Gangs of D.C.

Here’s a short story. There was a young man living in a poor inner-city neighborhood. This young man wanted to make money. In order to make money, he faced few options other than to join a gang. Once he joined, his fellow gang members helped him make money. For this young man, the gang provided him opportunities to achieve what he wanted, in this case more money. Here’s another story. There was a middle-aged man living in a relatively well-off neighborhood. This middle aged man wanted to run for public office. In order to run for public office, he faced few options other than joining a political party. Once he joined, his fellow party members helped him get elected to office. For this middle-aged man, the political party provided him opportunities to achieve what he wanted, in this case public office. These two stories show nothing more than one person joining a gang, and another joining a political party. However, is it possible that something as illegal as a gang can be compared to something as dignified as a political party? According to President George Washington, this is a valid comparison. “[Political Parties] serve always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” (Washington) While gangs perform illegal activates for profit, political parties serve as platforms for a few to manipulate the masses, essentially handicapping the democratic process. Issues get divided down party lines, politicians are expected to support party issues and voters listen to party backed news media. What would our government look like if there were no political parties?

To better understand how a party-less system would work, it is important to learn why the current party system does not. For over 150 years we have had the choice of Democrat or Republican. Issues rarely change yet people celebrate when their candidates win, in the same sense you would celebrate your horse winning at the track. Promises that this candidate will “change Washington” or “come up with solutions” tend to become forgotten once the candidate takes office. From the freshman congressmen on the Hill to the President in the White House, politics has become nothing more than keeping your head above water and making sure you are the most popular person in the county. Today we are not a part of democracy, but merely status quo politics. This means it is not in the best interest of politicians to make a difference, but instead keep the situation stable and unchanged. To many of us this is good. I am happy I can go to college for a few years without being drafted. My parents are happy they can continue their jobs without being infringed upon. But what about the situations which really need change, or at least a discussion about change? Health care, the economy, abortion and countless other issues are the main topics of the public forum but not the political forum. Unfortunately there is not just one cure to this lack of improvement in the government. Today there are three factors which maintain the politics of the status quo. The three unmovable pillars are the politicians, the media and the voters. While this may seem very general, it truly does cover the scope of political impotence in this country.

The role of politicians in this country is greatly changing. With the widespread access to television and the internet, the President is no longer the only politician the public can see. More and more these days Senators and Congressman appear on news shows, CSPAN or the internet to share their views and make their presence known. The reality is, they really aren’t saying anything new. Today politics has devolved from quick thinking idealists to talking heads. The beginning of this movement occurred after the famous 1960 debates between then presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. These were the first televised debates between candidates presidential and over 70 million people tuned in (Allen). Over the course of four debates, topics ranged from domestic issues to Cuba to international relations in general. However, what appeared to be more important was how the candidates looked. Nixon was about twenty pounds underweight, wore a shirt which was too big and refused to wear makeup. On camera, he looked uncomfortable, had a 5 o’clock shadow and thought about his answers before he responded. Across from him was the younger, tanner, more charismatic Kennedy who delivered his answers with much more authority and confidence. To the people watching at home, Kennedy had won the first debate by a wide margin. However, to those listening on the radio, Nixon was the clear winner (Allen). It became evident to anyone who studied politics that there was going to be a new way to do things. No longer would politicians come up with answers on the spot, but instead go to prepared dialogues which have been rehearsed and fine-tuned to sound the best. Even more important is how the candidates look and act. This is personified by the presidential debates between John McCain and Barack Obama. Questions by moderators simply became props for which topic to begin the monologue with. Not one thing was said anyone would not have been able to find by going to the respective candidate’s website. The candidates were no longer talking to each other, they were talking to the camera.

Before politicians can even get to the point where they can have a debate, they must set themselves up for election or reelection. As a result, there is a new dynamic of stratification in the political system causing politicians to be only on the very left or the very right. When you think about it, this system makes sense leading up to elections. In order for a candidate to win an election they must shore up their base because it is a lot easier to convince Republicans to vote Republican while Democrats vote for other Democrats. This means Republicans need to make sure the most conservative support them, while the Democrats need the most liberal to support them. No matter what, Republicans will always be criticized by the more liberal groups, but as long as all the registered republicans and some of the conservative independents vote for them, they are fine. However, when a moderate candidate enters the ring, they are criticized by both the far right (conservative) and the far left (liberal). As a result, the moderate candidate will struggle to find an ally which can match the power of Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh. Instead, the moderate candidate gets beat out by the more traditional guy, the one which can rally all the Democrats or Republicans around them. Unfortunately, this model will perpetuate itself. As more and more politicians on the extreme right or left enter office, they support even more politicians who are similar to them. The wedge between right and left is growing, and will continue to grow. Even worse, this means any chance of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans becomes less likely. Instead, candidates will vote down party lines in order to be accepted by their constituency. Today there is hardly any reason for a politician to take chances and do something which goes against the party norms. For all the media outlets the politician could go on to talk about their action, just as many (if not more) could be mobilized to condemn the action as a breach in ideas and ideals. The power the media holds is quickly growing to define what a politician can and cannot do, encouraging the government to maintain its status quo.

The media is in a unique position. Today, they are the primary connection between the politician and the voter. Ultimately this means they are the ones with the discretion of what to show and what not to show. This brings up the question of where the media falls politically. It is widely known that CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times tend to be more liberal while Fox News, the Washington Times and Rush Limbaugh are more conservative. However, it is no coincidence that one outlet favors one side or another, but is instead decided on. Currently there are between nine and five companies which control 90% of the media (McChesney). Executives of Time Warner, Viacom, TCI and other companies determine their programming not only for news shows, but for newspapers, internet websites and more. As a result, news gets slanted depending on the show you are watching. CNN may praise President Obama for the recent Economic Stimulus Bill while Fox News condemns the action as socialism. But wait, is this really a bad thing? At least now there is a diversity of information, maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle of all the different news shows. To that point I say both yes and no.

If a person were to watch two different news channels, read two different newspapers and maybe even talk to two friends who have opposing views, that person may be able to diagnose and define what they believe is correct and incorrect independently. Even something as small as flipping between the different news channels once in a while could prove beneficial to the average American. However, most people don’t do that, instead they do the exact opposite. If a person is a Democrat, they will nearly always watch a liberal news show, while the opposite is true for Republicans and conservative news shows. People tend to prefer to listen to information they agree with and will reaffirm their views as correct. Now that people are watching slanted news shows, their views continue to become stronger and stronger, all the while diverging farther and farther from the center. This phenomenon correlates closely with the media’s tendency to tell the viewer what to think. Whenever there is a debate, press conference and anything in between, news outlets immediately tell the viewers how to feel. Less emphasis is placed on the viewer to diagnose what was said or even take an interest in the issues. Instead the newscasters say what happened, further removing the individual from the political process. This past Presidential election most people knew Barak Obama was against the war in Iraq while John McCain supported it. However, few knew what the plans of either candidate were and if they were really going to support what they said. Issues like the war, healthcare and the economy become central issues because the media defines them as such. As a result, more attention is paid to these decisive issues which the politicians themselves have no intention on compromising. To help show viewers what they want to see, the media quickly replace investigative reporting with fluff sessions of politicians sharing their monologue and accepting applause. The media has no problem with this because it keeps people happy and increases ratings. These same people they are trying to keep happy are the third and final reason why the government has yet to change.

In this country, voting is one of the most important duties we have as citizens. When you think about it, it really is a simple process. Think about who you think should be in charge and then vote for that person. The truth is the process is much more complex than that. With the current two party system, it is either a win or a loss, no middle ground. Because of the influence from the media, voters are already biased towards one candidate or another, not necessarily because of the issues. Another factor is the social interaction of the voter. Generally, people tend to interact with people who are similar to them and who they get along with, very similar to people watching news channels they agree with. Once this group of like minded people form there also forms a groupthink mentality, which means the individuals in the group will want to agree with the rest of the group in order to conform. By nature, groupthink produces a narrow viewpoint among members all trying to fit in the group, not allowing for a lot of room to look at the other side of issues. As a result, voters may have trouble seeing issues from the other side and overall have a lack of respect for the opposition. The idea of “lack of respect” is seen throughout politicians and the media but really gets personified within the masses of people. Because your party can only be the winner or the loser, there is pressure to explain your view to the opposite side. However, any kind of spirited political discussion will make people think less about working together and more about how “I am right and you are wrong.” When voters walk into a debate with the preconceived notion that they are right, that person will only strengthen their ideas as they get more and more frustrated at how wrong the other side is. Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for so long that any kind of cooperation by a politician is viewed as a loss. For example, President Obama made the claim he was going to cooperate with Republicans when devising the Economic Stimulus Package in February of this year. However, Republicans were quickly shut out as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with their staff overnight to draft a bill and put it up to vote the next day, providing Republicans less than five hours to review the 758 page bill (Hayes). Bipartisanship only works up until the time the other side disagrees with you. For these reasons registered party members gain a gang mentality, being for the party or against the party. With everyone already accepting what the common views are among the party and not bothering to try to convince the other side, why bother discussing the issues at all? The other party would not understand, your party already knows the answer, no need for discourse. Today, the current political system encourages voters not to ask questions. The more predictable the voter, the smoother the election.

Because of the combined inadequacy of the politicians, the media and the voters, there will not be any sort of change or solutions in the government but instead a perpetual status quo. Politicians will continue to split down party lines and discourage failure to support their party. It should be in everyone’s best interest to support the United States, not the political party which claims to be better adept at supporting the United States. Political Parties are not just a cancer which is synonymous with the government, it is a whole way of looking at issues and knowing you are “correct.” The term Red States and Blue States was established by the media in order to generalize how whole states vote for politicians. It disregards the diversity of each state and places a label on it corresponding to one party or another. Simply, the Democrats win one state while the Republicans win another. This glorified checker game enforces the culture of Red vs. Blue among people across the country. In order to break the chains of political parties and try a no party system, there would have to be a major shift in culture and business. In my opinion, there are three major movements which must occur in order to have a nonpartisan system.

First, the people will have to question their own positions. Currently there is no middle ground between Democrats and Republicans, ether there is a yes or a no to an issue. By voters making an effort to compromise and discuss the different sides of issues, party lines become blurred. By no means does this suggest everyone should become a political science major, but instead asks people to question common sense. Political parties act as a crutch, allowing more people to become involved in politics by telling them who to vote for. We will never be rid of this crutch if we do not learn to stand on our own. Everyone will have to take a little bit of responsibility and respect the fact that good solutions are what count, not who the person is who happens to write it down. Also, by engaging in more discourse among people it becomes possible to respect opposing views more. Politics does not have to be the violent sport it is made out to be. If more people in this country stand up, it is possible to redefine how the political system is viewed and respected.

Second, bipartisan or third party local governments will have to become a viable option. To put it simply, it is a lot easier to change a town than a state. In this country, there will not be increased cooperation between political parties until it happens in the smaller political systems. From here, people would be able to see how politics could work and expect as much from Congress and the President. Plus, many local politicians continue on to office in Washington and would take their ideas of cooperation with them. It really sounds like a too-good-to-be-true situation, but the reality is political parties will be around as long as people rely on them. Once they lose their grip on a generation of thinkers, politicians and voters, the political system may see some change.

Finally, the media will have to do more investigating and ask questions. All too common today is the dumbed-down reporting of what the politician already said, is about to say or is in the process of saying. Instead, correspondents should be actively working to hold politicians to a higher standard. Actual questions that do not get answered by the usual monologues, questions that make politicians think would show who they are. The media is the gateway between the politicians and the voters, the link which is essential for an election. If the news corporations squander their duties by merely parading politicians in front of us and praising them, we are all doomed.

In order to break free from a government dominated by political parties it is necessary these three changes occur. Overall, these three factors have a commonality in the sense of responsibility. Responsibility among citizens is what can redefine this country, change the dialogue into something constructive and meaningful. Only when people begin putting solutions ahead of differences will we be rid of political parties in this country. For this reason, after analyzing our current system of government, I am confident this will never happen. We will continue to be enfeebled by the grip of political parties as long as we have a democracy. Quite simply, people as a whole will never become responsible enough to consider their choices to a degree where compromise is an acceptable option. Group after group of likeminded individuals will continue to form simply because people like to be with others similar to themselves. Politicians will continue to pander for the most votes, caring less about what exactly is said and more about how it is said. Media companies will expand their growth and infiltrate more and more aspects of our lives. With all these obstacles, I do not believe the American people will be able to overcome this set of challenges. Don’t get me wrong, our government will continue to function, but merely in the same sense that human beings only use 10% of their brains.

Many say they are confident with the current system of government. After all we are one of the most powerful countries in the world, we have a relatively high standard of living and enjoy freedom, so what’s the problem? To that person I remind them of the situation in our economy. When times were good, no one cared how money was being made. Selling mortgages to people who could not afford them was fine and seemed like a new smart idea. It had been going on for years before any problems arose. However, once the mortgages exploded and effectively neutered the economy the question quickly became “how could anyone let something like this happen?” The truth is when things are going well there is not a lot of motivation to change. Even today we are in the midst of a financial crisis. Despite this economic doomsday, the majority of the country is doing just fine. There is no hyperinflation, no 25% unemployment and we are still eating three meals a day. It is not until something severe happens that the status quo is changed. Because of this I have one final prediction; there will be no significant change in this country until there is a major catastrophe or cataclysmic event. I am not saying anything like September 11th or Hurricane Katrina, but something worse. Consider that the Federalist Party disbanded only after they supported the British in the War of 1812, in which the United States was invaded. About fifty years later, the Whig party was dispersed as members split into north and south factions right before one of bloodiest wars in history, the Civil War. With a political system so structured around money and power, only an event which engulfs America as a whole could possibly disrupt the status quo. September 11th and Hurricane Katrina were only regional disasters which effected the majority of the country through political rhetoric, not necessarily danger or fear. There was no threat of Russia or Afghanistan taking us over, no nuclear holocaust or anything which perpetually changed the American psyche. Instead, September 11th caused an increased focus beyond our border. Even today, few people are worried about becoming the target of another terrorist attack. Just to clarify, I am not proposing a drastic event in order to change the country. I am instead saying that the event that will change us will shake us to the core, snapping the average US citizen out of the doldrums and into the era of responsibility. However, if an event like this occurred, it is possible the country you are looking at afterwards is a very different America.

Until then, political parties serve as an easy way for politicians to gain popular support. They are widely encouraged by the media and accepted by the public, cementing themselves in the political landscape. Unfortunately, the closest any of us will come to a nonpartisan environment is talking with a rival over the dinner table. I only hope there are some politicians out there who care more about getting results then being accepted by their party. That is, if the party does not kick them out before any work can get done. Just as L.A. is paralyzed by the scope of gang violence, so too is Washington. No guns or spray paint are used but instead money and influence are exchanged. Voters become commodities while politicians become scarecrows in suits. The grand checker game continues between Democrats and Republicans, and will keep going until the most illogical conclusion can be devised. For now, pick your party. They are here to stay.

Works Cited

Allen, Erika Tyner. "THE KENNEDY-NIXON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, 1960." The Museum of Broadcast Communications.
The Museum of Broadcast
Communications. 5 Apr 2009

Hayes, Hank. "Roe lines up with GOP to oppose stimulus." Timesnews. 14 Feb 2009. 4 Apr 2009

McChesney, Robert. "The Global Media Giants." Dec 1997. 4 Apr 2009

Washington, George. “George Washington’s Farewell Address 1796.” Yale Law School, Avalon Project. 5 May 2009