Here is my first name converted to binary code:
In order to work its magic, a computer must turn each character of my name into a series of 0s and 1s. R = 01110010. This conversion, this digitization, is necessary. Everything must eventually be reduced to binary notation. Once information is digitized, computers can take that information – text, audio, video – reproduce it, manipulate it, and transmit it for human consumption. Technology has gotten very good at this, finding more accurate ways to represent human symbolic products.
But the most meaningful human interactions are still very hard for computers to pull off. Computers are not complex enough to take into account all of the contingencies, qualifiers, and context that fill human thought and expression. Despite the quality of a webcam, we can always tell it is a representation of the person we know – not the real thing. Its not “lifelike”. Or, anyone familiar with using a translator like Google Translate knows that language relies too much on context for any of those current translators to be wholly accurate. And no computer has passed the Turing Test yet (a test of a computer’s ability to represent human intelligence).
But even though those 0s and 1s are not perfect, they are considered good enough. We put up with Siri even though she says some stupid things sometimes.
Our political system is like this, a machine that must turn everything into 1s and 0s. It’s not perfect, but for the majority of our history it has been considered good enough.
Take African-Americans and their voting behavior. Black people have voted Democrat reliably since the 1960’s. Indeed, African-Americans are economically progressive – thus Democrat. However, they are also socially conservative – which would suggest leaning Republican. But after weighing their options, African-Americans decide that the best option – the only option, is Democrat. Let’s say that Democrats are a “1”.
More interesting are the very real divisions within white middle class America. The upper middle class, let’s say people who have household incomes over $120,000, are much better served economically voting for the current crop of Republicans. They like the economic conservatism. But what about white Americans at the lower end of the middle class block? People making between about $30,000 and $50,000 per year are shooting themselves in the foot economically by voting for the Republican party. But what other real choices do they have? Voting for Democrats might help their pocketbooks, but the social issues that Democrats support scare them away. And so they are forced to vote for tax cuts and trade policies that ship their jobs overseas and take away needed social services. They go in the voting booth each voting cycle and select Republican. Let’s say Republicans are a “0”.
In other words the complexity of American political life cannot be faithfully reproduced in our binary political system. It’s not “lifelike”. Most people have a personal political ideology that runs the political spectrum. They are conservative on some issues (pro-life) but liberal on others (they want to restrict gun ownership). Moreover, people have concerns that are simply ignored by Republicans and Democrats. What political party talks seriously about restricting America’s military presence? Democrats talk about it, but they roll tanks through another country only slightly less quickly than more hawkish Republicans. What party talks seriously about protecting American’s right to privacy? Republicans talk about it, but they are more than happy to let the NSA act like a newer version of the Stasi.
We call some people “Independent”, meaning their voting behavior is not consistent across elections. They must feed their political ideologies into the machine as well, and the outputs are no different. They will have to vote for Democrat in local elections, and maybe Republican in national elections: “1110“.
There are millions of Americans who would like a different choice. They would like to support political parties that advance different agendas and raise different questions. These parties may be socialists, greens, communists, libertarians, white nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and so on. Some of these parties may seem odious to many Americans, but nevertheless people need those options. If anything, if these options were viable, it would keep Democrats and Republicans honest and more responsive to voters.
A main reason why Americans are frustrated with their politicians (almost every week a new poll comes out showing how dissatisfied they are with their leaders) is because of a lack of choices. The binary system that had been “good enough” is becoming less able to reproduce the political complexity of the average American voter.
The question is, what can be done about it? That’s the 64 terabyte question isn’t it?
Well, if we don’t like feeding our complex political ideologies into a machine that ultimately reduces this complexity to two unacceptable choices, then we have to change the code of that machine.
This is where it gets dicey, because to change the code means that we must use the machine to do it! But that is the only way. We have to find mechanisms that open up political dialogue to third, fourth, and fifth parties. This means lowering the threshold for participation in national and state elections:
- For national and state “town hall” meetings that we see on television, the number of political parties represented needs to be increased. Instead of inviting the top three Democrats and top three Republicans to a televised debate, we should invite two Democrats, two Republicans, and then candidates from the next two most popular parties. Even if the Christian Democrat party doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning, there is still great value in hearing what they have to say.
- We must…MUST get the money out of politics. This is obvious. Alternative parties cannot get their opinions heard because it requires millions of dollars to get the word out that you exist. We need to either cap the amount of money that can be spent elections. But that won’t be happening any time soon. Another option would be to supplement alternative parties with government funding should they receive some minimum amount of support from potential voters. If the Green Party gets 5,000 signatures in a state, then that state should fund some of their advertising.
We absolutely have to get out of this binary system. As it stands now, our representative democracy does not really represent us at all.