It seems we Americans are caught up in and even obsessed with dualities. Good and evil, god or no god, democracy or tyranny, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, men are from Mars and women from Venus. It all makes for a compelling competitive narrative and a great show when our team, however that’s defined by a group of us, goes up against the opposition, particularly when our team wins. I even tend to think in the duality of patriarchy versus partnership, and frame my own narrative of the latter (the circle of equals) triumphing over the former (hierarchies of domination and control).
But more and more these days I’m thinking this is an overly simplistic and unsophisticated approach to the world, that maybe sells tickets to some sort of framed contest between two opposing sides, but does not serve the cause of coming to some sort of compromise consensus on a pragmatic path forward for our society. What is needed I think is a different metaphor for constructive conflict that allows for an array of constituencies to form ever-changing relationships with each other.
Maybe a useful metaphor is imagining a small board that runs a small community organization. If there are just two board members then there is only one relationship between them, where say on any given matter they either agree or disagree. If there are four board members, there are six different relationships between any pair of the four of them, plus four different threesomes. That is a dynamic that allows for way more permutations of relationships and coalitions, just with two more board members.
In a culture like ours imbued with competition and the perhaps guilty pleasure of labeling winners and losers, when areas of conflict boil down to dualities it is a path of least resistance to frame a contest where one side “wins” and the other “loses”. When there are say three positions or constituencies involved then the whole “sides” thing breaks down and it doesn’t fit so well into the “contest” box anymore (except perhaps in voting someone off the island in a “Survivor” sort of contest).
Now that I suspect I have some of you completely confused, let me focus on a real world example of a problematic duality – the American two-party political system.
The Path of Least Resistance – The American Two-Party System
America has basically had a two-party political system since the founding of our country. First Federalists and Antifederalists, then Democrats and Whigs, and from the 1850s to the present, Democrats and Republicans. Certainly there have been a handful of “third parties” along the way that have come, played a significant role in an election or two, and gone. This group includes the Progressive/Bull Moose Party of Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft, the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, the American Independent Party of George Wallace, and the Reform Party of Ross Perot. Beyond that there are an array of smaller political parties, like the contemporary Libertarian and Green parties, that have really not had much of a political impact. The very fact that they are often referred to as “third parties” belies the bias towards only two.
Given that two party system, the challenge for a successful Presidential candidate and the initial constituency they represent has involved two basic steps. Winning the nomination of either the Democratic or Republican party, then winning the runoff with the candidate from the other party. The conventionally accepted strategy is that you run to the left to get the Democratic or to the right to get the Republican nomination in the primary, and then run to the center in the general election to win the majority of the independents who will decide the election.
The Middle Gets Underrepresented
But behind this conventional strategy is the problematic reality, in today’s ideologically polarized political parties, that the most progressive faction of the electorate generally controls who wins the Democratic Party nomination and the most conservative faction, the Republican. Given that each of the two parties includes very roughly forty percent of the electorate, with maybe twenty percent, the “independents”, in the middle, the two candidates with a chance of winning the election generally represent the leftmost and rightmost segments of the electorate, the winner generally the one making the most effective appeal to the middle.
New parties, which often try to emerge to represent the pragmatic middle, generally fail because the nature of the two-party system stacks the deck against them. Even a compelling new party is unlikely to be successful winning elections for the first few election cycles it fields candidates. That means, if you are going to vote for a third party candidate that is closest to your own views, there is a strong argument that you are “throwing your vote away”, and just allowing either the Democrat or GOP candidate you would least like to see win. The efficacy of this argument pretty much dooms all third parties in a system built around two entrenched parties like ours.
But in this political calculus, the middle tends to lose out. The most moderate Democrats, plus the independents, plus the most moderate Republicans, generally more than half of the entire voting public, do not play the primary role in picking the successful Presidential candidate. We political progressives who tend to affiliate with the Democratic Party see this all too clearly in the GOP where the right always seems to call the shots these days. But I think the same dynamic applies on our Democratic side as well.
Changing the Process – Preferential Voting or the “Instant Runoff”
So how to get that majority perhaps in the middle better reflected in the Presidential candidates and Congress for that matter?
In my thinking, the best way to change the content of the agendas of our political leaders is to look at changing the process that elects them. A change that will facilitate “many political paths”, rather than discourage the rise of new political parties. The change I think is needed is what I originally heard called “preferential voting” and more recently heard under the catchier title, “instant primary”. This is an election process that allows people to pick a first and second choice (at minimum, but can be extended to more ranked choices), that would allow people to vote for say a third-party that they would most like to support, but also the Democrat or Republican as a second choice that are likely to win right now.
This would allow people to move away from voting defensively, against the person they are most concerned about, rather than for the person they think would do the best job. You could then use your vote to both support perhaps a new emerging party you thought was particularly compelling without “throwing away” your vote for one of the two candidates with a real chance of winning.
With the emergence of new parties facilitated rather than discouraged, they would have a real chance to grow over the election cycles if they had a compelling platform and approach to governance. As the dynamic of the electorate evolved, so better could the political parties representing that electorate. One could argue that our current political process has become moribund because the two parties are embedded in an ossified structure, and as such, each is controlled by its own set of vested interests, who by maintaining just 20 to 25 percent popular support can control one of the only two meaningful paths to power.
Politics as a Spectator Sport
My take is that the continuing prevalence of a more hierarchical patriarchal “us and them” view of democracy manifests in our elections becoming a horse race or often a grudge match between two competing teams, one which will be victorious and the other vanquished. The “winners”, while doing lip-service to representing all their constituents, are expected by many of their supporters to wield power in a directive power-over fashion that adds perhaps insult and injury to the losing side. Karl Rove somehow jumps to mind here (given perhaps my liberal bias), but I’m sure their plenty of people on “our side” who play this game in a similar manner.
Certainly framing politics and governance as a series of contests between two incompatible sides sells cars and erectile dysfunction medicine on television, and put Fox News followed by MSNBC at the top of the cable news ratings heap. Some would argue that this gets more people interested in politics and that’s a good thing. But making democratic process so adversarial and take-no-prisoners, serves in my mind to restrain rather than enhance a process which should really be about building intelligent compromise and consensus.