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Behind the Curtain: How Partisanship Is Destroying the U.S. & What You Can Do About It
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." ~ The Wizard of Oz
Your representatives are scared of you. They are scared that you will see through the elaborate display of hyper-partisanship that they’ve concocted since 2001 and see it for what it truly is – political theatre. They are scared that you will peek behind the curtain and realize that there is nothing back there but levers, smoke machines, and a one-way mirror; and that 9 times out of 10, they are working together to advance the interests of their powerful friends in the banking and corporate sectors, at your expense. They are afraid that once you stop buying into their narrative, they will lose their audience, their seats, and their power, and that they will have to resort to serving the people’s interests if they want to remain in office. Your political awakening will complicate matters and will throw a monkey wrench into their whole game plan, so they will do and say almost anything to keep you from peeking behind that curtain; and what’s worked for them is exactly what’s keeping you from exercising your power – partisanship.
A great deal of writing has been dedicated to the absurd hyper-partisanship that has cropped up in America since the tenure of George W. Bush, which has greatly picked up speed and force after the nomination of our first black president, Barack Obama; but no one seems to be offering any viable solutions to this phenomenon. “Vote those idiots out of office!” is a normal response – from ALL sides of the aisle – but clearly not one that addresses the underlying causes of hyper-partisanship; nor how we can, as a people, do something about it. If we expect anyone in office to change the political atmosphere, we’re gonna be waiting a long, long time. Why? Because it’s in their best interest to keep things going just the way they are, while it is in the voter’s best interest that things change.
Has hyper-partisanship hurt the effectiveness of the U.S. government?
Perspective Is the Key
One of most germane purposes of debate and discussion is concession, a reasonable half-way point where most people can meet and from where solutions can be culled. But you can’t get concession unless you are willing to ask questions and to listen to other points of view. If you ask a guy standing outside a building to describe it, you’ll get a way different answer than if you ask the guy inside the closet in the building to do the same; and yet, it’s the same building. The only way to get a clearer picture of any structure is to look at it from all angles, both from within and from without; to understand its inner workings, to know even who owns it, what its maintenance costs are, and what revenue it can bring in. The same goes for a nation. In order to fully understand where our country is today, both domestically and in reference to the international community, we have to take a dispassionate look at our economic position and our fiscal policies, as well as our foreign and domestic policies. In an ever-globalized world, the line between internal actions and external ramifications is blurring. We can either choose our nation’s path moving forward, or we can rely on fate to do it for us. I highly recommend the prior.
Some will argue that there is only so much power the American voter has to affect the course of events; that corporate interests have been allowed to flourish to a level in which “the people’s” interests are dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying efforts major transnational corporations pour into our political system every year. I won’t counter this argument, because I can’t; there is enough evidence to support it. However, I pose a different viewpoint. Americans may not enjoy a great deal of power when it comes to their votes, but there are still many ways in which we can have our voices heard and our needs addressed – namely, our consumerism, and the court of public opinion.
Power Play: Your Money and Your Opinions
The most powerful American vote is the one we make each and every day when we spend our money. Even the most influential corporations are at the mercy of this seemingly small action on our part. Capitalism requires a vibrant consumer base in order to function; in other words, if there are no customers, there’s no business, and no profit. Therefore, the power that Americans wield each and every time they swipe their cards to make a purchase is even more effectual than the ballot they cast every two or four years. In this way, we do get to dictate the corporate policies; why give money to any firm whose business practices are in direct conflict with your ideals, or with the welfare of the American people? If the corporations control our elected officials, it is still our consumerism that controls the corporations. Keeping this in mind is Step #1 to turning things around in our favor.
The second most powerful American vote is the one we cast socially, in the court of public opinion. Who hasn’t heard of a case in which a murderer is found “not guilty” in a court of law, but guilty as sin according to society? And doesn’t society act accordingly, oftentimes making that murderer pay for his or her conduct in a million different ways? Not to beat a dead horse, but any American who remembers the O.J. Simpson trial can attest to this. Favorable public opinion is essential to any government because it legitimizes it; it’s like a “stamp of approval” that all governments seek in order to assure themselves (and others) that they have the consent of the ruled; in order to keep the peace and conduct business as usual. Without it, governments face a multitude of costly and time-consuming challenges and obstacles, from riots and rebellion within the country – such as the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the U.S., as well as the Arab Spring in the Middle East – to international pressure through UN involvement if the administration is found to be egregious in its violations or incompetence. To quote a great 21st century philosopher, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Indeed.
But it’s not only public figures and governments that face this dilemma; corporations do too. On HBO’s Real Time on October 31st, 2014, Bill Maher’s guest Eva Longoria was plugging her documentary about immigrant farmers in the U.S. – Food Chains – explaining her work promoting the new “Fair Food” label and praising those fast food giants and supermarkets that signed on to ensure that their products are provided humanely; but more importantly, she very graciously acknowledged that two giants of the food industry – Publix Supermarkets in Florida, and Wendy’s national fast food joint – had refused to sign onto the initiative. Bill Maher has almost 3 million follower on Twitter alone, so what do you think that Publix and Wendy’s will most likely do in the very near future once public demand chastises them for their non-compliance…?
There are countless examples of how public demand pressures industry to act in more responsible and accountable ways, such as the changes that the McDonald’s Corporation implemented after Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 hit documentary “Super Size Me” educated the masses as to the health risks of eating at the mega-fast food chain; and Mike Wallace’s landmark 60 Minutes interview with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigands in 1996, whose fearless account against Big Tobacco spurred a national anti-smoking campaign that has decreased smoking in the U.S. from 24.7% in 1996, to 18.1% in 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control. And the numbers continue to fall. The court of public opinion has and does affect policy and corporate behavior: keeping this in mind is Step #2 to turning things around in our favor.
And that’s my point. By using our dollars wisely and by vociferously bringing the issues that matter to light through social media as well as social activism (yes, this means getting off your sofa and doing something more than just clicking “Like”), the American voter, the American taxpayer, still wields a considerable amount of power in the United States and the world. So what's stopping us?
"Follow the Money"
The biggest challenge we face in exercising that power stems from our inability to “gel” out efforts; we have sacrificed a great deal of our influence squabbling amongst ourselves and calling each other names, instead of listening to each other and understanding that all sides have valid points that need to be addressed. I posit that hyper-partisanship and the fear-mongering that almost always accompanies it is nothing more than ruse, a distraction aimed at scattering our focus from delving behind the real dangers we face as a nation, to blaming each other over absurd non-issues that only serve to spark endless FaceBook debates, but do nothing to solve our collective problems. How much more of this commotion can the American people afford to entertain?
Emotionally satisfying as it may be to “win” a FaceBook or Twitter debate, to “annihilate” our “opponent” with a witticism or factoid to obliterate our “adversary’s” argument, the truth is that nobody wins anything because in the end, we haven’t gotten any closer to a resolution; because we haven’t gotten one stop closer to getting our point of view heard, which is another purpose of debate and discussion. It’s like baking the perfect cake but marginalizing your potential customers to the point where no one ever even takes a bite of it. If your argument is truly solid, why not market it in a way that will get more people to consider it, even buy into it?
Americans need a basic foundation for constructive debate that will get more of us on the same page. Why? Because it’s in our best interest as a people to do so. Keep in mind, however, that an independent thinking, independent voting populace is a frightening thought for those who profit from a “two-party system.” Clearly there are interests that will resist this idea tooth and nail because, quite frankly, it is in their best interest that we continue to fight amongst ourselves and ignore what they’re up to while we’re doing so; because partisanship keeps politicians in office no matter how incompetent they are, or how corrupt, or how destructive their policies. So yes, there will be many critics and much dissent; but keep in mind that the reasons why you take the time to be politically involved - because you believe in our nation, and you want to ensure its success. Not to "win" arguments on social media.
A Good Start: Six Simple Rules
Here are some simple "rules of engagement" that will help you achieve your goals and cut through the BS to a place where 'we the people' can finally create some solutions:
- Drop the labels. Judge candidates as individuals, on the beneficial repercussions of their voting records; not along party lines. If it's a new candidate without a voting record, then stick to their platform.
- Stick to the facts. We're all entitled to our opinions, but they should be based on real data, not emotional reactions to events, or to prejudices that stem from others' input. Question your position and do the research; whether you will find that the facts back up your viewpoint, or discount it altogether, either way, it will strengthen your argument moving forward.
- Ask questions and listen to the answers. Don't assume you know what the response will be; give the other person the benefit of the doubt and ask them where they stand on issues, and most importantly, why. You might learn something.
- Don't be afraid to change your mind. When we get new information, it is normal to adjust our viewpoint to reflect the facts; don't shy away from this. You are under no obligation to hold the same opinions today that you held when you were 18 years old; likewise, you are free to change your mind tomorrow as well.
- NO PERSONAL ATTACKS. This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it happens way too often. If you have a valid point, make it; if you are challenged, be grateful that you've been given the opportunity to clarify your point to those who may have disagreed with you before. Expletives and name calling isn't going to help you get your point across.
- Highlight how your points serve the needs of those you are addressing. If your argument is truly valid, you should be able to explain how it benefits those who may disagree with you initially. The ability to see the issues from others' point of view will help you see the flaws in your position and to either adjust it, or abandon it altogether.
If you follow these simple rules you will see a major improvement in your political discourse, and you may even surprise yourself and come up with new initiatives that will gain in popularity which you can then confidently present to your local government and federal representatives.
We get the government we show up for. By consolidating our efforts and working together - instead of against each other - we have a better chance of getting a government that will work for the benefit of all Americans. And that's a government we can believe in.