The division of America was readily apparent at the State of the Union. The Democratic women wore white. The Republican men wore dark suits. At one point the president said, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” The camera zoomed in on Bernie Sanders, who sat there scowling. The dark suit crowd chanted “USA.” The women in white remained silent.
I don’t recall hearing the “USA” chant in Congress before. But like the National Anthem, the flag, and the NFL, even the name of our country is a wedge that divides us.
Maybe it would have been better if the whole thing were cancelled as was suggested during the government shutdown. But the State of the Union is part of the American melodrama. We keep score by tracking who applauds and who does not.
Like the Super Bowl in the era of Tom Brady’s Patriots, the whole ritual has become tiresome. In almost everything else, we get more than two choices. But our political life has been reduced to a dreary dualism. You either love Trump or Sanders — or Tom Brad y— or you hate him. We are forced to pick sides in a struggle between good guys and bad guys. You are either for the wall or against it, either a capitalist or a socialist.
Such simplistic dualisms don’t reflect the complexity of life. The debate about socialism is maddeningly oversimplified, for example. Political philosophers have debated socialism for centuries. Like other important political concepts, socialism is complicated. It makes no sense to assert that you are either for socialism or against it, for capitalism or against it. What matters are the concrete details of particular proposals.
In many ways, this is already a socialist country. We have public schools and universities as well as Medicare, the Postal Service and Social Security. The government supports science and the arts, as well as air-traffic control. The Federal Reserve regulates the economy. We bail out failing businesses in times of crisis and provide support for the unemployed. Laissez-faire capitalism does not exist.
And yet, this is also a capitalist country. You are free to own property and create a business. There is an open market for stocks, commodities and jobs. The profit motive spurs innovation. A fortunate few become billionaires. They can use that money to buy political influence. Or not. There is no socialist state dispossessing the rich and building a proletarian paradise.
Americans reside in the muddy middle. We like capitalism. We understand the profit motive and competition. We cherish our own small piles of private property. But we also like socialism. We fear the power of the billionaires and big business. We understand that unemployment or disability could afflict any of us and that everyone needs help from time to time.
And we don’t really care whether you call it socialism or capitalism — or whether you are a Republican or Democrat. Life does not consist of binary oppositions. But our two-party system forces dualism upon us.
In everything but politics there are many choices. If you don’t like the Patriots, root for the Raiders. If you don’t like the NFL, watch golf. Or go skiing or read a book. But partisan politics narrows everything down in a way that seems, well, un-American.
Dualism leads to deadlock. Complex issues are reduced to a caricature in black and white. Compromise becomes impossible when our palette does not include the other colors of the rainbow.
The era of partisan melodrama is turning Americans off of politics. About 100 million people watched the Super Bowl. Only half that many watched the State of the Union. We’d rather snooze through the Brady juggernaut than watch the Trump-Pelosi show.
It is true that the disaffected masses should pay more attention. We should demand a politics that we can be proud of. This is a government of “we, the people,” after all.
But we are sick of the shutdowns and the shouting and the two-party circus. Many of us would just like to enjoy a little peace and quiet. But this seems impossible in a world in which “USA” has become a partisan chant that builds walls between us.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala