Where do you start talking about American politics?
Where do you end?
You can enter and exit at any point in the vacuum of the space-time continuum like a neutrino, heard by nobody and affecting nothing.
The great wasteland of American politics in the 21st century is that way because of the polarized division of everything into two opposite parties. It is an extreme polarization because both parties and all of the politicians in them keep discovering that they can say and do anything and still get elected by their party. Given this off-the-rails behavior, the two parties have arbitrarily occupied the two most vapid niches that any political party in history has ever occupied. They are:
- Anti-society (Republicans)
- Pro-society (Democrats)
Furthermore, nothing much changes no matter which party has the majority, since they hold everything in deadlock. Other countries stand in amazement at the state of the US, but they have to understand one crucial thing: it's all talk.
We just witnessed four years of Trump, the most destructive possible despot you could have and still come out of it with a democracy. And yet most American lives didn't change much. We even had an insurrection and the average American is barely bothered by it.
The new president, Biden, has paid Americans directly with thousands of dollars in stimulus money to help them recover from the pandemic. Americans barely notice this, too.
See this kid? Imagine her in a soundproof isolation booth while she has an imaginary tea party with her imaginary friends. That is what a politician is to the average American.
There is a massive disconnect in the democratic system in America, which comes from no education for the public. There are no civics classes, history is a dead subject, and the average American doesn't even vote and doesn't pay attention to political news, even if nuclear bombs fly overhead.
Twenty years ago we lost a few thousand lives in 9/11 and the entire nation had a decade-long panic attack. But now, even if one president sat back and allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to wipe out half a million American lives and the next president stopped the pandemic almost by snapping his fingers, neither stimulus shows a response from the cadaver of the American spirit.
The most shocking news that you can tell any American currently under the age of 40, is that things were not always this way. And that things will not stay this way either.
The Two American Parties Represent Almost No One
Recall the point I keep circling back to again and again. A huge chunk of Americans don't even vote. I used to say "less than half of Americans vote," which was true up until 2020. But holy flaming toast, Americans in 2020 actually showed up to the primary to the tune of 2/3rds of eligible voters. A record-breaking year!
After four decades of ~50% apathy from the American public, 2020 was a crappy enough year that at least 60% (estimates up to 67%) of the eligible voting population could bother to stir their buns off the couch long enough to fill out a ballot. I guess half a million Americans dropping dead did have some impact after all! On ~16% of the people, that is.
What would it take for the remaining 33% to vote? A volcano erupting from the floor of their living room, as lava sharks crashed through the windows and chased them around, before they fled outside and were devoured by clockwork giant alien buzzards with lasers, under a hail of chicken shit brimstone. I don't know, I'm just hazarding a guess.
In December of 2020, right after the election but before the January 6th insurrection, NPR polled those people who did not vote and asked them, for crackers' sake, why?
The answer came to "not registered," "not interested," "not liking the candidates," "feeling they wouldn't make a difference," "undecided."
Imagine that. Donald Trump. Joe Biden. One-third of Americans can't tell these two people apart. This is why I applaud Biden's stimulus check plan. Finally, a direct way to tell the candidates apart. Perhaps Pavlovian conditioning of American people will help them draw the connection between coloring in the little boxes on the paper and getting treats afterwards.
OK, but why are these people so disengaged? Medill News Service digs into this question in a couple more outstanding articles which I commend to your attention, "Nonvoters 2020: Counted Out" and "Do politicians care about people like me? Nonvoters say no." Zoom in on the former article which shares this interview:
> "Anna Rasmussen of Tacoma, Washington, another nonvoter who participated in the survey, said she didn’t agree with any of the candidates and had no options: She didn’t want to vote for a Democrat because she is anti-abortion, but 'a lot of Republicans are anti-immigrant or anti-LGBTQ so I can’t vote for a lot of them.'"
Well then, it seems Mrs. Rasmussen has fallen into a political crack. There is no party for pro-life immigrant LGBTQs.
The second article makes this point even more clear:
> "One solution nonvoters embrace is increasing the choices on the ballot. Sixty-four percent of nonvoters agree there should be a third major political party."
Just below that is an interview with a self-identified Democrat who says he would have voted had Bernie Sanders won the Democrat primary but declined once he saw Biden nominated. He described Biden as "a career politician who hasn’t been able to get much done." Presumably, he thinks Sanders dabbles in Congress for a hobby.
But here is our true answer to the question "why don't Americans get off their ass and vote?" Simple Gallup polls checking voters' claimed identity. Democrat and Republican float around between the twentieth and thirtieth percentile, only rarely breaking through 30%. But the middle column, described as "Independent," runs in the 30-50% range, usually mid-45%-ish.
Wait a minute. Do you mean to tell us that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans hold the majority in this country? That the true majority party in the USA is "independent"? That both an all-Democrat and an all-Republican administration will only please, at the very most, about ~31% of the people?
Isn't that amazing?
The news media never tells us this story!
All you hear about is blue-state / red-state, left-right, Spy-vs.-Spy. They speak to a minority of us, both sides. The truth, the actual truth, is that a bunch of us are all Mrs. Rasmussen. We don't want either of the shrink-wrapped Spam options, we want our own parties!
What we all are is disenfranchised. Me, personally, I'm mostly a pinko-liberal, but there are some parts of the party line I don't agree with. I just go along with it because the other side is even crazier. Everybody I talk to, hardly any of them is hard-line one party or the other. Most of them shrug and check the box for the closest thing to what they want and hope for the best. Those of you who vote, doesn't it feel like you've been doing that for your whole lives?
We Need More Parties!
As the above video indicates, things were not always this way, but they were always nearly this bad. We have had other political parties in our system before, but we always seem to gravitate around two. Besides Democrats and Republicans, we have also had the Whig, National Republican, Democrat-Republican, and Federalist parties.
Here's our fall-back on clear politics tutorials, Crash Course:
Now, we have seen that this situation pervades pretty much all of US history. We have parties because anything else is just too messy to consider. The previous video talked about the infamous Ross Perot run, the closest a third-party candidate has ever gotten to tasting Oval Office leather. But what do you do instead of a winner-take-all decision? Put all three in office but give each of them decision power in proportion to their share of the popular vote?
We are all familiar with how Bernie Sanders split the Democrat ticket, tragically in 2016, less damaging in 2020. But Sanders has no business calling himself "Democrat" at all. He is a self-described Democratic Socialist. He functions as an Independent when not running for president. If we were afforded a Democratic-Socialist party in this country, we would have had Sanders in, no contest.
Likewise, Ron Paul split the Republican ticket back in 2008. Ron Paul is often cited as a Libertarian. But of course, when he runs for president, he has to put on the Republican hat. In 2008 election, he lost the Republican nomination to John McCain, who figures into our next example…
John McCain was vocally critical of Donald Trump while he lived, and Trump fired back every chance he got. Hey, but they're both Republicans! Shouldn't they get along? Not exactly. McCain, leaning closer to Conservatism, is often said to be the last of the "old Republican party," while Trump belonged more to the… ah… Tea Party perhaps? Right here on 123ish, see "John McCain: The End of Civil Politics?"
So the reality is that even when we vote D/R, we're not necessarily picking a side anyway. We might see the election of Biden over Sanders as the Centrist party beating out the Socialist party, rather than the Democrats picking a candidate. Trump's nomination was the Tea Party beating the Republicans. And so on. We have various coalition mini-parties within the two major parties anyway.
In everything but the place where it counts: On the ballot!
What would it look like if the political spectrum for major offices (presidents, governors, senators, and representatives at the federal and state level) had a more diverse offering of parties? Something like this:
Green / Socialist (hard left) | Democrat (moderate left) | Republican / Conservative (moderate right) | Libertarian (hard right)
That seems to be more what John Adams would have preferred, at least. Spoilers: This set-up wouldn't solve everything. But there are democracies with multi-party systems, and they have made it work. For instance, ranked-choice voting:
For one thing, multiple parties over two parties breaks up the infamous deadlock. Since no party ends up a majority in places like a house of representatives or parliaments, multiple individuals have to compromise across party lines.
It might be that time in America. We are seeing increased restlessness within both parties. The parties have changed before. We're still a young country, still figuring out how to work this democracy thing out.
Final thoughts on political polarization
We turn to the excellent historian-documentarian David Hoffman, who has one of the most rocking YouTube channels you should go check out. It's illuminating to compare modern YouTube comments to clips from the 1950s-1990s. Here's one clip that shocked a generation on that channel:
At about 8:19 we get to the money quote, where this lifelong Social Security administrator shares how there was "very little politics" in Social Security at that time. Social Security was seen as a basic government function, something essential no matter who won the last election. This interview in 1979 was originally about the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. But this administrator's whole attitude feels like it came from a different planet compared to now, doesn't it?
Compare to now, where merely holding an election and counting the ballots is this radical, left-wing, pinko thing to do. Everything is painted as Socialism by the MAGA crowd. As I point out last time, the MAGAs are LOSING. That's why they are so hateful. Remember the Gallup poll back there, Republicans are at 25% and not all of them are slobbering MAGA idiots. Less than half of them are Trump-loyalist MAGAs. So that is about 1/8th, 12% of the country.
There is actually no polarization in this country now. There is instead 88% of us uniting and pulling together to move forward with progress and civilization, and 12% little angry balls of hate who want to blow it all up. They never close their mouths and have help from Russian troll farms so they sound louder, but it really is a case of a few bad apples - which happen to enjoy grossly over-inflated representation as 50% of our government thanks to the bad apples' openly terrorist tactics.
But getting back to 1979, and keeping politics out of government, the polarization of the parties was just drawn along different lines back then. Everybody agreed that a civilization needs basic functions to survive. Differences were over things like who can fund it or who has the best solution.
Richard M. Nixon, the poster child for Republican presidents, right?
What if I told you that Nixon championed and signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act? How about Nixon's Social Security amendments, which extended Medicare to people under age 65 with disabilities? How about that Nixon created OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Act?
Heck, that's still barely scratching the surface. Nixon, "tricky Dick," who would go on to be the most hated American politician for a whole generation until the end of the 20th century, had free reign to enact all these "Socialist big government" programs as a Republican, and nobody in his party complained!
THAT is how far things have been warped. Obama fought eight years for basic health care and a few token issues he managed to slip under the radar, legalizing gay marriage and starting the ball rolling to end marijuana prohibition. He had no end of Republicans nipping at his heels about it.
On the other hand, some polarization may be necessary. When we don't have polarized ideas, that may be because we're all united on one ideal - which isn't any good if the ideal is rotten. In 1979, Obama never would have had the same fights. The health care would have gone through with little to no argument. On the downside, gay marriage and pot would not have even been a raised issue in that time period.
You would have drawn shocked gasps then at the mere notion of gay marriage or legalized pot in the mid-20th. You also would have drawn shocked gasps at that MAGA idiot's car driving around with a death threat painted across the back in neat lettering (aw, he starred out the F-word, how considerate!).
Things have changed, even drastically in the space of a lifetime. They can change some more.