What Churchill said about democracy (“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”) might apply as well to our two-party system in the United States. It prevents the fragmentation we see in parliamentary systems that have to expend so much energy cobbling together coalitions. But at this moment of the first presidential debate, the Superbowl of American politics, it may be worth reminding ourselves about the potential distortions in our thinking that arise from the oversimplified twoness of Democrats versus Republicans.
First and most obvious, the twoness of politics replicates the twoness of our competitive athletics. The distortion here is to skew our thinking toward the primary goal of football or baseball, winning, and away from the ultimate and very different goal of democratic small-d politics, ideally a clarification of policy that might strengthen our nation as a whole. So carefully must candidates keep their distance from best practices that are not endorsed by their supporters, that we have the spectacle of Mr. Romney having to disavow the successful universal health care plan he himself instituted in Massachusetts.
Second, our Great Seal does not say “Out of Two, One.” It says “Out of Many, One.” This distinction affirms that our creative diversity allows for the likelihood that there are more than two valid points of view and more than two solutions for our many challenges. Twoness distills policy into contrasting alternatives, but oversimplifies in so doing. It creates an artificial middle, one that is stretched rightward and leftward—but not very far in either direction—as those seeking power search for the Great Middle in order to pander to it. Suppose, for example, that we find in another decade that global climate change has accelerated far more rapidly than we could have imagined today. At the moment, because the parties are still fighting about whether global warming even exists, the prevention/mitigation discussion cannot be found at all at the supposed “center” where the two parties might entertain some sort of agreement about something that will be crucial to their childrens’ well being. Another artificial center has been created by our two-party class war between rich and poor. The notion of interdependence between corporate producers and a broad market to consume what they produce has apparently been lost. Long gone is the model of Henry Ford, who doubled his workers’ salaries with the understanding that they would have more money to buy his cars. Everyone wins!
Third, twoness encourages what is essentially a state of war between the two parties. True, people of different persuasions are not literally killing each other. But when someone like Senator McConnell remains so ruthlessly focused upon denying Mr. Obama a second term, the net effect is almost as destructive as war, because the nation’s important business is held hostage to a negative, self-limiting model of “victory.” As is so often the case in war, everyone loses.
Imagine a presidential debate built upon a set of premises and values opposite to competitive athletics, artificial centrism, or war. For example, one candidate could be asked to lay out a set of steps leading to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The other candidate would be required to build on that idea in order to improve it, and prohibited from tearing the initial suggestion down. Then the first candidate would be required to build further on the improvements suggested by his opponent. Candidates would be judged on how skillfully they managed this creative process of actually dancing with each other toward potential agreement about what might constitute a workable policy—rather than trying to score debating points by mere opposition. If such a process—though it is really only a mild variation on the familiar ritual of brainstorming—sounds utterly bizarre, it is an indication of how far our politics have dissolved into gamesmanship, where the goal is not the articulation of creative ideas designed to benefit all, but the emptiness of exercising power for its own sake.