will of the people?

Pundits on either side of the issue, well-armed for this fight with polling results, will say that the candidates already reflect the will of the people, because such extensive opinion polls are conducted prior to any political decision that by the time the decision’s announced, the parties already know what the reaction of the people will be.

This is absolute nonsense. Polling on hot-topic issues rarely reflects the actual realities of life in America – and polling is also affected by the presence of only two choices in the matter. Beliefs espoused in opinion polls are notoriously stronger than beliefs actually exercised in daily life. When asked on the phone whether someone believes gays should be allowed to marry, many people will respond by saying “no,” because it goes against their religious beliefs, but how many of those people are actually personally affected by gay marriage, either negatively or positively? I’ve known a number of gay people in my life, and whether they get married or unite civilly will have no direct effect on my life, my morals, or my ability to marry someone of the opposite gender. When someone is asked whether “moral issues” are important in the selection of a Presidential candidate, polling says that a significant majority of Americans say “yes,” but how is the candidate’s morality an indicator of his ability to be President? I think most people would agree that Jimmy Carter is a very moral man, but perhaps was not the most stunning President that this country has ever had; on the other hand, many people would say Bill Clinton is not the most moral man, but he was a good President. When asked about economic issues, opinion polls often reflect the respondent’s employment or lack thereof, but how much of the opinions in economic polls are actually influenced by considered thought on the subject? I’d say very little, because slightly more than half of the electorate just elected a President who gave the country tax cuts while waging two expensive wars involving occupation of standing and reserve armies, while simultaneously running up the largest deficit in the country’s history, and while losing millions of jobs.

The point of all of this is that I’m unbelievably tired of the two-party system, which forces the congregation of candidates with differing views in the name of beating the opposition, for no other reason than to beat the opposition. For those of you out there who aren’t in the extreme left or the extreme right, why do you not force the creation of a centrist party? Why do you blindly accept the mandates of the DNC and the RNC every four years, when there are literally MILLIONS of viable candidates excluded from every election cycle by the velvet-rope mentality of the current political duet? Why do you not question the fact that we’re not even allowed to vote for the Vice President anymore because the running mates are lumped in with the candidate for President, when the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution clearly envisions separate elections? What if you wanted to elect a President of one party and a Vice President of another? Why do you include yourself in one party or another when you don’t agree with many of their views? Why do you perpetuate the lack of choices?

I think a lot of the reason why people do this is because true democratic politics is “hard work,” as once-and-future President Bush would say. It requires knowledge of the issues – many issues, not just your rant-of-the-moment kind of issue. I think many voters are either Democrat or Republican because that’s what they’ve always been, that’s what their parents/spouses/friends are, and habits are hard to beat. I think voicing an independent opinion is more difficult than lumping yourself in with the crowd. And, most importantly, I think people would rather vote for the winner, rather than for the candidate they think is best – otherwise, news outlets would have no need to announce poll results to the general public, because if the population cared more about the message than who was winning, the only people who would want poll results would be the candidates themselves. While I hesitate to cast aspersions on the greater portion of the electorate, I think when it comes to political affiliation, voters tend to take the path of least resistance.

Well, I’m tired of subsidizing the idleness of the two-party population. Give me a third party. One that is focused on political centrism, not extremism or fringe politics. One that does not espouse only one major issue (like the Green Party) or radical change in the form of government (like the Communist Party). One that does not have to pander to religious dogmatism (like the Republicans) or to political correctness (like the Democrats). Give me an all-issue, viable, inclusive, tolerant, secular, practical wedge to shove right between the Democrats and the Republicans and to siphon their centrist members. Give me candidates who don’t have their strings pulled entirely from the far right or the far left, but feel small pulls from both sides and work to balance the tug-of-war with realistic compromise. I promise I, along with many others, will vote for you, and there won’t be post-election litigation because we’ll take the election in a landslide. Give me a choice that just might cure the division in this nation. Give me a third force.

Give me the Moderate Party.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I did not know there was such a thing as a moderate Dalferes.
Scott Dalferes
Houston, Tx

Boomr said...

There aren't many, but at least one of us exists. I may be the only one.

Off topic, I'm interested in knowing more about other Dalfereses out there. If you'd like to get in touch, you can email me at dalferes@alum.dartmouth.org.

Russell Dalferes
New Orleans, LA

MaxedOutMama said...

"Clearly, the two choices are whomever the Democrat and Republican conclaves deign to present to the world, like debutantes who have been coached on the proper etiquette of: not causing a scandal by maintaining the status quo..."

Yes. Dead on. I will be honest and say that I don't think that there is any hope of these two parties focusing on issues. This is an oligarchy; it's an oligarchy (on both sides) that's in bed with big money interests, and its real interest is just self-perpetuation.

And your "moderate party" (which I prefer just to call a "third party") will have to arise from the people itself.

Our entire nation is in a state of flux and we are not getting the open and vigorous public debate that we need. The major players in both parties are out of touch.

Pedro said...

Dingo, great post. I believe, like most wise men throughout history, that moderation is a virtue, one of the most important ones, in fact, because moderation implies all sorts of other virtues, like modesty, temperance, sobriety, and generosity. I posted a reply to your letter that I hope you'll read and offer your thoughts on. Thanks.

Pedro

James Johnson said...

I actually created such a party, please let me know what you folks think so far:

http://www.geocities.com/moderationparty/AMP.htm

Boomr said...

For the record, I want to say that I am not, in any way, subscribing to the policies outlined by James Johnson's American Moderation Party. To be honest, I disagree with much (if not most) of that organization's positions, as it appears that it is less focused on political centrism and more focused on an economic policy favoring the working class. And while I am a fan of campaign finance reform efforts, I'm not sure that Mr. Johnson's proposed election finance system would do anything to encourage more pluralism than the two-party system -- in fact, under his proposed system, I'm fairly certain his own party would not even qualify for FEC funds in any election.

My piece was intended as a call for an across-the-board, pan-issue, CENTRIST party, with no inherent biases at the beginning (i.e., not pro-worker or pro-business per the stated policies of the party at its inception). I respect Mr. Johnson's efforts at the creation of a third party, but I am in no way affiliated with that organization.

patricia said...

Very intelligent, insightful, well thought-out, and refreshing.

I wish boomr had a blog.

Boomr said...

One of these days. With luck, soon.

patricia said...

Looking forward to it.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts on Ralph Nader and his bids for presidency.