Tug Of War: The Two Americas

No matter how much we wish it weren’t so, America is split in two. The two sides—call them conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, or “real” vs. “elite”—have very different dreams for America. And while, yes, at the end of the day we are all brothers, standing united with our fellow countrymen in times of turmoil, the two Americas have been playing a decades-long tug-of-war that has usually resulted in stalemate. The results of Tuesday’s election, however, will be a huge victory for one half of the country, and could finally steer America down a single decisive path.

John McCain and Sarah Palin’s recent political rallies have drawn criticism for inspiring hatred and division among their increasingly volatile base. They patronize their supporters by calling them “real” Americans, flattering them for being more “patriotic” than the liberal city slickers of the Obama-supporting blue states. And as vile and divisive their strategy is, it has been unsurprisingly successful at casting doubt over Barack Obama during the final hours of the campaign.

These tactics are so effective because they appeal to the deep distrust felt by conservative Americans towards their liberal, elitist, godless, fruity neighbors. Liberals often have a similarly myopic view of their conservative counterparts, viewing them as ignorant, homophobic, racist Bible-thumpers ruled by three driving forces: God, Money, and Fear. Each side has a vision for America that seemingly opposes that of the other. Which one will be the America of the future?

Should we adhere to “Christian values” that would outlaw gay marriage and reverse Roe vs. Wade? Should we continue to fight in Iraq until we vindicate the deaths of tens of thousands? Should we drill, baby, drill despite diminishing reserves and escalating prices, and sacrifice our wild areas and waters to help assuage our thirst? Should we make no effort to slow global warming, and view the environment as an obstacle opposed to human advancement? Should America be the one true economic and military superpower in the world, unconcerned with negative global ramifications? Should government exist only to restrict the personal freedoms of those who would marry someone of the same sex, or have an abortion, but give carte blanche to financial institutions and polluting corporations while opposing health care reform, all in the name of glorious unfettered Capitalism?

Or should we become a secular and tolerant America, embracing true equality for gays and freedom of choice for women? Should we cut our losses in Iraq, where we’ve never had a clear objective, and where we’ve thrown away billions of dollars and thousands of lives? Should we look to the future and move toward sustainable energy, freeing us from depending upon Middle Eastern dictators and minimizing future damage to the environment? Should government reform heath care and better regulate corporations to stave off future financial crises? Should we become citizens of the world, not its bullies and exploiters, and stop making demands of other nations that we ourselves refuse to follow?

America is at the crossroads, and on November 4th we’ll see which road lies ahead. Will we cling to the broken pieces of a disastrous decade, running with guns blazing towards our doom, like Butch and Sundance? Or will we listen to the better angels of our nature, and move towards a future of reason, responsibility, and peace? Can the two Americas ever unite over common ground? Will America refuse to evolve, adhering to old habits and prejudices under the guise of patriotism? Or can liberals drag conservatives, kicking and screaming, into a brighter tomorrow? We’ll all know the answers to these questions very soon.

But no matter what the outcome, one thing is certain: to face the challenges of tomorrow, we need to be a better America than the fearful one McCain and Palin see, and are so eager to exploit. We need to be brave, thoughtful, and compassionate, and not give in to the hate-mongering of manipulative politicians. We need to look out for our neighbor, not fear or hate him, and refuse to play into the hands of those who would see us divided for their own gain.

And that’s a vision for America everybody can get behind.

8 thoughts on “Tug Of War: The Two Americas”

  1. Yeah, it’s me, Harry. Sorry, I’m used to posting on IMDB where they won’t show your comments unless you insult at least one other user plus a celebrity.

    In any event, I’d like to say that a system comprising more than two parties in the United States is, as Zach points out, not impossible but difficult. For starters, a lot of voters are interested in a single issue and will go with whichever party offers guaranteed support on said issue. Parties can promise voters support on one issue such as abortion, for instance, but screw, as it were, those selfsame voters on the amount of taxes the government would like to collect from them. Voters, in this sense, are voting against their own economic interests while voting for their moral ones. This can be baffling to some, but if you don’t know about the hidden (hidden only because you are one-issue voter and don’t pay attention to other issues) economic repercussions of your vote, it’s really not too hard to swallow. As an illustration, imagine that you love cheeseburgers and that you’re only concerned with taste and never consider calorie or fat intake. If you eat cheeseburger after cheeseburger, your senses may be satisfied but you may also find that you’ve put on a few unwanted pounds.

    The implication of all that is this: a third (and perhaps fourth) party may only be possible if voters are vociferously attached to more than one issue. This way, it’s more difficult for parties to cater to one-issue voters. As it stands, it’s difficult for voters to be persuaded after one party has already committed to an issue. Once parties are unable to meet voters expectations, it should be easier for a third party, to begin with, to emerge.

    In other words, it’s up to the parties to cater to multiple needs and new parties may have to develop to absorb voters’ needs that seem incongruous with party beliefs, which seems to compose mostly of whatever pollsters say is important to the electorate. So, voters and parties are going to have to become more serious in the future if they want to see appreciable outcomes.

    Fringe parties will increase in popularity as they take on the roles the Republican and Democratic parties had promised they’d adopt. The Libertarian party, for instance, has become the party of limited government the Republican party used to boast it was. After Bush’s unprecedented expansion of the federal government, it is difficult for most Republicans to tout small-government status with a straight face.

    In summary, third parties (and beyond) are possible but it seems to rely on voters and parties being able to abandon each other, in one sense, and find each other, in another.

  2. Harry, I dont think it is impossible, I just see the obsticles that stand in the way of a major change in our system of dual party politics as being insurmountable given the place of politics in society and the historical precedent.

    First, the major parties have done a reasonable job of quelling any formidable challenge by a third party which threatens to tap into their constituency, and even though there is no love lost between democrats and republicans, they want to continue in their current positions of power and that unifying force is a powerful one which we have seen hurt some viable third party canidates in the past (access to debates, media coverage, etc.).

    Second, the two party system may polarize the issues in a way that makes much of the country a little queasy (as I discussed in my first post) but politics is a ways down the list of priorities for many people out there today and having a clear choice as well as a feeling of solidarity with a group makes it easier for many to decide who to vote for. People may not believe everything that ‘their’ party does, but they pick and choose the issues most important to them and vote with the party who shares those beliefs. Our current system makes it easy for politicians to gain support (with for-or-against posturing, and assurances of like-mindedness) and people accept this system because it requires little mental exertion from them, just pick sides.

    Third, I think history is a good indication of how the political party system grows and changes, and there is not much evidence to support the idea that more than two parties can exist. Our two party system developed very quickly under our current constitution, and has seen mutations that include the rise and fall of parties and the realignment of conservative and liberal ideologies under those party names, but every time a new party arose it either died out, merged to an existing party, or killed off an existing party. Third parties have stirred things up for periods of our history, but there was always a shift back to two parties.

    However, you are right that there is growing disgust towards our current political system, and that can certainly open people up to new alternatives. And I also agree that while there have been strides made by third parties in terms of vote support and fundraising, we dont need those parties to develop on the outer edges of the political spectrum but instead to stake themselves as moderate parties.

    Overall, the problem rests mostly with the options we have as voters. The two party system is somewhat self-perpetuating. People are given two sides to choose from, and because of that they begin to identify with a side–even when they arent in total agreement with the stances of their chosen side (eg. pro-choice democrats). I think what will most likely happen in response to the growing disgust over politics is a softening of stances by the parties themselves. We have seen what happens when a party caters to some fairly extremist groups, they alienate their moderate supporters, and Obama has certainly benefitted from this in the current election.

    I did not mean to say that moving on from the two party system is impossible–multiple party governments have been shown to work elsewhere–I just think that with everything as it stands, and barring a major political shakeup the likes of which this country has never seen, that we are stuck with the two party system for better or worse. Thank you again for your responses to my posts, I am really enjoying this discussion and the chance to really talk about these issues in depth.

  3. Sorry Andy, that’s just how we roll around here. Complete seriousness without offense or insult. Didn’t you know that? This is the Andy who writes for Owl&Bear right?


    I disagree that a 2+ party system is impossible, it’s just not something that can be attained instantaneously when you have two unfathomably powerful parties that control the country, even if one is shaping up to need Viagra for the next 4-5 years.

    I do, however, think that as Americans become more disgusted with the state of politics, they will begin to support parties (financially) that reflect a more balanced view of things.

    The libertarians seem to be gaining some traction, and even (gasp) Ralph Nader has helped to raise awareness that there ARE alternatives, albeit pie-in-the-sky ones. These probably aren’t the ideal third and fourth parties; going further to the right or further to the left isn’t exactly the right idea, but I do think that America will be looking toward the middle ground in the years to come.

    In other words, hopefully in the next 25 years, we will see more conservatives adopt pro-choice, and/or conservationist attitudes, and we’ll also see more pro-life liberals with any eye for fiscal conservatism. It’s all there. It just takes time.

  4. Zach and Chris, I’m a bit disheartened to see that you’ve both missed the point. The “Comments” section on any Web site, including this one, is reserved for insulting one another by making unfounded assumptions about the other’s beliefs and/or lifestyle. It is no place for the reasoned, thoughtful, admirable discussion the two of you are conducting. You oughta be ashamed of yourselves.

  5. Chris, thank you for the quick response. Overall, it seems like we agree that the state of political discourse in this country has taken a turn for the worst. Our two party system is becoming increasingly hostile to dissenting views, and while it seems political involvement is in a tremendous upswing, we seem to be suffering from too much excitement and not enough true debate on the issues at hand. You are totally correct in your assertion that Americans today are forced to choose one of two ideologies–liberal or conservative–and it seems we both can agree that this system hurts not only the quality of our political discussions (which often turn into fits of name calling and shouting) but it also tends to force people into a for-or-against mentality that, frankly, exaggerate our differences rather than remind us of our similarities.

    I fear that you are right when you say that this election is not the end of the ideological choosing of sides we have seen in the recent past. And while I agree with you that America would be much better served to move past the two party system, it simply is not feasible for many reasons. I do hope that one day soon we can move to a more informed debate in the media and the public at large, but as long as politicians can play on the fear of the masses and use polarizing issues to gain votes and support I am afraid we will be stuck with the system we have.

    Thank you again for everything this website does from music posts and reviews to news links and editorials, and specifically to you Chris for the thoughtful response to my post. Real change is going to have to start at the bottom and work its way up, and its conversations like this which help take steps towards the political environment we both wish to some day live in.

  6. Hey Zach, thanks for your comment, which is one of the most articulate and well thought out that I’ve seen during my time writing for this site. To imply that there are only two ways of thinking in this country would of course be a gross oversimplification and, as such, was not my intention. The stratification I outlined was an attempt to accurately depict the course our nation’s political debate has taken lately.

    While many Americans can have nuanced and/or moderate political views, this election has not followed suit. The two sides I’ve described are what I feel to be accurate summarizations of McCain and Obama’s respective stances on “the issues”, and they are in most ways polar opposites of one another. And while the solutions to many of our nation’s problems would certainly need to be worked out and compromised on for the good of everyone, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the nation is divided along the lines of the current political culture. Personally, I would love to see America eventually move away from its two-party system to a more multi-faceted one that could accurately represent the more moderate viewpoints of voters that you described. Unfortunately, our current system makes our current black-and-white, yes-or-no, for-or-against brand of politics all too common an occurrence.

    As you said, many Americans do tend to favor dual-party control in government, and I find this to be comforting, because it demonstrates a certain open-mindedness on the part of the American people. I also agree that our media culture seems to enjoy fanning the fire of our differences, because conflict leads to more ‘compelling’ journalism and higher ratings. But, nevertheless, there is currently a line drawn in the sand between McCain and Obama, and, with the exception of the maddeningly mercurial ‘undecideds’, most voters have cast their lot with one or the other, usually doing so with a passion. Whether this dichotomy was originally a media creation or not is of course debatable, but the fact remains that the divide has become wider with each presidential election. And whether 2012 brings us a McCain-Obama rematch or an Obama-Palin fight for the presidency (which seem the likeliest two scenarios at this point), we won’t have seen the last of this increasingly heated division.

  7. First of all, I am a big fan of your website, and I am a regular visitor. I love the large selection of music as well as the various links and articles that you post.

    However, I have a hard time believing your premise that there is a political dichotomy in America today, and frankly I feel we need to work harder to dispel this myth than to further propagate it. We are two large and diverse a group of people to be so neatly split, and our interests and beliefs are too varied based on geography, culture, and any number of other factors.

    Yet I do agree with you that politics today are divisive and full of fear. An ‘us vs. them’ mentality has been developing for some time now, and while I think it is misguided to place blame on one side of the aisle, we can definately see the George W. Bush presidency as being one which has solidified this idea of liberal against conservative. The debate these days is certainly centered around black and white views on the issues: pro life or pro choice, for the troops or against war, for raising taxes or for cutting them. The problem, and I believe you will agree, is that these are very complex issues that cant be distilled down to simply a for or against stance, but rather need to be worked out and compromised on for the good of everyone.

    To return to my original point, I think it is dangerous to generalize and say that the nation is divided along the lines of the current political culture. There will always be factions of a society that exist on opposite ends of the spectrum and focus their debate on divisive and hurtful posturing. However, most of the country falls in between, they hold moderate views and crave compromise that gives both sides a voice. This is why you see polls that say the majority of people are wary of one party control across the legislature and presidency. We dont want one party to have its way, we want open and honest debate that moves us forward. The problem is that our political leaders dont give this to us, and we are worse off as voters because of the misinformation, negativity, and liberal vs. conservative battles on issues.

    I strongly agree with you that we need to move on from fear and divisiveness. I just dont agree that those problems rest in the people as much as the way we talk politics today in our sound bite culture. In the end I think the american people will be very welcoming of the change, because its in a united america that we exist, an america where we must compromise and tolerate each other or we would tear our communities apart.

    If I have misinterpreted any of your positions I am sorry, and I would like to hear any feedback you have on my commentary.

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