Economic relief packages, infrastructure bills and other legislative proposals continue to fan debate about blowing up the filibuster or making frequent use of budget reconciliation. And then there is the COVID-19 vaccination effort that has markedly slowed because of vaccine hesitancy and access issues, as well as bullheaded devotion to a political stripe that leaves red states with substantially lower rates of vaccination than blue.
With that as a backdrop, fresh eyes can lead to a rethink of politics in America. I experienced this firsthand when my family recently hosted a monthlong stay by a close friend who is an anesthesiologist in the United Kingdom, a former fellow with the National Health Service’s General Medical Council in Scotland and currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of Minnesota.
During the stay, our friend often commented on how in conversations among our family members and in social interactions well beyond, Americans seemed quick to take up political topics. In the U.K., local gossip, goings-on at work or play, or vacations take center stage instead. Also commented on was that, unlike here, those of conservative political persuasion in the U.K. tend to be vaccinated at a much higher rate than those left of center.
The latter might be explained by the fact conservatives across the pond would not even be recognizable to American conservatives, and the former by the fact Europeans generally seem to feel estranged from governance. But is it at all possible the real explanation for both is that politics is conceived of far differently abroad than here?
Democrats and Republicans in America have too much invested in the two-party system to permit anything new. A case can be made that in robust multiparty systems, such as the U.K., the search for a legislative majority necessarily pushes ideologically diverse participants toward compromises needed if government is to work. And because unthinking adherence to a political catechism must thus be given less primacy, the door always remains open for consideration by leaders and led alike of what knowledgeable individuals outside the political sphere have to offer.
Rejected is the winner-take-all mentality seemingly hypnotizing our own two-party system; turning everything into a test of party loyalty; striving only, through every means, after control of all levers of power and opposition to alteration of the status quo.
Given such stakes, is it any wonder Americans appear preoccupied with politics? Isn’t that the only game that really counts? And isn’t the object always to win, and win on your terms alone?
If that means perennially obstructing the opposing party or tearing down norms that tend toward collaboration, so be it. If it means foreswearing vaccination and taking your risks with COVID-19, what better way to authenticate allegiance to your chosen political tribe? If it means turning every encounter with family, friend or acquaintance into an opportunity to hammer home some political point to exhibit shared ideological bona fides, or shame and belittle those who see things differently, what more noble calling could exist?
One thing for sure — life lived on such terms is psychologically exhausting and leaves each of us with a short fuse. No wonder we have rage on the streets, incivility in public settings and Jan. 6.
Admittedly, these cannot all be entirely laid at the doorstep of the political system we’ve chosen. That system, however, seems never completely beyond the gravitational influence of those authoritarian dangers that constantly orbit the overlordship bequeath victors in American elections.