In most of the democratic world, choice is valued as an integral part of democracy. This does not only hold true for choosing a product on a free market. Political choice – the choice to vote for a party that especially represents ones’ own point of view – is the bedrock for political systems from Portugal to Japan, from Australia to Denmark.
Voting in Germany, I may not agree with every policy proposed by my favourite candidate. However, the sheer number of electable candidates, from an array of serious political parties (5-6), will ensure that I can choose one whose strategy is actually to my liking. Even if just two parties are realistically contending for the presidency, the concept of a coalition allows minor parties to contribute their ideas and policies to the leadership.
The United States of America on the contrary seem to pay no mind to this value of political choice. Democrats and Conservatives – only Democrats and Conservatives – are engaged in a never-ending war for the next presidency. Two parties battle for absolute control of the Senate. Millions of voters have to decide between two points on the political spectrum. Red or Blue, there is no middle ground.
Any and all variety is effectively eradicated the moment both the GOP and the Democrats have decided on their candidates.
Before that point in time, of course, viewpoints and policies do fall on a wider spectrum. In the current elective cycle, this can very well be seen in the central disagreements amongst Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. They have fundamentally different approaches to Healthcare, Campaign Financing and Wall Street Policy. But these disagreements are becoming sparse. While in his first presidential bid, Mitt Romney was able to contend for the Republican nomination while supporting abortion and gun control, this would incapacitate him in 2015.
The three would-be-presidents who dare to divert from the broad establishment line (Ted Cruz, media mogul Trump and Senator Sanders) are dubbed anti-establishment candidates. Their “insurgencies” used to be quite common (with the exception of Sander’s self-professed socialism), but have become political pariahs. Looking down the row of Republican politicians on the debate stage, figuring out their stances on several key concepts is very easy: gun control, healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal, abortion, progressive tax, immigration, Russia – they’re all the same! Granted, except Trump, no one wants to build a wall (is Cruz serious with that?). But in the rare case of a Trump-esque or Sanders-like insurgency, these candidates are never more moderate than the rest of the contenders. This is only logical – seeing as the party-dependent perception of the opposition is degrading rapidly. A moderate candidate is not very attractive. A PEW research centre study shows that during the last 20 years, the percentage of Republicans viewing the Democratic Party as “very unfavourably” has risen from 17% to 43%. Vice versa, the percentage of Democrats having very negative opinions about the Republican Party has also more than doubled – from 16% to 38%. The lack of moderates (and more importantly, moderators) does not help combat the mutual alienation.
Consequentially – while not every politician adheres to one straightforward “party line” – the rift between left and right is widening.
The Consequence – Polarization
Here is what is inherently wrong with this oligopolistic shift:
American citizens are effectively forced to choose an absolute. In order to appeal to their target demographic, each party represents only one side of interests. This makes a mess in the elective cycle, but it doesn’t stop there: having completed his (or her) inauguration ceremony, the president will go on to push forward unilateral reform. Whether administering gun control through executive orders or proposing to repeal all healthcare plans, both parties are guilty of this. Likely, the next president will be guilty of this. Republican idol Ronald Reagan raised taxes, supported international amnesty programs and reached across the aisle to compromise with Tip O’Neil on social security. These characteristics would render him “unelectable” today.
The Democrats propose, the Republicans block, the Republicans propose, the Democrats block. Bipartisan policies, such as those that Jeb Bush passed on gun control in Florida, rarely meet the floor of the Senate and certainly don’t pass it if they do.
In order to pass a legislative draft, total support from the own party is required. Said support is necessary to overcome the blockade the other wing of parliament is putting up. And in order to secure this support, alienating the opposition is unavoidable. In the end, the American people end up with unilateral legislation or none at all. The response to any administrative decision will, in essence, be the same: Due to the excessive exclusion of their own interests, one half of the population will hold reform in a very low regard.
With two major forces on opposite sides of a political rift, US politics are poised for conflict. Since only two electable organisations exist, each one benefits from bringing the pain to the opposition. In a competitive multiple-party system, one can not throw dirt at an adversary without getting dirt on oneself. Naturally it is in the interest of any party to cement a strong position, and usually, the backlash to aggressive attack ads and similar strategies forces politicians to focus on providing productive policies.
However, the American system of politics ensures that the damage done to the opponent will always outweigh the disadvantage of backlash. The two-way system ensures that the most effective manner of building power is to viciously attack the opponent.
This, along with the common practice of financially supporting favourable candidates, places a huge amount of power into the hands of rich investors. In a two party system, which allows for attack ads to be strikingly effective, financial donors may influence a campaign considerably by buying airtime for such a video. Special interest individuals, such as the Koch brothers, may approach candidates with demands or wishes in exchange for financial support or promotional help. The 2010 “Citizens United” bill legitimises any subsidy from individuals or corporations. No matter how large the sum, such subsidies do not constitute corruption.
The importance of image adds another barrier to the already barricaded bipartisanship road. After all, why acknowledge that there are viable ideas, policies and strategies on both sides of the ravine when you want as many people as possible to flock to your side? The people may benefit from inclusive decisions. The people may benefit from bipartisanship. But the GOP does not. The Democrats do not.
Hence, the frighteningly large majority of US politicians indulge in the petty politics of image management. Solutions are not important. Only opinion is. Image is. And the more dirt you throw at your neighbour, the shinier you appear in comparison.
To sum it up, tie it together and send it home as a nice, prepared package: a two-way organisation of politics places more priority on harming the opposition than it does on effective progress. It alienates moderation from the political spectrum. It makes a pariah of compromise. And meanwhile, monetary support may sway a whole election.
Is that way to run a country – a country with the claim to be the sole leading force in the world?