The poverty of ideological dichotomy

By Nikhil Rao

It is a regrettable tendency amongst people to believe that there are many on their side. In my experience, I have observed that people tend to think that most of their views  are also professed by the majority of people. The logic is somewhat akin to this – ‘Of course financial institutions are vile, corrupt and responsible for crises. This implies that Dodd-Frank is a godsend. Hence its opponents are crazy, QED.’ This flippant lack for a critical understanding of opposing views is detrimental to the political culture of a nation and I will proceed to describe why.

For starters, let us revisit the ignominious political gridlock regarding raising the debt ceiling that occurred last summer. People are quick to criticize Republicans; they waste no time blaming ‘Republican stubbornness’ for all that is wrong in the world. In all fairness, Democrats were steadfast hagglers in the situation for a fair amount of time but towards the end, they grasped a key concept, that of compromise. They realized that opposing views can stem from at least a reasonably coherent scrap of logic and sought to understand where the Republicans were coming from. Something is to be gleaned from this: it is important to compromise in politics and to do so, it is not imprudent to understand the underpinnings of your opponents’ positions.

Sadly, American political culture does not seem to grasp that precept. A blind partisan following of liberalism or conservatism, Democrat or Republican, is a foible at the very least. For example, this very paper has housed diatribe in the form of countless columns ‘exposing libertarianism for its follies.’ The focus is on the worst case scenarios regarding the advent of the individual liberty-centric ideology. This is a mistake as there are many positives to be gleaned from most ideologies and I pronounce that it is important not to forget the positives while misguidedly slagging off opposing ideals. For example, I could only look at extreme liberalism and lambast what I perceive to be support for equality of outcomes. Is that constructive? Not in the very least.

Now you may say that this column is merely whinging and mendacious in nature, lamenting others’ views but I seek to extrapolate these seemingly pedestrian observations. The things that I have described showcase a dangerous underlying trend that needs to be checked. There exists a worrying structural disadvantage afforded to compromise within the American political system and this stunts the growth of centrism and third parties. This can easily be limned by Duverger’s Law. Quite simply, the law asserts that plurality or ‘winner take all’ elections favor the two-party system while proportional representation allows multiple parties to grow. This can be seen by comparing said system of the United States to the Parliamentary features of the British and Indian governments.

In the U.S., third parties may win a minority of the electorate, but cannot grow. However, in Parliamentary systems, third parties win a number of seats proportional to their election performance and are hence given a platform to grow. In addition to this, third parties in the United States are generally criticized by one of the parties for taking votes away from their candidate, are outspent and crushed by the other two parties, possess an unknown brand and are also sometimes incorporated into mainstream parties. Political analysts wax critical about proportional representation, calling it a ‘byzantine’ system that makes elections drawn out and difficult. But when people are not interested in understanding views in order to compromise and when the system itself is in constructed in such a foolhardy manner, how can we expect moderation? Before I am called out as merely presenting armchair ratiocination, consider this: How many prominent third parties has the U.S. witnessed?

The current system gives rise to the political posturing that we are witnessing today. Mitt Romney is dubbed a ‘Massachusetts Moderate’ by the philandering Newt Gingrich; he is anything but. Compared to Jon Huntsman, Romney is found wanting, based on his behavior over the last 10 months. Jon Huntsman mostly polled abysmally low during his campaign. What does all of this say about political pragmatism in this country? What does all of this say about centrism as an average between left and right? I shall leave that up to you.

Nikhil Rao is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]