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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of October 1 - 7, 2003

Opinion Column

End of the party

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

Increasingly, the two party system we have lived by for all these years resembles more an awfully long pennant race—a particularly rancorous one like the Yankees and Red Sox—rather than a way to organize political thought and instill debate in the political process. Certainly there are still two sides participating in the political process. But they are distinguishable more as a means for keeping score of who is winning and losing than any kind of measure of coherent political thought.

What does it mean exactly to be Republican or Democrat? Traditional points of departure are harder to define than even 20 years ago.

If a president were to impose tariffs (up to 30 percent) on imported steel what would you call him—liberal protectionist? Or, say one that ran the government at deficit of $300 billion—big-government Democrat? Then there’s a president that pledges $15 billion to the Global Fund to fight HIV and AIDS? A bleeding heart Democrat ignoring more pressing concerns at home?

How about a president going to the United Nations looking for money and troops in an effort at—to use the verboten phrase—"nation building"?

We could look at things from the other side as well. What side of the isle would a president fall on if he spent most of his political capital on passing the North American Free Trade Agreement—pro-business, anti-union Republican?

Or what about a politician arguing in the Supreme Court about election law and federalism? Is it in keeping that a Democrat argues for states’ rights? This, of course, is a reference to the presidential election of 2000. Were not the parties on the wrong sides of their political fences?

In one regard the lines have blurred between the parties. They cross over, appropriate each other’s issues, triangulate the voters.

This is not to say there aren’t still some definable differences between the parties. The balance between environmental protections and business interests still seems to divide the parties fairly predictably. And then there is the incendiary arena of social issues.

But social issues—abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, issues associated with sexuality don’t really sift out in terms of political philosophy but break along religious lines. And this divide isn’t necessarily between the religious and nonreligious. It has more to do with degree of conviction: how fundamentalist in nature one’s faith is.

In simple terms, fundamentalism is strict adherence to the texts of a given religion, whether that text is the Koran, Torah or the Bible. It is to subsume human reason and judgement to the as-written commandments of God, regardless of social, legal or political context.

Of course the religious population in this country is vast and diverse; the number of strict fundamentalists is not that great in relation to the whole. However, the faithful exist on a spectrum, with the fundamentalists on one end and the agnostic on the other.

But it occurs to me that one reason these social issues are so intractable on a political level is they touch on the tender chord of religious conviction—a place where reason and judgment—the tools of political and legal discourse—have little sway. When differing religious views are at the base of an argument rarely is the issue resolved. Debate degenerates into heated emotional invective. Religious and spiritual views—no matter how strong or weak, no matter what kind—are not conducive to political debate, which assumes some degree of compromise in the end. It is rare, and probably oxymoronic, that religious conviction would ever be compromised.

It seems obvious that the framers of the Constitution prefigured this dilemma in their drafting the First Amendment and its call for separation of church and state.

It is also no wonder that many of the social issues mentioned above sooner or later run their course through the political world and end up in the Supreme Court.

But what does all this mean?

It means that the decisions the electorate makes will increasingly be made on factors other than the general political inclinations of a candidate’s party and more on the individual’s character.

To refine the point, consider the Democratic presidential race. Does anyone really expect to distinguish among the gaggle of 10 on political terms?

The candidates triangulate the electorate on just about every issue—of course carefully avoiding the deadly social issues—in order to garner votes of soccer moms and NASCAR dads. In the tangled web of principles the candidates present, what are we left to judge them with but character, and perhaps intelligence.

If we were to throw out the candidates’ stances on all political issues—whether genuine or not—we’d still have plenty to evaluate.

Consider our recent history of presidents. Reagan was certainly a leader with integrity and political acumen, but never seemed to fully grasp the complex issues before him. Bush senior was apparently bright enough for the job, but not a very dynamic, nor charismatic leader. Clinton was intellectually sharp but failed in the integrity department.

So, if we vote purely on qualities that can’t be manipulated by handlers or pollsters—intelligence, integrity, charisma, ability to lead through difficult decisions—we might actually end up with a president we respect and trust.

The danger in this approach to voting is that we might end up voting purely on name recognition. Witness the surge of Schwarzenegger in the California gubernatorial race. How much of his popularity is due to his perceived character traits—leadership, honesty, wits, integrity—and how much is due to the fact that just about everyone in the universe has likely seen at least one of the brawny fellow’s movies?

To appreciate the danger of slipping away from voting on character to voting for a name we recognize, consider a film of Arnold’s that was actually somewhat compelling: "Total Recall." Arnold’s identity flips inside out at more than one point in the movie. Even by the end, we’re not quite sure who is who or was who.

I’d hate to see that happen in California, and even more would hate to see it happen on the national level.

Personality in politics is great—if you have one—and only one.



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