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John Wheaton: Polarized thinking – the true political evil


With the recent defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, it is tempting for Democrats such as myself to seize upon this moment as a triumph of progressive ideals over conservative principles. Democrats who have waited in the shadows of the Trump presidency will be eager to push through their political agendas – “to the victors go the spoils,” or so the saying goes.

We would do well, however, to avoid such partisan self-congratulation and take the opportunity of the 2020 victory to engage in meaningful political reform. Such reform must start with changes to the two-party system. One of the founders of our nation, John Adams, once stated that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil.” The political evil that this great leader feared has become a reality. In the current political climate, the Democrats and Republicans have become so polarized in their ideology that there is no incentive to compromise. Under a Democratic administration, Republican politicians will do anything to hamper the progress of the president because a failure for the president is a boon for the Republicans in the next election. The same goes for Democrats in a Republican administration.

To put it succinctly, American politics is a zero-sum game: any loss for the Democrats equals a gain for the Republicans and vice versa. This concept has been discussed by Lee Drutman among others. In such a system, the most likely outcome is a back-and-forth ping-pong game of competing ideologies. Democrats gain the presidency and enact progressive policies that alienate half of the country (think Obamacare), then the Republicans gain the presidency and enact conservative agendas that alienate the other half (e.g., Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change).

America must eventually embrace a multi-party system in order to break the stranglehold of our “win at all costs” political thinking. In such a system, three or more political parties function together within a government. Such a system promotes a greater diversity of ideas and promotes compromise.

In a multi-party system, no single party generally has enough votes to pass legislation on its own (even within a single house of Congress). Parties must compromise in order to attain a majority vote on critical issues. This creates an incentive for working together.

Substantive political reform takes time. What Americans can do now, though, is focus on changing the way that we think about issues that are important to us. One-sided, polarized views have infected the fabric of our society beyond politics – they have infected our media, our schools, even our conversations about civil rights. 2020 has been a year that has been unprecedented in its recognition of the prejudices facing people of color in the justice system. Such recognition is undeniably positive, as recognition is the first step to change. But does it mean that the police have no value to the point where they must be defunded? Absolutely not. Our police officers put their lives in danger every day to protect us – this is not changed by the fact that significant police reform is needed.

Serious thought is nuanced and multi-faceted. Do not let the media tell you otherwise. If you support gun control but are against abortion, make your views known. Do not be confined in a box by the Left or the Right. And if you are a Democrat, do not make the mistake of interpreting the presidential election as a simple win – there can be no true win when half of the country loses.

John Wheaton is an attorney in Spokane who works primarily in the area of immigration.



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