These days, it’s not enough to say your political opponent is wrong. You have to say he or she has bad intentions. This “the opposition is evil” narrative is effective for winning elections but not helpful for running a democracy. Here are three reasons why.
First, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t have to seriously consider where they might be right and where we might be wrong — and we all have to be wrong about something, right? Democracy’s strength is based on the so-called “wisdom of the crowds” — that a diverse group of people will, collectively, come up with a better answer for societal problems than a monolithic group, even of experts. If the “government is always bad” crowd always got its way, we would never have had Social Security or the legal protections provided to minorities after the civil rights movement. If the “government can solve our problems” crowd got its way too often, the government would never stop growing.
Second, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t have to consider the root causes of problems. Just vanquish the villains, and everything will be OK — just like on TV. Well, not exactly. The past 13 years have been one of the most fiscally irresponsible eras in American history. We’ve had government by Republicans, government by Democrats, and divided government. The results have been largely the same — big spending and more debt.
Getting rid of President Barack Obama won’t change that any more than getting rid of President George W. Bush did. They are merely symptoms of a larger disease that has infected the entire society: We demand more government than we are willing to pay for. Until Americans confront their own responsibilities and stop blaming one side or the other, that disease will fester.
Third, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t give anyone else a chance. The two major parties have manipulated Americans into believing that the other side is so bad that we have no choice but to vote against them. It’s called the “spoiler effect.” We must vote for the Republican or Democrat we hate the least lest we inadvertently contribute to the election of the other party — even though there’s a third candidate we actually prefer.
The result is that the two parties have assured their own continued elections even as more Americans express their disgust with them and consider themselves independent. No one outside the two major parties can be competitive — much less have their ideas heard.
It’s really a neat deal for the two major parties. They trade seats every few years, but ultimately they stay in power.
And that simply contributes to the cycle — the two parties have less reason to consider where they might be wrong, and they don’t have to consider the root causes of problems. Why would they? They keep winning.
Potential reforms would improve the system. Instant runoff voting, for example, allows voters to rank the candidates from most agreeable to least — ideally, minimizing the spoiler effect. Australia does that in its House of Representatives.
Ultimately, though, no reforms can overcome a citizenry that allows itself to be manipulated. We get the government we deserve, and if we allow either of the two parties to convince us to vote for them merely because the other side is evil, then we’ll reap the results of our laziness. For the past 13 years, those results have been debt, war, a stagnant economy and bailouts without responsibility — regardless of who’s been in power.
Some people are evil, but not many. Some people are wrong a lot of the time, but few people are wrong all of the time. Nobody is right all the time.
But not seriously confronting our problems is always wrong. Not necessarily evil, but definitely wrong.
Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist, a former newspaper editor, and a former aide to former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org