Coke vs. Pepsi

Several years ago I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher which featured among its guests Michael Moore, Ralph Nader and former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell. In that episode Maher and Moore pleaded (literally) with Nader to not run in 2004 and dilute the Democratic vote, as he had in 2000.

I don’t know if it was intentional that they had Campbell on, or if she just happened to be hanging around the studio that day, but she brought some Canadian perspective to the discussion, specifically the benefits of having more than two parties.

American politics are so radically polarized that nuance and reasonable compromise seem hopelessly outdated concepts. There are two parties: Democrats and Republicans. You vote for one or the other. You believe one or the other, regardless of what they’re saying or doing. Many times even your preferred news network favours one or the other.

Based on my observations, rational political discourse in the US is all but vanished. Sound argument is a waste of time. Neither party spends time saying what they think is right; what’s important is contradicting the other guy. Politician A can spend his whole career saying the sky is blue; if their opponent politician B suddenly says the sky is blue (no doubt claiming some sort of unique insight for being able to make such a determination), politician A will surely claim the sky is red.

To wit: Cash for Clunkers. In case you don’t know, Cash for Clunkers is an American program offering consumers rebates on new cars when they trade in a much older model. Essentially it’s an economic stimulus program which benefits troubled American car manufacturers and helps the environment (to a limited degree, anyway) by taking inefficient cars off the road. Now have a look at my last sentence, and the three key points therein: 1) economic stimulus; 2) supports big American business; and 3) benefits environment. Now, while this is a Democratic initiative, 2 of those 3 key points are the bread and butter of Republicans and fiscal conservatives everywhere. For the most part they don’t care about reducing carbon — or, at least, their talking points tell them not to care — but that form of economic stimulus is essentially a tax break for consumers and a free revenue boost to automakers, and Republicans love them some tax breaks. Unless it’s Democrats who suggest them.

To wit: this clip from The Daily Show. Watch from about 1:10, where news networks explain how well the Cash for Clunkers program has worked to date. Note the reaction from Fox News and house Republicans. All of a sudden the idea of tax breaks seem like anathema.

Rather than go on with more examples I’ll just quote a comment left on this Economist graphic:

The commenter’s name, by the way, is “The Other Guy” so five’ll get you ten this guy keeps a copy of Unsafe At Any Speed on his bedside table.

“American politics of Coke-vs.-Pepsi has been throwing off the stale stench of disfunction [sic] for quite some time. Dem-Rep bifurcation is slow, superficial, and has been predictably producing less than adequate results, and that’s a charitable phrasing.

A third party, even or perhaps preferably a small yet significant one, needs to step forward to inject a degree of instability.”

Now, I’m not suggesting the Canadian political system is perfect by any means, and certainly having too many political parties can have some frustrating side effects (constant minority governments, the Bloc Quebecois, etc.) but I’d have to think it’s healthier than the slapfight happening south of the border. Politics is a huge, hairy topic, far too complex to boil down to a binary choice between 0 and 1, let alone to declare that 0 or 1 is the only answer you will give for the rest of your life.

In closing, let me just say: Coke sucks, and you should never ever drink it.