Two-Party Thinking

by Barry Drogin

Back to Table of Contents - Next item in Table - Next Essay

America has seen many turbulent times. At its founding, British loyalists clashed with those seeking independence from taxation without representation. Jeffersonian democrats clashed with the federalists seeking nationalization. During the Civil War, confederalists clashed with abolitionists in a vain attempt to preserve slavery. The monopolists of the Gilded Age were upended by pro-labor progressives who had suffered through too many boom/bust economic cycles. Although World War II had played out as a fight against fascism, it had started locally in Germany as fascism versus communism, and after World War II, there was a long-lasting cold war between communism and democracy. The Sixties played out as a fight between conformity and civil liberties.

I’ll leave it to others to trace the evolution of language, when federalism became anti-federalism, when “the [Republican] Party of Lincoln” became the party of segregation (the Dixiecrats having started as a breakaway faction from the Democratic Party). Of course, equating unionism with socialism and replacing liberalism with progressivism would need to be considered as well.

Writing this in 2017, the First Year of Trump, the discourse has turned to “red state” and “blue state” (and “purple state”), to left versus right (and alt-left versus alt-right), to conservative and liberal (or progressive, since liberal has become a dirty word), to Democrat and Republican (and independent), to “right-wing media” and “left-wing media” (and whatever “mainstream media” is), to urban and rural (but what about suburban?), to upper class and lower class (and the alignment of middle class with lower class). All of this is generally referred to as “The Great Divide” (conveniently ignoring how American history has consisted of a succession of many great divides).

Americans then project this two-party view of the world on to other countries, ignoring how democracies in the rest of the world use a parliamentary system where a multitude of factions form into coalitions in order to create a ruling party and an opposition party.

It is this gross simplification which has led to surprisingly sudden moments of national unity. A striking example was how a post-9/11 country turned quickly from being anti-NYC to pro-NYC. Similarly, a series of measures to ban gay marriage turned quickly to an anti-homophobic, pro-tolerance national stance. And after years of white supremacist rants cluttering the Internet, there is a sudden movement to remove confederate monuments from public places.

I turn again and again to Winston Churchill’s insight into the American body politic: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” This is, primarily, due to an anti-intellectualism that has pervaded American culture since its founding, from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to the Know-Nothing Party to the idea of the Common Man and the slandering of “egg-head intellectuals” to today’s anti-elitism (and the pervasiveness of punditry on cable news networks). There isn’t a national conversation, there are a series of national arguments, and the First Year of Trump has unleashed a bevy of visible trolls wielding “alternative facts” and thrilled to be engaged in verbal bullying on a national stage, in emulation and defense of the President who appoints them as his spokespeople, when he isn’t upstaging or upending (or firing) them himself.

Until Americans realize that the factionalism that encompasses the rest of the Western world exists within America as well, that every issue does not have two sides but many sides, America will continue to form aberrational coalitions that self-destruct. On “the left,” there is a coalition of forces which, under the guise of “intersectionality,” embraces Palestinian terrorism and rejects any form of pro-Israel Zionism. On “the right,” there is a coalition with religious apocalyptic fundamentalists that is torn between rejecting environmentalism and embracing climate change as a sign of the end times.

These conflicts don’t only exist on a national level, as a “great divide” between groups of individuals, they exist within individuals themselves, as a “great hypocrisy.” As long as a position is congealed into a brand, a slogan, a motto, or a label (or, sometimes, a “meme”), the ability to think, discuss, debate, or consider is obliterated. And once that position is embraced within an individual as part of an identity, then the very possibility of engagement with nuances, complexities, contradictions, or probabilities (as opposed to generalities) becomes antithetical.

All issues cannot be resolved through engagement, reasoning, debate, and consensus. Some things are either deemed legal or illegal. Some things are either deemed moral or immoral. Some things are only resolved through the use of force, not through non-violent means. There will be winners and losers. And what was accepted, assumed, as right or true can be changed to wrong or false, and even be changed back again.

The one “Great Divide” that clearly exists in the First Year of Trump is the divide between the ultra-rich and everyone else. The Occupy Movement got that right. The Ultra-Gilded Age is unsustainable. Whether it quickly collapses into a New Progressivism, a New Fascism, a New Populism, or something better or worse, is yet to be seen.

Come back in a decade and I’ll tell you how it played out.

Back to Table of Contents - Next item in Table - Next Essay

Cassandra's Curse © 1993, 1996, 2007, 2017

Last Updated: August 20, 2017