"Republicans, Democrats–they’re all the same."

This is an idea which many people who are “Independents” subscribe to. Indeed, the Republican party’s efforts to influence them notwithstanding, the Tea Partiers seem to feel this way. “The Republicans and Democrats are the same–they don’t represent us.” they might say.

It’s an extremely tempting idea for someone like me. I used to be a staunch, party-line, hardcore Republican. If George W. Bush did it, it was good, I thought; and the focus of all my political discourse was keeping those damn Democrats out of office. This ended around 2004, when I sort of understood that the whole Iraq War thing really wasn’t working out like Bush had said it would.

Once you quit being a rabid partisan, though, it becomes hard to just go join the other side outright. Once you realize that your side didn’t have all the answers, it becomes very hard to fall back into believing some other side has all the answers. I think all independents feel instinctively that it is incredibly unlikely that everything one party proposes is good, and all the other party proposes is bad, and the only reason there is any debate is because of the bad party’s propaganda. This is the scenario that you must buy into to be a partisan.

There seem two ways of dealing with the realization that Republicans vs. Democrats is not Absolute Good vs. Absolute Evil. Way 1 is to become an aggressive “centrist”. These are people who are not happy unless we have achieved “bipartisanship” on absolutely every bill, and that Republicans and Democrats working together can build a better future through compromise. Their philosophy is that the best solution to any problem must lie somewhere “in the middle” halfway between the Republican plan and the Democrat plan.

These Centrists are extremely useful to Rabid Partisans. Let’s say a Democrat proposes something that is “too far to the Left”. The Centrists will urge him to cooperate and make it “more centrist’. This is useful to Rabid Partisans in the Republican party, because they can say: “So-and-so the Centrist said ‘this idea is too radical’. And we know he’s not a Rabid Partisan like us, because in the past he told us our plans were ‘too radical.'”

Then there a lot of people who pursue Way 2, which is basically to say that Republicans and Democrats are the same, and neither represent the People. The argument here is basically that both Parties are so dreadfully corrupt that it would be best to get rid of them and start over. The people who feel this way generally seem to identify themselves as “Libertarians”, though other parties pop up now and then.

 The biggest problem with this dislike of both parties is that it seems to attract a lot of conspiracy theory people for some reason. Once it occurs to you that neither party is wholly representative of what you want; it isn’t too much of stretch to start wondering just how far their willing to go to maintain their power. This crowd is also probably making something of a mistake in assuming that everybody in the Republican and Democratic parties actually is a Rabid Partisan. Most of them actually aren’t; it’s just that the Rabid Partisans are the most vocal, the most visible, and have more power than is probably safe.

That being said, I can definitely understand the allure of being in with the cynical people. It’s easy to see that the political system has flaws that make both of the parties gravitate towards certain behavior. On a more primitive level, it’s always fun to be rebelling against The System. The cynical/disillusioned folks are correct in their assessment that the parties are in fact very much conditioned by a Washington-insider mentality that is not entirely to the people’s benefit, but what they do not realize is that it is not by some cruel accident that the system works this way. It evolved over time that the two parties behave the way they do.

The Centrists are correct in that they don’t condemn both parties’ ideas as wrong. Where they go astray, I think, is in assuming that on each and every issue, the best solution is to be found at the exact middle. There is no middle on many of the issues that separate the parties; particularly abortion and homosexual rights issues. On other issues, especially economic and environmental ones, there may in fact be a middle; but the Rabid Partisans do their best to obfuscate it and brand their way as the only way.

It’s easy, then, to become disillusioned with both parties and decide that neither represents what you want. That’s true. But it’s not because the people who run parties are simply uncaring bastards. (Though they probably are.) It’s because to have the wherewithal to actually run a campaign, a degree of teamwork is necessary; and therefore parties must make their platforms appeal to broad swaths of the country. Platforms are based on aggregates of opinion that nobody totally agrees with except for Rabid Partisans, who only agree with it because it has the seal of their party on it.

I’ve always felt like the cynical “neither party works for me” attitude had something slightly wrong with it, and I think I might understand it: It’s not practical, in a country this large and diverse, to actually make a political party that is simultaneously large enough to compete in a meaningful way and appeal to my own personal world view. So, even if we could break up the political establishment and disperse the rabid Partisans to the asylums they belong in, the system as we know it today would necessarily reappear in much the same form after a relatively short time.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?