Watching the media coverage of the midterm elections this week, a quote I once heard came to mind: “The United States is a one-party state but, with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”
Since Tuesday night, tons of listicles and thinkpieces have attempted to distill the election’s key takeaways, none able to come to a definitive conclusion. Being distrustful of mainstream media as I am, I decided to do a deep-dive into the election data to find out what really happened. Turns out, there was, in fact, one cohesive narrative; it just wasn’t the story anyone was trying to tell.
The real takeaway from 2018 is the same as it was in 2016 — ideology is absent from American political debate, and voters are desperate to find some.
Ideology is defined as a set of principles that guide decision-making. In other words, an ideology is a vision for what the ideal society would look like. Healthy democracies are contests between competing ideologies. Unfortunately, only one ideology is present in our debate.
The Democratic Party and the Republican Party have really similar visions — both picture the ideal society as one in which anyone can ascend to great heights from humble beginnings. Sounds nice, but pay close attention — even in both parties’ wildest dreams, poor people still exist.
By “great heights,” they mean the ruling class — and “higher” classes can only exist if “lower” classes exist beneath them. For two parties that claim to champion working people, they’re dead-set on perpetuating the existing class hierarchy. So neither ideology centers workers — a majority of Americans — apart from those who one day might be lucky enough to “ascend”.
The data shows that voters crave ideological candidates more and more each year — that’s why the more radical ideas on either side continue to have dramatic influence on their respective parties’ platforms.
Bernie Sanders’ candidacy paved the way for progressives, rather than establishment candidates, to comprise the majority of Democratic candidates in 2018. Newt Gingrich, then Sarah Palin, and then the Tea Party led to the spread of Trumpism (i.e. overt white nationalism) at the state level in 2018. Both movements — despite being polar opposites — at least espouse defined philosophical values and propose a clear idea for the trajectory of the country.
The only coherent ideologies — the only concrete visions for the future — are those being proposed by the groups to the left or to the right of the dominant parties.
Since we now know that shifting to the center isn’t the answer to polarization, we have to adopt a different strategy. The answer, for those who don’t feel at home in their respective party’s separatist factions, is to have a vision. Whether you lean left or right, you have to be able to articulate — in plain English, not vague symbolism or empty catchphrases — what your ideal society looks like and how you plan to get there.
No one’s actually a centrist at heart — we all have unique value systems. So if you’re really a libertarian, tell us why. Stop hiding behind tax cuts; you wanna abolish the State, and that’s okay! If you’re a communist, tell us why. Stop hiding behind universal healthcare; you wanna seize the means of production, and that’s okay! If past is prologue, the American people will pay attention to anyone with strong convictions.
In addition to having a vision, we need to accept that the two-party system isn’t working.
In the past two years, Democrats and Republicans have swapped positions on a number of major issues. Both parties are totally devoid of ideological principles, but never fail to put on Oscar-worthy performances every election season, talking about how their opponents are an affront to “our values” and are antithetical to “what America’s about”.
Nancy Pelosi’s victory speech on Tuesday night lauded our “bipartisan marketplace of ideas.” There’s no such thing — that’s just called a duopoly. Forcing millions of people with diverse political values to march in lockstep only results in watered-down solutions and a watered-down democracy.
In an actual free market, there are no barriers to entry, participants have perfect information, and there are many players involved. Similarly, a true marketplace of ideas would abandon parties entirely, elicit 100% voter participation, and standardize the flow of information so every idea gets a fair hearing. We would choose our legislators on their records and values alone. To pass legislation without parties, small caucuses that share values would team up for collaborative solutions.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the party system is going away anytime soon.
I do hope, however, that we’ll embrace this wave of authenticity in politics. I hope we’ll call on our elected representatives to be forthright about their values and their visions for this country. I hope we continue to increase the number of outsiders running for office on platforms they believe in.
I hope we continue to break records for voter turnout, not because we have something to vote against, but because we have something to vote for. Most of all, I hope one day we dispense with the party identities to which we so ferociously cling and realize that our ruling class ‘representatives’ never shared our values at all.
There may have been a Blue Wave — albeit a feeble one — but there’s blood in the water. Democrats had five times more primary challengers this cycle than last, and Republicans fractured more than ever on Trump. The status quo is obviously vulnerable.
We must demand that our leaders lead, not just respond to the opposition. That they represent their constituents, not just toe the party line. As Americans, we must all find the courage to stand for something, as it becomes increasingly clear that those in power stand for nothing.