Point At Issue: Why Are Political Topics Viewed So Binary?

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Nine days after America had suffered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in world history, the then President of the United States, George W. Bush, addressed a joint session of the Congress and the nation on Sept. 20, 2001. He issued a series of demands for the Taliban and resolved to bring justice to the perpetrators of the heinous act. Among these takeaways from his speech was another important line: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” America was offered two choices. At the time, it was a fairly straightforward choice.

Even in the years past, American conflicts seem to have had only two options. The Cold War that happened between the United States and its Allies, versus the Soviet Union and the satellite nations was primarily a war between Capitalism and Communism. In American politics as well, it is always a fight between Democrats and Republicans. If you’re not with the left, then you’re on the right. Why is this the case? Why does America have only two prominent political parties?

As far as the political systems are concerned, there is a direct explanation for the reason of America’s bipartisanship. In fact, it is some sort of a law, known among political scientists as Duverger’s law. The law is named after Maurice Duverger, a French political scientist who put forth his theories on politics and political parties in a book titled Les Partis Politiques, published in 1951. He based his studies on the structures of political parties around the world, and proposed that single-member plurality districts produce two-party systems, and also hypothesized that proportional representation systems tend to multipartism.

In American politics, it translates into a winner-takes-all system, which means that a candidate who gets more votes than others takes all that state’s electoral votes. This is why voters invariably tend to choose between two majority candidates, because they see no point in voting for a candidate that may end up coming third at best. It is the reason why even though both major candidates during the 2016 presidential elections were considered unpopular candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were never expected to really challenge Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Is political theory the only explanation? Like many other issues that concern humanity, these political issues can also be connected to religion. The religious landscape study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that about 70.6 percent of the population of the United states follows Christianity, and about 76 percent of the population follows some sort of religious faith. A common aspect of most religions around the world is the concept of good and evil, which form opposite ends of the spectrum of choices. Religious beliefs tend to play an important role in people’s lives, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for people to apply religious principles to other aspects of their lives, including politics. This could be one of the reasons why people who practice a religious faith in some form are comfortable with the idea of having to choose between two options. It makes their lives simpler.

This political and religious binary is just a part of a larger binary—thinking that we as humans may have adapted to suit our needs by mimicking nature in some way. Examples of the opposites in nature abound us. For example, there is a clear distinction between day and night, light and darkness. Anyone in the world could tell you that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west i.e. in opposite directions. In deeply stressful situations, either mental or physical, the human body’s general physiological response is to choose between two options, fight or flight. Maybe we’ve grown so accustomed to observing these opposites that we have a tendency to categorize things into two simple groups.

Also, we resort to binary thinking because it is quite effective. We can see its direct effect in all of the things that we as humans have invented. In almost all of the technological advances that we have made as species, computers and electronics have played a major role. And Binary number systems are at the core of all of these devices, even though decimal number systems have evolved from man’s natural way of counting things. Have we somehow gleaned from all of these advances that dividing things into two neat groups can help us advance as well?

Binary thinking does seem to have its advantages over other forms of thinking. However, it can have detrimental effects as well. Binary thinking helps making split second decisions, but issues of politics require an understanding of complex issues. Deducing everything to a simplistic set of options might help in the decision-making process sometimes, but it does not do justice to the complexities that we as human beings inherently possess. Our intellect is one of the main differences that separates us from other organisms, and we should be able to make use of this intellect to take better decisions.

We have to be able to recognize and respect our ability to take complex decisions. It is necessary to understand the fact that there isn’t necessarily only one right answer, but there can be several right answers to the questions our communities face. As far as political issues are concerned, we have the option of reading and understanding the facts that are associated with the issue. We can always assess the situation after an analysis of these facts before we arrive at our own conclusions. The solution to breaking away from binary thinking could lie in the simple act of respecting the intellect of our fellow citizens, and our own.