Periodically the two party American system is castigated for its simplicity. [This]( http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/18/18763/1.html) is just another example. Ronda Hauben‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Tyranny of the Two Party System in the U.S.‚Äù has the penetrating insight into American politics that we have come to expect from European commentators. I‚Äôm being facetious of course. More accurately, Hauben‚Äôs article has the high-horse tone of a European who is sick of American culture being the world‚Äôs culture, of American issues being the world‚Äôs issues, and longs for the halcyon days of the Ottoman Empire. Not that I wish to be mean, or disrespectful, but such European commentary usually strikes a dissonant chord.
Europe‚Äôs situation is its own. Uniquely so. Its socio-political forces spin in entirely different eddies than America‚Äôs. As with any nation, its political ideologies are inexorably tied to its history. That history is contorted and bloody, both within the continent and in its affairs with other lands ‚Äì i.e. Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and particularly the United States. A discussion of unique character of European political thought would be significant grounding for its own essay (Robert Kagan‚Äôs [‚ÄúOf Paradise and Power‚Äù](http://www.symbolicorder.com/store/us/product/1400040930.htm) is a good place to start. [‚ÄúPower and Weakness,‚Äù](http://www.policyreview.org/JUN02/kagan.html) an expurgated version, is available on the web. My essay [‚ÄúNo More Hatfields and McCoys: The Value of Nations of Ideas‚Äù](http://www.symbolicorder.com/2002/10/27/hatfields-and-mccoys/) also relates to this subject.)
However, this essay is not about European/US political incongruities. It is about the reason for the American two party system and the reason for its criticism. Because this criticism comes from within America at least as much as it comes from without, it is clear that this issue transcends geographic borders. [Ralph Nader](http://www.symbolicorder.com/shirts/product/idiot-ralph-nader/) the ideological chameleon that he is – shifting his supremely uninteresting mantra from the Corvair, to consumer advocacy, to corporate finance – has lately centered on a conflation of the two dominant political parties. Nader has consistently attacked both parties for offering Americans little difference to choose between. In his view both parties are simply tools of large corporations, working only to maintain an unjust status quo that preys on the common man and gives corporations free-rides. Just as atheists ‚Äì extremist outsiders who are not the majority and generally do not understand the majority ‚Äì usually conflate Christians and belittle their minute differences, Nader rides over the differences of the two parties in a souped-up 4-wheel drive, barely feeling the bumps. Whenever he is asked which party he prefers, he always chimes in on the side of total ambivalence ‚Äì a ‚Äúwho cares, they‚Äôre both crap‚Äù attitude.
His position is, of course, understandable. Poor Ralph Nader. I honestly believe his heart is in the right place, but that his head has recently been discovered as the newest moon of Neptune. Being the most vocal of the outsider political candidates, though certainly far from the only [third party candidate]( http://www.politics1.com/p2004.htm), Nader‚Äôs criticism can be expected. Our massive ego defense systems, which work incessantly to keep us as high-and-mighty and ‚Äúin the right‚Äù as is conceivably possible, usually don‚Äôt let anything as trivial as the ‚Äútruth‚Äù get in the way of our self-images. Nader‚Äôs works overtime. Excoriating the corporately unified dominant parties‚Äô control of the media and information is the easiest way for Nader to escape the inevitable conclusion: that his views are extreme and unacceptable to the mass of the American public. In fact, Nader often seems to voice the opinion that a significant number of Americans actually agree with him, but are too unwilling, too scared, too lazy, or too whatever, to speak up. Extremists often voice this type of ‚Äúeveryone really agrees with me but doesn‚Äôt know it or won‚Äôt say it‚Äù rhetoric. See Michael Moore for details on this.
But, in short, Ralph Nader is just a 1940‚Äôs Italian lesbian vampire film fanatic ‚Äì at least in the metaphorical political sense (although possibly in the literal sense). Likewise, his (and other‚Äôs) criticisms of tyranny of the two party system, an ‚Äúoppression of choice,‚Äù is equally as vacuous as the fictional young man above. Nader is a radical, plain and simple. His political ideology lies on the fringes of public opinion. He sits on the lip of the bell-curve and consistently lobs aversions towards the center. But, such is the life of a radical outsider.
In general, the opinions of people fall into a bell-curve distribution. This is the case for most statistically quantifiable, graphable distributions amongst real-world human beings ‚Äì i.e. height, weight, I.Q. etc. There is a majority, and then there are statistical outliers. The resulting graph is a bell-shaped line, the height of the bell representing the largest concentration.
The majority of people sit in the middle of the bell-curve. That is what majority means. Due to the fact that specific political beliefs generally come in amazingly pat boxes, grouped together in predictable ways with similarly predictable values and rhetoric, the American majority has decided that two parties generally suffice to flush out meaningful ideological dichotomies. Well, actually, we didn‚Äôt ‚Äúdecide‚Äù that there would be two parties, it just kind of happened.
George Washington‚Äôs famous farewell address explicitly discussed the growing issue of political parties. He inveighed against the dangers of a growing fractious element in the nation‚Äôs politics. At the time the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists had begun to solidify and draw firm boundaries. But the parties did not form from the top-down, they formed from the bottom-up. Individuals began to realize that their ideologies were consonant and that a merging of the like-minded would be mandated by the system they had created. In a system dependent upon vote counting political alliance is essential to accomplishing anything. This is likewise true of compromise and concession.
During the Constitutional convention the ideological dissonance of many of the participants was a clear undercurrent. However, the goal was a common one, fostered by shared and conveniently vague ideals ‚Äì liberty, equality, pursuit of happiness etc – that were related in the type of convoluted purple prose in which they use “f’s” for “s’s.” Disagreement was tempered in respect to the task at hand. However, once the system had been created the minutiae became paramount. The meaning of the aforementioned vague ideals had to be discussed and debated. Washington‚Äôs idealistic farewell bespeaks of an outdated, nostalgic call for conviviality that was quickly becoming a phantasm. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe knew that they deeply disagreed with Hamilton, Adams, and John Jay. Although they agreed on the spirit of the vague ideals they had set forth, the execution was a different matter.
Fast-forward two-hundred years. Everything has changed yet everything remains the same. The parties agree on the ideals but not on the execution. However, this is the primary reason for the continued success of the system. It must be understood, and I am sure that it is, that believing in the ideals of liberty, equality, a positive system of rights, etc. is a revolutionary thing, even in the world of today. The philosophy that believes in these ideals is certainly shared by both parties, and even by the third parties (I assume). We can be thankful that the details are the center of political debate.
Nader is far from the only person lamenting the ‚Äútyranny of the two party system.‚Äù I hear it consistently from various young liberals. Also, it can be more conspicuously seen from the more extreme, Howard Dean-type Democrats. The ‚ÄúHoward Dean for DNC Chair‚Äù ad on the third party candidates page-link above describes the current Democrat party as ‚ÄúRepublican-Lite.‚Äù This sentiment echoes what Ronda Hauben has to say: ‚ÄúWith no external left opposition, the Democratic Party accepts the issues as the Republican Party presents them, but proposes it can implement the Republican agenda better than the Republicans will. Though this is not necessarily true on every issue, on the fundamental issues of foreign policy, and of domestic policy issues to support that foreign policy, the two parties form one party, with two wings.‚Äù
The only people who say things like this are extremists who, by definition, don‚Äôt sit within the majority debate. Most atheists treat Christians with similar derision. Outsiders of all types, be they musical elitists, (Britney Spears?!? Now, Miles Davis‚Äô ‚ÄòBitches Brew‚Äô that‚Äôs an album.‚Äù) film fanatics, (‚ÄúJerry Bruckheimer can go to hell. Give me Bergman or Lynch any day.‚Äù) cigar aficionados (‚ÄúSwisher Sweets?!? Don‚Äôt get me started.‚Äù) or whomever have similar things to say about the majority. The statistical truths of bell-curve distributions are something that extremists must tolerate.
Whatever beliefs you wish to specify into these bell-curve statistical classes the social reality will always be the same. If Nader and his ilk‚Äôs opinions were the majority, then people like John McCain and Al Gore would sit on the extremes ‚Äì insulting the majority, stroking their eccentricities, and doing their darndest to make their voice heard. When Nader asks for an open, multi-sided political debate he is asking for pure chaos. If he was given complete organizational control over the event even he would have to exclude someone as being too extreme, too radical, too crazy. Perhaps that would be the ‚ÄúWe Can Only Have Presidents Named Carl‚Äù party, the ‚ÄúDespotic Left-Handers‚Äù party, or the ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs Make Right Turns From the Left Lane‚Äù party. Maybe he wants to invite [David Icke](http://www.davidicke.com/) who has made an amazingly profitable career by promoting the theory that the entire world is run by a race of alien reptiles disguised as our world leaders.
My point is not that Nader‚Äôs views are as insane as those above. He is at least as sane as David Icke. No, I‚Äôm kidding. He certainly has things to say that are both worth responding and listening to. However, in a representative democracy, everyone would draw the line somewhere ‚Äì who deserves a voice to be heard and who doesn‚Äôt; who deserves to be part of the debates, on the ballot, on television, and generally part of the process.
However, I agree that in some instances letting such outsiders voice their opinions is better than not letting them get involved at all. Letting the people judge the quality of their views is often preferable. Furthermore, there are some realities of American politics that keep that openness from occurring. Sometimes both parties collude to keep such interlopers out of the mix. However, when a third party candidate gains sufficient popularity, as Perot did in 1992 and the aberrant four-way race of 1860, they have been allowed a stage for their dissent. But, either way, a line must be drawn. Hauben‚Äôs call for a ‚Äúneed for broad public participation and discussion‚Äù is a statement in need of lengthy qualification. Democracies can easily turn into chaos if such ‚Äúbroad public participation‚Äù is allowed. Also, Americans, and any other citizens of representative democracies, do not have the time and patience for such rigmarole.
In the end, it comes down to a few simple propositions:
– First, the majority is a statistical necessity. This is true of many statistical sets that are seen as static, actual divisions of reality as opposed to the inevitable outcome of the act of statistical quantification. The ‚Äúbottom 20%‚Äù and ‚Äúthe top 5%‚Äù are perfect examples of this type of statistical necessity, but the necessity of a ‚Äúmajority‚Äù is obvious.
– Second, the United States of America is a representative democracy, not a democracy. This creates a system in which one must choose against trade-offs a representative who best represents one‚Äôs views, although will never be completely synchronized with one‚Äôs own opinions.
– Third, the confluence of the previous two points produces the conclusion that a representative democracy will always have a majority of representatives that reflect the views of the majority of the public.
– Fourth, it seems to be a near social necessity that extremists, who, by definition, do not sit in the heart of the bell-curve, will demand that their views are being ignored and discriminated against. They will decry the majority for not understanding their firebrand wisdom and further indict the majority for being somehow duped into being normal.
For the same reasons the Ralph Nader is still living here, making 7 figures a year, flourishing under a system he largely decries, are precisely the same reasons the majority of the American public is perfectly happy to get their information from major media sources and vote for one of the two major parties. In short, things are pretty good here. When incredibly divisive issues arise that make the public call for a wider-ranging debate I have no doubt that corporate media will smell profit and exploit it. Usually, however, there is little to profit, both literally and figuratively, by catering to extremists. Likewise, if Italian lesbian vampire movies ever become big, Blockbuster will start carrying those too.