Aside from the talking heads on TV and the angry voices on the radio, all that I have heard these days about the election is something along the lines of, “I wish our political candidates could just get along. Why don’t they work on actually getting something done?”
As if, somehow, taking any sort of action proves that we are, if not moving forward, at least moving.
I am not immune to this sentiment. I recognize the weariness that comes with constant conflict. With constant attack. And, believe me, I am no fan of 30 second sound bytes, dismissive tweets, and infantile discourse.
But, dear Lord, I think we are suffering from a fear of conflict. And this fear isn’t healthy.
What we need is a civil discourse about things that matter. What we don’t need is vitriolic discourse about things that don’t matter.
Let me explain:
Honestly held opinions and rationally arrived at conclusions should not be apologized for. Rather, they should be submitted for public scrutiny. The problem is not that there is friction between disagreeing entities. The problem is that the friction takes the form of infantile ways of addressing a problem.
The fault for this does not lay solely with the purveyors of this type of discourse. The fault for this also lays with an electorate that doesn’t have the attention span for a sustained conversation about ideas. The politicians merely exploit our penchant for caring only so far as our self-interest is concerned. This is why, by the way, every political issue that has any traction with a large group of people is couched in language that stresses its massive consequences.
When I was in debate in high school, we called this sort of argument the “annihilation impact” because, in order to outweigh all of the other arguments, one debater might make the claim that the other side would lead to nuclear war which would lead to annihilation.
Think about it. Gay marriage is really important to certain Christians because the very possibility of a civil society depends on the institution of marriage. Environmental legislation is really important to certain strains of the electorate because we might cause the whole earth to be flooded.
And the economy. If the economy doesn’t grow, then no one will have jobs and we will all starve to death. And China will come enslave us. Lord help us.
The reason infantile and over exaggerated claims exist in our political conversation is because those who control the conversations are convinced that this is what the electorate wants to hear, or perhaps the electorate will only be swayed by stupid and exaggerated claims. And maybe they’re right. Maybe most people will base their voting decisions on overgrown fear.
But I think the debates prove something. I think the presidential debates prove that the electorate, at least a lot of it, want an honest and genuine clash of ideas and visions. This is why seventy million people tuned in for the first debate.
We call these clashes between the presidential candidates debates. We do not call them conversations. Or dialogues. Or meetings.
We call them debates. And that means there will be conflict. And conflict is the point.
Which is why I am so confused when I hear people wish that the candidates were nicer to each other. That they weren’t so impassioned. Why? Do you want a listless president who doesn’t believe that his vision is what is best for the common good? Do you want a president who, on the grounds of being nice, ignores untruths and misstatements made by his opponent? Do you want a president who doesn’t draw contrasts between points of view and positions?
But these debates, and our entire election system, has its own problems. I hear, all the time, that a collapse toward the middle is the answer. That both groups have their problems and we should pick out of each position what is good. Which is just so confounding. This notion of exclusive binaries that, in their friction, produce what is right has a technical name: dialectic.
Dialectic is a process of debating whereby statements are set in opposition to each other. Only in their clash with each other is truth arrived at. As if everything can be summed up in two views. This assumption permeates our collective consciousness. We have two political parties. And two sides to every issue. And we, in America, abhor multiple perspectives. We want two to fight it out while we pick up what is left.
Which is why third-party candidates never do well in the United States. There is no room for them. No space in the marketplace of ideas.
Which makes the striving between the two parties seem a little odd. Because they’re not that much different. The vehemence expressed about Romney’s tax returns or Obama’s birth or whose taxes are going to get cut and for how long and whether all or just most illegal immigrants will get this or that benefit betray a fundamental lack of difference.
These two machines are entrenched in power. And they have a vested interest in maintaing that power. And maybe that’s why voters want impassioned candidates and then don’t like it when they actually clash. Maybe they’ve sensed that their clashes aren’t all that serious since both parties are hardly different from each other. And, since these two parties control the discourse, we will never find ourselves seriously reconsidering a great many of our national assumptions. Since these two machines occupy spaces on the political grid right next to each other, the only thing to fight over are those who sit right in the middle.
Hence the drive to the center.
Hence the media and campaign fascination with “independents” and “moderates” and “swing states.”
The situation being, of course, that there are only two viable options.
I wish we, as an electorate, were exposed to a much broader selection of thought.
Stay tuned. Next Thursday I’ll tell you who I am voting for and why.