I recently watched a televised debate on whether America’s two-party system is making our nation ungovernable.
During the debate, New York Times columnist David Brooks said something fascinating.
He mentioned that political scientists keep track of how much cooperation there is between the two parties in Congress, and that while there have been periods of major party fighting such as the 1860s and 1960s, we are at an all-time low in partisan cooperation to get deals done.
Then he noted that the major difference in our current party system is that always before each party included a wide variety of viewpoints.
Within the same tent of the Democratic Party, for instance, many views and policies were suggested, debated and decided.
The same diversity existed within the Republican Party.
Today, however, this is not the case—at least not when it comes to policy proposals.
“The problem is that each party has become more rigid in my own lifetime of covering this. When I came to Washington in the early 1980s, I could go to back ventures like Jack Kemp or Newt Gingrich on the Republican side. They had all these weird ideas they were trying to push on leadership. That doesn’t happen [anymore] — the leaders control everything now. The nature of the parties has changed.”
In their drive to win, the party leaders have organized around single, central themes and strongly demanded that congressmen stay within the accepted partisan bounds on nearly all topics.
Most of our elected officials are reasonable and dedicated, and if we put a group of them in a room without party labels and the goal of solving a given issue — say debt, deficits, immigration, or health care — they would almost certainly be able to propose sensible and plausible solutions in a relatively short time.
But attach a party label to each person in the room, especially with the historical baggage now attached to the parties, and the cost, timeline and likelihood of success would suddenly and permanently change.
This is a serious problem for modern America.
Racism of Red and Blue
Calling someone a Democrat or a Republican today is fraught with danger — they may well take offense.
I once watched a man stand at a public meeting and make a suggestion on how to solve the problem before the group.
The officials at the front of the room asked him several questions, and he answered them with common sense and a clear understanding of the situation.
A few members of the audience stood to add their support and small suggestions to improve his idea.
The room was moving toward consensus, when another participant asked if the speaker was a Republican.
When he answered that he was a registered Democrat, the mood in the room changed.
A few argued with him (making the point that they were Republicans, which literally had nothing to do with the topic at hand).
This fueled anger among Democrats and within minutes the room was deeply divided.
The official running the meeting took the floor and pointed out to everyone that the man’s idea had been almost universally supported before his political affiliation was mentioned, and tried to get the group back to discussing the merits of the idea.
But it was too late: the Republicans in the room now disliked his idea and the Democrats supported it.
Many had to change their minds to get to this point, but it seems that was easy once they knew which party he belonged to.
This kind of divisiveness is all too common.
Even online, many, perhaps most, American citizens who engage in political conversation limit themselves to groups where the other people agree with their views.
Few discussions on political topics are inclusive or open to learning from diverse perspectives.
Squabbles and Solutions
Fortunately, the solution to this starts at the ground level.
Each of us can listen to the views of people who disagree with us on politics.
I don’t know when the idea that discussing politics is impolite came into vogue, but it has only hurt our freedom and prosperity.
Right now, today, we can learn from other political views, not to debunk them immediately and angrily like most people do, but rather to really understand their point.
This is not the same as forgetting one’s beliefs — it is in fact the opposite process of strengthening one’s most important beliefs by increasing your understanding of the world.
A move to a European-style multiparty system is not the answer, since this would create a structure where the winner still runs the whole government but is usually a lot more extreme than moderate.
Ideally, America could adopt a non-partisan model like that suggested by many of the American framers.
The Constitution is actually designed for a nonparty system.
In the absence of a major shift to a nonpartisan model, the best reform to our system would be for more American citizens to ignore party spin and think independently — and openly listen to and learn from others who do the same, even if they disagree with your ideas.
We all have more to learn, and in fact significant political learning is more likely when we are listening to those whose views differ from the thoughts we’ve already had.
New ideas spark increased thinking, even when you disagree with the details.
Of course, people shouldn’t simply accept ideas they find problematic or wrong, but free citizens need to be good listeners and open-minded thinkers.
Such maturity is needed in any free society, and especially in one where ideological political parties dominate the discussion.
Our leaders, deeply mired in partisan squabbles, are unlikely to make this change, so it is up to regular Americans to take the lead in discussing and promoting needed solutions for many of our biggest challenges.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.