Norman Podhoretz provides one of the most apt descriptions of the differences between progressive and conservative thought that I have yet seen:
“[I]n speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.”
Some might understandably disagree with Podhoretz’s negative framing of ‘liberal’ (i.e. progressive) thinking. It is easy to caricature the opinions of those that think differently than us. But I think that Podhoretz gets the general concept right. One group tends to see mainly those things that they believe need changing while the other group sees mainly those things that they believe need to be defended against change.

There are probably many in each group that don’t necessarily disagree with some of the main concepts of the other group. They just set different priorities on those matters.

Although I suggested in my last post that the vast majority of Americans can be somewhat neatly divided between the two major political parties, each of these parties is actually a large coalition that includes a broad spectrum of viewpoints. I think that it is probably safe to say that in each party, the largest number of people that agree enough to create a power base represent one of the two views expressed above.

But there are enough varied intraparty viewpoints and interests represented that neither party can successfully push 100% for the views of its main faction. When a party rides roughshod over the interests of other significant party factions, it threatens to fracture the coalition, resulting in a diminution of that party’s power. This is part of what happened to the GOP during the Bush years.

Apologists for our two-party system assert that each party provides a winnowing process that excises the most extreme viewpoints, reducing mainline debate to a tug-o-war between center-left and center-right views. Note that the term ‘center’ is always phrased first to suggest generally moderate outcomes that are in the broadest general interests.

Additionally, our two-party system usually creates clear winners and losers. This, it is claimed, provides a clearer mandate and allows our political leaders to accomplish important things. A regular quip goes something like, “You wouldn’t want us to be like Italy, would you?” This implies that multi-party systems such as Italy’s leave the government too weak to “get things done” and create such ambivalence that leadership changes too rapidly to provide continuity.

But given Italy’s experience with its dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s-1940s, perhaps they can be excused for believing that ambivalence in political power is probably a worthwhile tradeoff for the horrors brought on by even a benevolent strong government.

Although our two-party system provides governmental strength, why is it that most Americans seem to be oblivious to the tyranny inherent in such a system? As power is traded between the two major parties, each party tries to outdo the other in accumulation of power. The effect is that power over the lives of the people is continuously expanded; regardless of which party is in power. It matters little that one party claims to stand for ‘limited government.’

I heard part of an interview with David Frum (a prominent Republican conservo-moderate pundit) on the radio yesterday. In response to a question, he said that our two-party system will be with us for a long time to come, and that if you want to accomplish anything politically, it will have to be within that system. I didn’t like Frum’s answer, but I sense that he is correct about this.

Still, I maintain that our two-party system ill serves us. As I mentioned yesterday, it tends to impose two-dimensional thinking that is poorly suited to the complex issues we face. Moreover, the main feature of the system is steady accumulation of power with corresponding reduction of liberty. Almost all of the conflict in this political system serves as nothing more than a tool for distracting the public from this central focus on power. Yet most of us are sheep that obediently play into this deceitful power play.

Do viable solutions to this tyranny exist?

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