Two-Letter Alphabet

[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]

In the United States, unlike many polities, there are only two political parties that anyone pays real attention to – the Democrats and the Republicans. One is abbreviated with the letter D, the other the letter R. Any party or individual lying outside the realm of the Ds and the Rs is deemed at best marginal and at worst an un-American threat. Thus the Democrats and Republicans (and the citizens that empower them) have done a very good job of monopolizing (or is it oligopolizing?) political discourse in this country.

The American political alphabet consists of just two letters – D and R. Yet our full alphabet has 26 letters. How can a mere 2 represent all the opinions out there? In the self-described greatest democracy in human history, we should allow and encourage a broad array of perspectives. Heck, with just D and R there aren’t even any vowels!

To make this worse, let’s recall the conceptual model for American political position – the spectrum, running left to right. Ds and Rs between them claim almost all positions on this scale. But it is one-dimensional. Can all political opinion be summarized in one dimension? We live in three dimensions but are represented and ruled by only one? Instead of a three-dimensional alphabet of 26 letters we have a one-dimensional alphabet of 2 letters. And we wonder why Congress gets such low approval ratings….

Other nations can provide an example to shoot for. To be sure, many are anti-role models, but there are a number, particularly in Europe, which have a multiplicity of respected and mainstream political parties. Even Venezuela, a supposed locus of ill, has sprinted far ahead of the United States in terms of political inclusion, as I witnessed in their many-partied election in November 2008. Why don’t Americans note this? The answer is simple: for many Americans, everything outside their borders is a mere footnote, a quaint travel destination with no real importance. This is a second unfortunate cultural characteristic: an overage of feelings of national self-worth that breeds isolationism (cultural, not economic!) and a relative stagnation compared to what could be learned from the rest of the world.

How does all this relate to the dual ecological/nuclear threat? Leadership. The American gaze does not sufficiently take in international issues such as, for example, global climate change, or the human or environmental conditions in which its consumer goods are made, but for this post let’s consider this point secondary to the issue of political leadership. Many citizens look to their elected leaders to guide them in the right direction and to spearhead actions that are beyond the realm of the individual. After all, they are called “leaders.” Yet what if these politicians have a narrow view, or are by our current designs clustered on a one-dimensional political spectrum, and can speak in only two letters?

At this crucial time in human and world history, we the billions of citizens of the world need to be part of a vibrant dialogue representing many different positions, and have elected leaders that reflect this range.   Perhaps solutions to the ecological crisis are to be found through the letter T or B or E or V or a second or third dimension to our political spectrum. For the benefit of all humans and nonhumans it is time to stop “thinking inside the 9 dots.” In the entry Nuclear Weapons – a Reasonable Insanity I criticized the mentality that allows for nuclear weapons, which clearly fits in the range of D and R. A broader political dialogue may bring out alternative ideas, leading to a real debate about the existence of nuclear weapons (not merely which countries are allowed to possess them) and myriad other untapped topics, such as the ecological destruction of the military, or the desirability of having economies based on the production of petroleum-based trinkets. A situation of vibrant debate is not desirable – it is necessary.

May the ideas of leadership in the United States and elsewhere be enunciated with a full alphabet and more than one dimension.