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What If We Got Rid Of Political Parties?

Voters cast their ballots in Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election at a polling site in Sandy Springs, Ga., Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (David Goldman/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Voters cast their ballots in Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election at a polling site in Sandy Springs, Ga., Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (David Goldman/AP)

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The midterm elections are a week away. A rabid Trump supporter is in custody, arrested for attempting to assassinate a dozen of his hero’s most prominent critics, including two former presidents. And another deranged man slaughtered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, inspired by anti-Semetic conspiracy theories promoted by right-wing extremists. It’s the sort of historical moment when most leaders would be calling for unity and calm. Our president is busily stoking tribal passions.

He does this because it’s in his nature, but also because it’s effective politics. Nothing mobilizes Americans more than invoking the evil of the other party.

In fact, political prejudice has become our most accepted form of bigotry. Back in the 1950s, only 10 percent of voters had negative feelings toward the opposing party. That number now stands at 90 percent.

What today’s voters see is not a candidate, or a set of policy proposals, but a party affiliation (Republican vs. Democrat), a political label (conservative vs. liberal), a symbolic color (red vs. blue).

But imagine a world without such labels.

Without the convenient labels and stereotypes to rely on, voters would be forced to assess their ballots without bias.

Yes, I know how far-fetched this sounds, given the death grip of our two-party duopoly. That’s why I used the verb imagine. I’m asking you to imagine what would happen if we didn’t have this partisan shortcut to rely on, this reflex to root for a blue wave or a red tide.

Here’s my hunch: we’d wind up focused much more on policy.

Because politicians are actually supposed to be advocates for particular policy remedies, not tribal representatives.

Without the convenient labels and stereotypes to rely on, voters would be forced to assess their ballots without bias.

We would have to figure out (for instance) where each candidate stands on gun control. What, if any, gun control measures do they support? Universal background checks? A ban on assault rifles? Do they accept money from the NRA? If so, how much?

Same with health care. Do they support the Affordable Care Act? If not, what legislation have they voted for, or supported? Does this legislation have provisions that guarantee pre-existing conditions will be covered? Do they support the expansion of Medicare?

How do they feel about climate change? Do they support the findings of the U.N.’s new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warns of catastrophic effects as soon as 12 years from now if humans don’t seek to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? Do they support the deregulation and expansion of oil drilling, and fracking? Or do they favor renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar?

Do they support policies that will make higher education free, or more affordable, for students? Do they have proposals to help students contend with loan debt?

What are their ideas when it comes to tax policy? Do they believe taxes should be increased on top earners and corporations, or further reduced? What about lower-income earners? How do they feel about government deficits?

Given our hyper-partisan moment, this stuff might sound kind of wonky. But elections are supposed to be a contest of ideas.

Politicians can always lie about their ideas and policy positions. Many enthusiastically do. But this pattern of deception is enabled by a style of media coverage that focuses more on “partisan division” and strategy (and fundraising and name calling) than on what the candidates actually want to do once in office.

... elections are supposed to be a contest of ideas.

With closer scrutiny, lying about policy stances actually gets harder.

In a world without labels, candidates would be forced to appeal more to common sense and problem solving than tribal prejudice and partisan attacks.

Even if this reality seems remote at the moment, individual voters still have the power to reject binary thinking.

That power resides in our ability to turn away from labels and inflammatory tweets and yowling pundits, to reject the notion that we’re voting for a partisan. We should be voting, instead, for the candidates whose policy proposals most closely align with our values and goals.

That’s not a pipe dream, folks. It’s the essence of democratic accountability.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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