Photo via Brown University
Sometimes when you’re living in a situation it can be impossible to see it as anything other than the only reality. For example, when most U.S. citizens think of democracy, they think of a two-party system competing for dominance, the only democracy we’ve ever known. But what if the two-party system we know is actually the U.S. trapped in the dynamics of the Revolutionary War, unable to understand a world not defined by conflict?
I’ll ask you to recall the fairly famous musical Hamilton. By the start of Act Two, they’ve defeated the “enemy,” the British Empire, and yet the names of the songs remain “Cabinet Battle #1” and contain lyrics such as, “Thomas, we are engaged in a battle for our nation’s very soul.” It’s not necessarily the language you’d expect for a musical that at this point is about building a cohabitational space. Now, I understand that Hamilton can hardly be considered a legitimate source of historical understanding in our nation. I only mention it to give an understanding of how normalized this inherent conflict in the American political system is.
Before anything else, I want to provide you with three key cognitive shifts that Stefan Vetter has identified as necessary for humans to be at war. First, there’s the belief that the enemy embodies evil and that if he is defeated, then life will be good. The second is that taking action against the enemy is considered the path to glory. Finally, anyone who doesn’t agree with public opinion is considered a traitor. I won’t revisit these concepts until later, but I would appreciate you holding them in mind while you read.
I want to begin by tracing the cyclical birth of political parties post-Revolutionary War. Similar to the original conflict fought against the British, U.S. citizens find themselves in this situation of one group of people supporting a vision for a strong government and another group forming in opposition to that first group. These diametrically opposed groups comprise our “political parties.” Let’s begin with the Federalist Party, born out of the fight to defend the Constitution, specifically the Federalist Papers. There were many who feared that this strong central government would lead to authoritarianism and the loss of individual rights but as our first two presidents were Federalists, their concerns were minimized.
Following the earlier mentioned pattern, the anti-federalists weren’t a particularly organized party until the Federalists’ actions while in power gave them something to mobilize against; in this case, the Alien and Sedition Acts. They united behind Jefferson as the Democratic-Republicans and managed to win the election in 1804. I want to call attention to a few interesting things about this victory. One, the Federalists hoped New England would be able to secede and form a Federalist nation, the concern here is not for the United States or its people, but for an ideological victory as realized by universality. Secondly, neither the Federalist Party nor Hamilton—one of its founders—survived for long after this election. There is no cooperation in American political history, there’s victory or death.
The next time established political parties are noted in the United States is after Monroe’s presidency. Under Monroe’s presidency, political parties fell into obsoletion and for the election of 1808, the three candidates—Adams, Jackson, and Clay—were nominated by personal friends. As none of these men stood out from each other on many partisan issues, since there were no parties, votes were so divided that the election had to be decided in the House of Representatives. Here, the friends of Adams and Clay grouped their votes together to elect Adams as president with Clay as his secretary of state. Suffice it to say Jackson and his followers were outraged. Rallying together as a “political party” they swore not to rest until Jackson was elected president. They became known as the Jackson party, denoting Adams supporters as the Administration party. Now we have two new political parties, born not from ideals or a dream for our nation, but out of mistrust of the “other side.”
Surely, however, we as a nation have been able to move past this trite fight. You would like to believe that. But you would be false in doing so. Let’s take a meander through the platforms of the RNC and the DNC. The RNC’s platform reads, “As the left attempts to destroy what makes America great, the Republican Party is standing in the breach to defend our nation and way of life.” Here we see the dynamic of one group centering themselves around the strength of the American government and “traditional” way of life. Now the DNC platform reads, “Above all, Democrats still believe in the American idea…We know that four more years of the crass, craven, corrupt leadership we have seen from Donald Trump and the Republican Party will damage our character and our country beyond repair.” Here we have a political party centering opposition to the other side’s authoritarian tendencies breaching the libertarian ideals of America.
And now I would like you to recall the three cognitive shifts necessary for entrance into war that I listed earlier. I argue that the behavior of Democrats and Republicans in the United States as embodied in the DNC and RNC serve to keep Americans trapped in the cognitive space of conflict. Both the DNC and the RNC paint the other as the destruction of America, with them standing in defense. By doing your part and supporting your party, you’re doing your part to defend America, gaining glory through civic duty. Finally, as elections approach and it becomes necessary to consolidate votes to ensure victory, it ceases to matter if you’re voting for an Independent candidate for the same ideological basis your friend is voting Democrat; the only thing that matters is you’re allowing a potential Republican victory and betraying your party.
For comparison, I want to look at Norway, as it’s ranked the number one democracy in the world. Up to this point, we’ve been focusing on the election of presidents, we will now focus on the battle for control of the House of Representatives. In contrast, Norway’s multi-party Parliamentary system encourages coalition governments and prevents any party from gaining a majority, lessening feelings of victory or domination. Currently, there are nine political parties in Norway that hold seats in Parliament, each of which has a distinct platform with clear ideals and goals. I won’t list them out here, but I will provide a comparison of Norway’s political parties on a political compass (Figure 1.1) and the candidates from three U.S. elections (Figures 1.2,3,4). Norway’s parties are mapped onto a compass that places conservative economic policies on the right and liberal on the left with conservative governmental policies on the bottom and liberal on the top. For the U.S. candidates, the economic axis is the same but authoritarian government practices are placed on the top and liberal on the bottom.
As you can see, at any given time a variety of people’s issues are given voice in the government. In the American system, you’re fighting for the victory of a candidate who, despite representing your party, may not even agree with you ideologically. As Democrats and Republicans, Americans don’t fight for any particular goal, they simply fight each other. This dynamic is even seen in our voting system. While Norway’s proportional representation system allows every party who receives votes seats in Parliament, America’s Single Member District Plurality system leaves people voting for individuals competing for a single seat. This encourages larger, geographically centered parties, as seen in the Democrats and Republicans.
To begin remedying this and building a nation that can allow the American people to thrive, I argue for the necessity of Transitional Justice. It’s based on the idea that after a war or similar conflict, a country and its people must work together to recover and rebuild their country. Through both judicial and nonjudicial methods a society has to confront its past and own its crimes, providing the necessary healing and retributions to both victims and perpetrators in order to build a cohesive nation that can move together into the future. The U.S. is a fundamentally fractured nation and will continue to repeat the same toxic dynamics until we address our oppressive history and embrace the fact that the soul of our nation does not lie in the infrastructure that constructs it, but in the people that fill it. And note here that I include all people. My argument for a greater acceptance of beliefs requires the prerequisite of equal respect for everyone and should not be used to defend hatred as that is not a political belief but a character flaw.
Rather than fighting for control of our nation’s soul, return power, respect, and dignity to our nation’s soul, its people, and communities. Pay retributions to those who’ve spent generations suffering under the oppression of the U.S. Government and dedicate time and resources to bolstering America’s communities. Acknowledge the atrocities that have been committed by both the American government and its white citizens, and accept responsibility so that future growth is possible. If we allow people to understand their needs during a time of peace, a government that preserves peace and allows for the recognition and coexistence of many voices will be more possible.
Human reality is not something that is just experienced but something that people interact with and construct daily. As we carry these wartime attitudes preserved through our political system, we learn to see our world as a battleground, we create a reality of war. We need to gaze upon what we’ve been taught is reality and learn to see where it falls apart.
This article was edited by Sarah Davey.