Back in my day, we knew how to party

With Washington’s Warnings wandering within my wits whilst working (so close!), I stumbled upon the latest Intelligence Squared podcast: “Is the Two-Party System Making U.S. Ungovernable?”  The Oxford-style debate featured the media-darling Arianna Huffington and NY Times columnist David Brooks arguing the motion against the charming PJ O’Rourke and the Zev Chafets who by far had the more quotable lines.

Having grown up in America the words “Oxford” and “debate” immediately give my mind free-license to roam; but these podcasts are almost always entertaining if not informative and this one in particular delivered the goods on both accounts.

Over the past four or so years, my opinions on US politics have matured and developed but my interest in longer-term trends have come to the forefront.  I’ve noticed that there is never a shortage of people claiming we live in an extraordinary time, or that in this age things are really different.  Yet no matter what revolutionary new tool or system is set up there is invariably something in our past to compare it to.  For instance, the tech and finance bubbles are hardly new as railroad speculation and savings & loans brought about similar market enthusiasm in “new business models” that saw a subsequent crash.  And for anyone who really thinks Obama’s victory was groundbreaking and unique I beg you to read Ted White’s The Making of the President 1960, which is built off his notes following around the candidates of that election.  The young, minority senator struggled to make connections to the middle class and blue-collar workers, while his more experienced opponent abandoned the center to appeal to his ‘core supporters.’

In my opinion, and well articulated by the ‘nays’, it is a similar story with our current “deadlock.”  We seem to forget that barely ten years ago, government effectively stopped to delve into the insignificance of marital fidelity in the White House.  A few years prior government literally shut down over partisan politics.  For those who think though, that our current situation is far worse we have only to look back to that inconvenient period of history called the Civil War, when political battles traded rhetoric for bullets.

This debate initially seemed in the hands of Huffington and Woods, who effectively argue that America has lost some of its luster: social mobility has diminished, real wages have dropped, and the wealth gap has continued to expand.  But somewhere around the midpoint of the debate O’Rourke manages to make the fatal point that it is asinine to blame these things solely on a two-party system and that the ‘yeas’ have no alternative to offer.  A brief mention of one-party rule by Arianna sent a noticeable chill on the forum.  And while Huffington argues that government only finds “sub-optimal solutions,” all pundits find any compromise “sub-optimal,” a compromise by definition is not getting all that you wanted!

The idea of instantaneous runoff was floated by the audience (whereby if your first choice candidate is not in the top two, your vote goes to your second preference), which in general I think is a good idea.  The city of Oakland recently elected its mayor in this fashion, and interestingly the winner was a good 10+% behind based off just first-choice ballots.

But really, do we need more parties?  As I reflected yesterday, Washington had a clairvoyant’s gift on predicting the discord sewn with parties.  By fracturing the vote into ever more tribes who hold the primacy of different ideas, we risk becoming a populous disconnected from other’s ideas.  As a fiscal conservative, I am forced to confront my political allies’ views on social and global governing.  Were we in a system where I could vote only on the issues I cared most about, I would wash my hands of all others. I may vote for my candidate on my issue and let him decide how all other issues should play out.  Instead in the two party system I’m forced to weigh all the issues.  Of course, in Washington’s utopia I would still have this luxury/responsibility, but the mashup of political agendas would change every election and be more varied.

Media type: Podcast
From: Intelligence Squared
Title: “The two-party system is making America ungovernable”
Hear it at: http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/america-divided-us-politics/