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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Founding Fathers

Founders' foresight: The two-party system is destroying us

Stephen H. Provost

“The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful manoeuvres, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.” – Thomas Jefferson

The two-party system is broken. Perhaps it was inevitable.

What’s amazing is that it’s taken us almost 250 years to reach this point. Actually, though, we’ve been here before. It pushed us to the brink during Vietnam and Watergate, and over the edge during the Civil War.

And now, here we stand once again, staring into the abyss of the chasm between us.

Because we’re divided. In two. And we hesitate to lay the blame where it belongs: squarely at the feet of an inherently toxic two-party system. We hesitate because this system has become so deeply ingrained in our political reality that we view it as an essential part of our culture. But it’s not essential. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, and John Adams even warned that it was the Constitution’s worst enemy.

Said Adams: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Thomas Jefferson, who was Adams’ rival in this emerging two-party system, agreed: “The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions, and make them one people.”

These two brilliant, gifted and esteemed rivals agreed, yet they couldn’t stop it. So now, it’s up to us.

Yes, it’s gotten worse

Why is the two-party system, in Adams’ view, “evil”? Because it encourages binary choices. Such choices leave no room for nuance or subtlety, and they create an atmosphere where extremism can thrive. Where we vote a party line, either because we’re too lazy to think for ourselves, or because the choices are so extreme – and we find one of them so unpalatable – there seems to be only one viable option.

Why does it seem worse now?

Because we’ve added unlimited money and endless propaganda, disguised as free speech, to the equation. And that’s a recipe for disaster.

Unlimited money is available via unrestrained campaign contributions. Propaganda is spread more quickly and effectively than ever – through conventional media saturation, social media pressures and election cycles that never end.

We’ve come to this place by accepting the lie that free speech is somehow absolute. Of course, it’s not. You’re not supposed to be able to slander someone, to perjure yourself in court, to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, to willfully incite others to violence ... No right is absolute. But a binary system encourages the belief in absolutes, even in the face of common sense, so is it any surprise that we’ve started interpreting free speech in those terms.

What’s worse is we’ve created a vicious circle. Not only does our binary system strengthen a false belief in absolutes. This belief, in turn, encourages us to think in binary terms. “I’m right, you’re wrong” – regardless of the facts behind the argument. Ad hominem fallacies become the rule of the day: The identity of the person doing the arguing becomes more important than the merits of the argument itself. This is why political parties in a two-party system, and their leaders, cast aside “bedrock principles” at the drop of a hat for the sake of winning.

The party that once believed in free trade becomes protectionist. The party that once encouraged slavery wants to consider reparations for slavery. The party that once railed against incurring debt runs up the biggest debt in history. The party that organized provocative protests on college campuses wants “safe spaces” on those same campuses to insulate people from provocation. These aren’t subtle shifts in ideology. They’re 180-degree turnabouts, and they often take place abruptly – over a few short years, not decades.

This isn’t how thinking people act to new information presented in a marketplace of ideas. It’s how people react to peer pressure in a binary system where the “marketplace” consists of just two vendors. These two share a mutually parasitic monopoly on ideas, each of them selling only absolutes that condemn the other, but each needing the other to serve as a scapegoat.

We’ve forgotten we agree

In a world of absolutes, there’s no room for agreement. There’s only us and them. Winning and losing. But this world of absolutes is not the world we live in.

Yes, we have our differences. Thomas Jefferson said, “Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth.” But, alas, this concept is being lost, due to the false binary choices being foisted on us in the current environment. Difference of opinion is no longer an opportunity to learn, but an excuse to attack and defend. It’s no longer a reason to discuss, but a reason to condemn.

Binary systems emphasize what we don’t like about each other – and encourage us to like it even less. And all this angst and fury does something else, as well: It obscures the fact that we actually agree on most of the important stuff. This is, I believe, the greatest tragedy that’s been foisted on us by our binary political system. Because the truth of the matter is, we actually agree on most things.

  • We believe in the Golden Rule, or some variation of it.

  • We believe in equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law.

  • We don’t want our environment poisoned.

  • We don’t want to die because we can’t afford medicine or a hospital stay.

  • We preferred the late 20th century employment model to the “shareholder is god, employee is dirt” construct.

  • We believe in education.

  • We believe in “live and let live” within the law.

  • We believe success should be based on merit, not on gaming the system.

  • We believe in taking care of our own.

  • We believe hard work should be rewarded, and those who can’t work should have help – but that those who lie about being unable to work shouldn’t get it.

  • We believe in science, and we believe there’s something more out there that we don’t and maybe can’t understand.

In all these things, we are united. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. Many people. Many ideas. Many approaches.

We still are the UNITED States of America. Those who feed (and get rich) off our toxic binary system want us to forget this. They don’t want us to focus on the many things that unite us, but on the few that divide us.

Expletive for emphasis: Fuck that.

It’s time for us to remind them who’s in charge in a democratic republic. It’s time for us not only to take back our country, but to recover our soul.

Independence Day: The Perfect Time for Independent Thought

Stephen H. Provost

As a child, Independence Day was my favorite holiday – because of the fireworks, of course, and because it meant that, the following day, I’d get to blow out candles, eat cake and open presents for my birthday.

Now that I’m an adult, it’s still one of my favorites. I don’t get as many presents these days, fireworks won’t light up the sky in many places because of the fire danger caused by the drought, and I shouldn’t eat cake because of my diabetes. (Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m going to do that anyway. I’ve given myself permission to indulge once in a blue moon.)

These days, the reason I like the holiday is what it stands for: not just the birth of my nation but even more than that, as the name indicates, independence.

It marks the date of publication for the Declaration of Independence, a document that begins memorably by naming three “unalienable” rights: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Independence meant, according to those who penned this document and the 56 men who signed it, the ability to exercise these “self-evident” rights.

Almost half the Declaration is a laundry list of grievances against the British Empire, the authors’ justification for declaring their freedom from what they described as “an absolute Tyranny over these states.” Each of those grievances, these men felt, denied them one or more of those three basic rights they spelled out in their introduction.

They made their case to the world in this document, published on July 4, 1776.

This happened before the adoption of the Constitution, which wouldn’t even be drafted until more than a decade later. It happened long before two major parties came to dominate the nation’s politics. It was before the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, before greenbacks and the Red Scare, before the “liberal media” and “conservative talk radio.”

The Declaration’s authors were writing on a clean slate, and the first three principles they highlighted were Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Philosophically, everything else the nation, and we as citizens of that nation, stand for rests on that – even the Constitution. Whereas the list of grievances in the Declaration set forth the founders’ ideas of what freedom wasn’t, the Bill of Rights laid out what they thought it was: specific rights to such things as a public trial, free assembly and expression, freedom from the establishment of religion by law, and so on. But again, all were based on those three self-evident, founding principles set forth in the Declaration.

If we interpret the Constitution in such a way that infringes upon Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, we may not be breaking the letter of the law, but we’re violating its spirit. Its inspiration.

As an author, I can tell you that, without inspiration, there would be no story, let alone a happy ending.

Independence was meant to be not only the beginning for these United States, but the mechanism by which we endured from one happy ending to the next. Not just independence as a nation, but independence as people.

The grievances in the Declaration might be summed up in the simple, defiant statement, “No one’s going to tell us (or U.S.) what to do.”

That’s why the Fourth of July is more than a celebration of our nation’s independence. It’s an affirmation of our independence as individuals, of our freedom to assert those three unalienable rights.

We can’t do that without independence of thought, without the willingness to stay off the bandwagon. The willingness to question the dogmatism of our politicians, religious leaders, buzzwords, sound bites and ad campaigns – those professed “truths” that seek to pass themselves off as self-evident when they may not even be true at all.

We can argue until we’re red, white and blue in the face - wrapping ourselves in the language of patriotism as much as we want - over how to interpret the Constitution.

But unless our interpretation upholds those three unalienable rights that undergird the Declaration, we do ourselves and our country a grave disservice.

That may not be a matter of law, but it’s essential to spirit.

The spirit of 1776.