by Chris Struble
It’s that time again. Every two years our roadways are polluted by cardboard and plastic signs conveying no useful information, our doorsteps are invaded by pamphleters, and our airways are polluted with messages of hate and intolerance. What is this menace? I’m talking about political campaign ads.
Every two years, politicians and candidates of all parties bombard us with images that reflect a distorted sense of reality, a reality where there are only two kinds of people: US and THEM. While every candidate draws this line a little differently, the message can always be condensed down to this: “I’m one of YOU. Vote for me, or my opponent, who is one of THEM, will do terrible things to you and your family.” There is often another message, usually not spoken directly: “Vote for me and I’ll do terrible things to THEM on your behalf.”
In political parlance, this is called creating wedge issues. Divide and conquer. Define mutually opposing armed camps in the mind of the voter and identify yourself with the camp most popular in your district. Liberals vs. conservatives. Outdoorsman vs. environmentalists. Fundamentalist Christians vs. Church-state separationists. Natives vs. immigrants. Federal vs. local control. Pro-lifers vs. pro-choicers. Consumers and workers vs. large corporations. Poor vs. Rich. Teachers vs. parents. Taxpayers vs. government bureacrats.
But reality is far more complex. For one thing, the battle lines are never as clear as politicians would like us to believe. For example, liberals and conservative politicians both agree with 99% of the laws that are already on the books, but only talk about the 1% they would change or do differently than each other. So even these supposed “opposing camps” have much in common. It is also possible for a person to be in both camps on any of these issues. A person can be an outdoorsman and an environmentalist at the same time, or be a fundamentalist Christian and be opposed to theocracy, or believe that abortion should be legal even though they believe it is morally wrong and something they would never do themselves, or work for a large corporation and still care about consumer and worker issues, or be a teacher and parent both, and so on. In other words, politicians present us with false choices.
Politicians also make false promises, in that they promise “victory” over the other side. But in a democracy at least, “victory” is impossible, because people on “the other side” will continue to exist after the election. Also in a democracy, elected officials are expected to work on behalf of the entire community, not just those who voted for them. It turns out that this is actually what most voters want: leaders who bring stability and unity, and who will solve problems, not create them.
But our political system rarely produces such leaders anymore, in part because the interests that fund political campaigns care more about whether a candidate supports their issue and ideology than whether a candidate can lead and unite. They prefer candidates who give standard, packaged answers to candidates who give thoughtful, independent ones. Another example are political think tanks, who rarely recruit original thinkers, preferring policy analysts who already agree with their agenda.
Perhaps this is why each year more and more Americans are refusing to play the politicians’ game. Each election fewer people vote, and fewer people remain loyal to the political parties. As political consumers, they are unsatisfied with the choices available to them.
I should probably say something about third parties, which have gotten a lot of attention this election. While third parties as a group bring diversity to politics, individually they are even more driven by ideology, and their candidates are even more likely to use wedge issues than major party candidates. The TV and radio commercials Pat Buchanan has been playing here in Idaho are an example. Other than pointing out flaws in existing policies, and providing a vehicle for minority points of view to be heard, third parties in America today do little to contribute to the search for leadership or practical policies that work.
Leo Tolstoy once defined freethinkers as “those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs”. I believe the solution is for more Americans to become political freethinkers, to become true independents, and to withdraw our support from political organizations whose only purpose is to promote ideology rather than to search for practical solutions to human problems.
Also, in evaluating our own beliefs we should also be prepared to consider not only that we might be wrong and the opposition might be right, but that the very issue we disagree on may become obsolete or irrelevant in the future. In the next century our society may change in ways so profound and unexpected, that the old debates of liberal vs. conservative will be seen as useless tomorrow as a debate over the gold standard, child labor laws, or woman suffrage would be today. Knowing that profound changes will almost certainly happen, it makes more sense to call any public policy what it is: merely the best we can do today, rather than the best of all possible worlds.