I can choose between 180 channels on my television, 170 stations on my satellite radio, 10,000 books at my local bookstore, and millions of blogs on the internet. But on my ballot I have only two real choices. I can vote for a Democrat or I can vote for a Republican.
As divisive as politics can be, nothing else has such power to unite our nation.
Chances are that you don't watch the same television shows, listen to the same music, or attend the same concerts as your neighbors. In the 1950s, if you lived in Green Bay, you rooted for the Packers, just like everyone else in Wisconsin. Now, with satellite broadcast, if you live in Green Bay, your favorite football team could be Manchester United.
But in electoral politics you are forced to choose between the two dominant political parties. (Other parties are listed on a ballot but the choice is still effectively limited to the two major parties.) Whether you are a neo-Marxist, a Great Society liberal, or a Clinton-esque centrist, a theocratic Dominionist, a Russell Kirk conservative, or a socially liberal libertarian, your choice of parties is limited to the Democrats or the Republicans. You may be choosing nothing more than the lesser of two evils—a Beelzebub rather than a Lucifer—but in making the choice you are banding together with others of varying degrees of unanimity.
This is not to say that such unity is positive or can be used to good effect. In this case, I believe it is neither. Conservatives often scoffed at the political left’s deranged hatred of George W. Bush. Yet such raw emotion and focused animosity had an incredible ability to unite divergent factions within the Democratic Party. Now the same animosity toward Barack Obama is bringing together the fractious factions of the Right.
This unity in hatred does illustrate, though, the power that electoral politics can have binding an otherwise fragmented culture. It may lead to greater unity and friendlier relations in other areas of life—ironically, just because political differences matter so much.
Most of the choices we mmake we make in private and they affect other people, if at all, only indirectly. If I buy coffee at Dunkin Donuts rather than Starbucks, my choice has only a negligible economic impact and a statistically insignificant effect on your life. Even if millions of people choose Dunkin Donuts, their choice will not—unless you own stock in Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks—make much difference to you personally.
Political choices are different. My vote may be statistically insignificant but millions of people voting like me can change your life. You have a stake in my choice and therefore have more incentive to voice your opinion in the hope of confirming or changing it. This provides us a reason to engage and interact, even if we have nothing at all in common.
This is an admittedly thin thread for binding together a nation as diverse as ours. But just like a spider's web, the web of electoral politics is composed of fine threads that are surprisingly strong and elastic.
There are two reasons that this thin but durable thread of unity in political argument is important. First, a diverse nation needs to find common ground on which it can meet—even if it's only ground on which to argue. The argument itself requires and encourages not only shared concerns but shared values: a desire for the common good, for example, and some broadly agreed definitions of what that common good is, or at least the desire to argue over the definition.
Second, the clash of views often leads to discussion of other interests and topics. Liberals who come to this site to disagree with our writer's political views often find themselves engrossed in debates on cultural and religious issues as well.
Whether we find ourselves in disagreement or in harmony, in serious political argument we invariably find out more about other people than we otherwise would have done. We come to debate narrow political topics and leave knowing more than we did, not only about the issues, but about those with whom we are arguing and about the world we share.
It may not be much. Often the arguments will shed a lot more heat than light on the issues we were arguing about. Often that heat will burn. But in a nation of choices, where we can narrowcast our way past our neighbors, we need to find something that we have in common.
Addendum on Third Parties: Casting a “protest” vote for third-party candidates is essentially casting a vote for the major party you like the least. For example, say you prefer the Democrats to the Republicans but vote for the Green Party candidate. Since the Green candidate will not win, your vote effectively reduces the vote for the Democratic candidate (your second favorite choice) by one.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.