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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Thomas Jefferson

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.