Verner: Two-party system fuels duel of words

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 30, 2011

It was just wonderful to see Republicans and Democrats sitting side-by-side at the State of the Union address, appearing hopeful if somewhat tense, like eHarmony subscribers on a first date. I’m also heartened to hear lawmakers are so concerned about boorish behavior in Washington, lobbyists delivering campaign cash to Capitol Hill must henceforth wear white cotton gloves and carry fresh, unmarked bills in lead-free, hemp bags hand stitched by Charles Rangel and Tom DeLay.
We could all do with more decorum and politeness in the world. I promise to fulfill my part by no longer fantasizing about leveling a flamethrower at anyone who dares criticize pearls of wisdom I’ve generously decided to share with readers of the Post’s editorial page. Bless their hearts, my critics can’t help the fact that they’re burdened with the intelligence level of a Brillo pad and the sensibilities of a bar of soap. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, no matter how idiotic it may be.
Furthermore, I promise that the next time someone approaches my house to sell me leafless gutters, upgraded windows, vinyl siding, new garage doors or magazine subscriptions, I will resist the urge to crank up the theme from “The Exorcist” and appear at the door dressed in a hooded cassock while caressing a freshly sharpened scythe. Unless it’s Halloween, or I just happen to be in a particularly upbeat mood.
In other words, I’m on board with the program for a kinder, gentler America.
Still, before this political peace train leaves the station, a little reality check is in order. The Democratic-Republican, left-right, conservative-liberal division in our nation is one of history’s great rivalries — better even than Packers vs. Bears, Red Sox vs. Yankees, Duke vs. Carolina or even “tastes great” vs. “less filling.” Do you really want to stifle that fervor, leaving us with the political equivalent of the NFL’s Pro Bowl? Sure, the fans may behave themselves, but does anybody really care about the outcome? If you want a polite gallery, stick with the PGA tour.
The two-party system has served us well throughout our history, primarily because it makes it easy to identify the enemy. We Americans are a strong-willed, decisive people. We believe in our own exceptionalism, which means we take exception to anyone who disagrees with us. We have little patience for complexity or nuanced debate, especially when it comes to politics, foreign policy or scheduling school makeup days. We prefer true or false quizzes to multiple choice tests; favor bold black and white over nimby-pimby gray. That’s essentially why, even though we may occasionally engage in dalliances with third-party movements, it’s inevitably a fling rather than an enduring romance. We’re not a mathematically inclined nation. Once we count past two, things tend to get fuzzy. Why make it harder to pick sides?
With only two major parties, democracy is a brilliantly simple affair. You simply choose your home team and then begin demonizing, vilifying and de-legitimizing the opposition. What could be more straightforward?
Admittedly, things have gotten out of hand at times. You may have read about that unfortunate business between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. For the most part, however, since dueling fell out of fashion, our politicians and their loyalists have shown admirable restraint, contenting themselves with character assassination, distortions, lies and innuendo, augmented by the occasional impeachment proceeding and threat to secede from the union. But nothing really out of line.
Overall, this system has served us well — far better, I think you’ll agree, than those insufferably civilized parliamentarian regimes of the Old World where power is often spread among half a dozen or more parties strewn like confetti across the political landscape. Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, anyone?
If we can’t blame all of our problems on the opposition, then we might have to acknowledge the home team also shares blame or doesn’t have all the answers. We might feel obligated to crawl out of our political boxes. We might actually have to start listening to each other, rather than trying to have the last word — and who needs that sort of bother? If our founding fathers had intended that we limit ourselves to civil debate and seek common ground, they wouldn’t have invented talk radio.
So before we get carried away with the idea of consensus-building and bipartisanship, let’s acknowledge our noble political traditions of strife, discord and raging paranoia. It’s fine to cross the aisle and sit with the opposition, but let’s do it for the right reason. You know what they say … keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.