I’m really interested in politics. Have been all my life. I took out nomination papers to run against Ontario Premier Bill Davis when I was only seventeen. I took out American citizenship so that I could vote for Al Gore (that turned out well). I (privately) considered a run for congress as a Democrat in 2002.
So here’s what I think now. I’m still interested, but I’m really frustrated. It isn’t just the tone of this year’s Republican race—I don't need to add to the volumes written on this. Rather, it is that our options as voters are so restricted. I have to vote for a Democratic or Republican.
The trouble with that is that neither party is right on every issue. So, if I’m prolife, but consistently so, so that I’m also for more gun control, less military adventurism, and a better social safety net for the poor—there isn’t anywhere for me to park my vote.
Or, if I’m fiscally conservative, and want lower taxes and a balanced budget; but socially progressive, so that I favour choice, gay marriage, and getting out of the drone business—there isn’t anywhere for me to park my vote.
The two-party system is blunt instrument when it comes to making discerning choices. But consider these two further issues:
First, there is the problem of how limited voting options actually gives legislators way too much freedom to wreak havoc on lower-case issues. It works like this. During every election parties attempt to focus the discussion on the one or two key themes they think will be winners for them. For example, Bill Clinton’s team famously went with, “It’s the economy, stupid,” in 1992. Severely restricting its messaging (or going negative) is cost-effective, memorable, motivational in a way that drives policy wonks crazy.
Why? Because ultimately, in single-theme elections, there is no electoral accountability on issues further down most people’s list of key issues. Take me, for example. Some of the issues I care about are racism, climate change, gerrymandering, refugees, immigration reform, and campaign spending. The trouble is, no election is ever going to be fought on these issues when the advertising machine is telling us the election is about the economy, or terrorism, or Washington culture. That means, on the lower priority issues not in the spotlight, politicians actually have carte blanche to do what they want without fear of repercussions. They may be swayed, for example, by special interests or big donors or strong armed congressional leadership on these issues knowing that voters will never hold them to account anyway.
What’s the solution for problem one? Being a dual citizen of Canada and the USA, I might suggest a viable third party as a way to spice up the options. But the truth is, there really isn’t that much difference between Canada’s Liberals and New Democrats, especially after the Liberals moved left to crowd the New Democrats out of the natural territory.
Another solution might be major electoral reform. The Liberal party has promised some form of proportional representation before the next Federal election in Canada. The Fair Vote organization (www.fairvote.org) in the USA promotes similar policies.
But second, the two party system harbours another deeper genetic defect that is extremely worrisome. When only two parties are leading the charge, the assumption most people will make, I think, is that the rhetoric in both parties is going to have the establishment’s stamp of approval. That is, most of us in a two-party system figure that both parties are necessarily going to be thoughtful, rational options.
But what happens when one of the parties comes unstuck, because a smaller group within it, or a unique set of historical conditions pushes it to extremes of policy or even rhetoric? That seems to be the situation in the Republican party right now. Trump continues to lead, in spite of his hateful policy proposals and scapegoating everyone from Muslims, Mexicans, women to McCain and Obama (who may or may not have been born in the USA, apparently).
What happens is that more and more people will think that Trump's policy proposals and scapegoating must be within the realm of thoughtful, rational politics, because after all, he’s one of those party’s leading candidates for president. What happens when Trump can’t be dismissed from the race is that his rhetoric is “baptized,” even if unwittingly, by his participation in that party’s electoral process. What happens is that you create the conditions necessary to subvert the very principles of equality, and the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness that the United States has usually pursued since its creation.
Solutions here? A crushing electoral defeat of Trump, should he become the candidate, might suggest that his universe of discourse has no future in America. I’d like that. I also guess that such a defeat is highly likely should Trump be nominated (though never certain). However, given that most Americans reliably vote for the same party election after election, and that party messaging will try hard to divert attention away from issues that won’t play well for them (like Trump’s excessive rhetoric), the prospects for a truly crushing electoral defeat seems low. Furthermore, the historical circumstances line up for Trump too, since terrorists, and the immigrants largely produced by fallout from America’s wars abroad (or drug wars at home), are not going away anytime soon. And if nothing else, the history of the Jews, or even of America’s Salem witches, suggests that what people everywhere really want when they’re afraid is a scapegoat. Trump is offering scapegoats up wholesale.
So ultimately, I fear that win or lose, Trump's rhetoric will have a much stronger toehold in America’s conscience than before. Trump is the needle and the damage is done. After this year it will take a long time for electoral rhetoric to move in a more humane direction.
Which means, I suppose, that if we don’t like what Trump is saying, we better get out there and say our piece too—wherever we can, whenever, as loudly and as civilly as we can manage.