A curse is a formula that becomes a doom. Someone with special powers of performative speech—a god, a wizard, or the framers of your nation’s constitution—describes your life in some dark way, and this description gets fixed as indelible fact. The two-party system is the curse of American political life.
The Constitution doesn’t actually describe this system (as it does slavery, or the check on the popular will that is the electoral college). It merely makes “duopoly” inevitable. The framers’ failure to establish proportional representation in America ensured that winners of contests for federal office would be absolute winners, and losers by an inch or a mile lose as badly as if they’d never competed. Among democracies, the US remains singularly unfriendly to the political representation of ideological minorities—“factions,” in Madison’s term of abuse.
The bad effects of the two-party system, if anyone doubted these, are now undeniable. Since four years ago, and for who knows how many years to come, a large minority of voters is utterly without power at the federal level. The tyranny of the majority is the law of the land, and the scandal is as plain as your face.
At least Democrats fight wars, borrow money, and squander the natural world with a hesitancy that sometimes resembles scruple. For now we are reduced to watching our government—not ours, really—as it winks at torturers, floats bad checks, and puts “science” inside of scare quotes. It isn’t much comfort that surveys continue to find pluralities of citizens with sensible reservations about the Iraq War, the deficit, climate change, etc. In our either/or system, both parties must appear centrist, whatever the reality, and the fewer the marked political differences between them, the more important their differences in terms of symbolism. Hence the candidate as totemic figure, the fatal importance of cultural politics.
These are the obvious dangers, but another one exists. The two-party system is insinuating itself as a system of thought, becoming a mental habit and a way of life. We start to think of ourselves as being Democratic, as if this weren’t just the name of the party we grudgingly vote for. This is the development—a disaster—implied by most talk of red and blue, metro vs. retro, sushi-eating Times readers vs. the corn-fed outFoxed.
After the election, the Nation assembled a collection of anxious post-mortems from various commentators. Among many briefs in favor of values cant or “enhancing [the] rhetoric of religion,” some ingenious rationales for hope, and—more persuasive—a few frank acknowledgments of desperation, came the pundit Michael Lind’s warning that “American progressivism” had best “adapt to the times.” His disgraceful rhetoric typifies two-party thinking:
In a country in which most working-class Americans drive cars and own homes in the suburbs, the left fetishizes urban apartments and mass transit and sneers at “sprawl.” . . . In a century in which the dire need for energy for poor people in the global South can only be realistically met by coal, oil and perhaps nuclear energy, liberals fantasize about wind farms and solar panels. And in a world in which the greatest threat to liberty is the religious right of the Muslim countries, much of the left persists in treating the United States as an evil empire and American patriotism as a variant of fascism.
Obviously the Democrats are no more than the Republicans the party of high-speed electric trains, wind farms, and organic cooperatives. Democratic candidates don’t run on an anti-imperial platform. For those of us concerned with the sustainability of civilization, or aware that foreign threats to freedom don’t preclude domestic ones, donkey may trump elephant, but that doesn’t mean we possess a party. The source of Lind’s animus, and that of others like him, is simply that such people as us exist, do not belong to a majority, and are despised by some who do.
Thinking of this kind treats life and thought as having chiefly propaganda value. It presupposes that when our conversations are overheard or our activities observed—when our lives, in short, are lived—we should hope not to put off swing voters. Unpopular arguments cease being arguments and become attitude (“sneer”) or delusion (“fantasize”). “Sprawl” slips inside quotes not because this most obvious feature of the American landscape isn’t visible for all to see; it doesn’t exist, apparently, because a bare majority of Americans apparently doesn’t mind that it does.
In a time of total victories by slender margins, anything at all comes to seem red or blue, including what we eat, by what means we travel, how we speak, whom we take to bed. What might not tip the balance? Before long one is color-coding one’s thinking. Why think a thought that can never prevail with the majority? So a curse of political life hardens into a cast of mind. Imagination, too, can decline into the art of the possible.
It is uncertain, now, whether a Democratic majority will carry the day in America; it is also very important. But votes are hardly all that counts. Public life should serve and enlarge our private lives; lately it damages them. Still, damage is not yet devastation. In a pinch, I’ll vote for a man I don’t want in the hope of duping some shivering slice of demographic jelly into doing the same. Outside of the voting booth, I’ve got better things to do than to try to be an exemplar of fractionally persuasive mediocrity. The necessary thing is to live and think so as not to offend ourselves. If in consequence we offend our neighbors, that is the lesser evil. Some politicians may be Democrats through and through, and feel that they were born to be. The rest of us were born to be men and women. A triumphant party will someday assert that we were therefore born entitled to the safety, care, and opportunities to flourish which the US in the early 21st century increasingly reserved for a few—or maybe such a party will never emerge, or fail when it does. In the meantime our lives remain their own great cause.