U.S. stuck in the ‘two-party bully pulpit’

Common wisdom says there are two sides to every story. For every pro, there’s a con. You’re either for or against legalizing marijuana, raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting Social Security benefits, limiting assault weapons, cutting military expenditures.

Name an issue and every editorial, talk show, blog, and radio personality will stand squarely on one side of the issue or the other, as if every debate were a tennis court with two players and a net in the middle.

Certainly some issues, like gay marriage, are Constitutional justice issues that people should be for. However, most problems are too complex for broad-brushstroke solutions, which is probably why the aftermath of the November election continues to frustrate a lot of people. The two-party stranglehold of the American Presidency left people with third-party affiliations feeling as if they were throwing their votes away, yet 759 courageous Chautauqua County souls chose the Libertarian and Green candidates. Even Peta Lindsay of the Socialism Party drew 15 votes while Virgil Goode, the Constitution candidate, ended up with 50.

The national results would have been more diffuse if alternative parties had a bigger slice of the power pie, which would be reflected in campaign coverage and debates. Our two-party bully pulpit obscures the plurality of other parties that represent entire sets of values and goals, rendering the ideas of these voices meek and powerless. Even the Independence Party – that weird amalgam of socialists too liberal for the Democrats, libertarians too conservative for the Republicans, and Constitutionalists who want a strong voice – puts forth specific ideas that deserve a hearing. Our founding fathers did not create a government fueled by two-party gridlock; rather, they believed each issue would create shifting alliances, fluid coalitions. Unfortunately, this vision of government will not unfold at the national level until diverse voices emerge at the state and local levels.

We also need a shift in consciousness away from the dualism that fosters lines in the sand and aisles to be crossed. Most issues facing voters and representatives alike are too complex to be distilled into two points of view. This truth is not just political, but applicable for any decisions or issues that arise out of contention and disagreement.

In her book “The Argument Culture,” Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen suggests we would be better off as individuals, as groups, and as a republic if we adopted the idea of complexity that some cultures have. Take the Japanese talk show, for instance. Tannen recounts an analysis of three current affairs shows, all of which feature panels of guests with diverse viewpoints. There is heated debate, but experts speak and argue from their expertise rather than as two separate political parties or ideologies – the proverbial “two sides to the story.” While complex arguments are thrown onto the table, enduring rancor and polarization are left off it.

A shift in consciousness requires a language that guides public policy to broader analysis and a plurality of viewpoints. Tannen explains how our media constantly deliver bellicose stories to us that reinforce unhealthy dualities. We have wars on drugs, crime, poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy. Like all wars, these artificial wars set up lines in the sand that invite political battling from two sides. All the above-named societal ills are problems to be solved, and our language, as well as our public policy responses, would better serve our needs by inviting diverse factions to the debate. Tannen’s thesis makes sense: We can have healthy debate, but only if diverse points of view are brought to it.

Most citizens agree we don’t want our representatives to be bitterly polarized. We are so polarized that each of the two sides believes it’s the other that is unwilling to cross the aisle. Oddly, though, when I talk about issues with people who vote opposite me and espouse an ideology opposite mine, we find common ground without much effort. Why can’t our representatives do that? I believe our existing power gridlock fuels the two-party standoffs that perpetuate that firm line in the sand with opposing armies arrayed on either side of every issue. If we encourage our representatives to see the complexities by telling them our diverse ideas, we can at least throw ourselves against the wall of obdurate dualism.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if we saw our “wars” instead as problems to be solved? Wouldn’t it serve our country better to have an eight- or ten-slice pie rather than a pie cut into two gluttonous halves? While May is only as exciting as school budget and school board elections, it is as good a time as any to further widen the American political landscape by re-thinking our political affiliations. After being registered for 37 years in one of the two major parties, I have joined the third party that more closely reflects my values.

I encourage such re-aligning: a simple act that makes a statement to the powers that be. There’s a political table available to all of us, and it’s time to put a leaf in it.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com