The Aesthetic Equivalence of U.S. Political Parties

For several years now, I’ve had an uncanny feeling about the competing political mirror images in national politics. The Republicans and the Democrats look essentially and problematically the same to me. They appear perfectly complimentary to each other, like feuding identical twins. (Elsewhere I’ve called them a “two-headed monster.”)

I’ve tried to argue and assert this feeling many times, and in different ways—and I know I am not the first, last, or only one—but I have yet to find satisfaction in my explanations.

This should be no surprise to readers at Vox Nova. For some time now, several of us have consistently maintained that both parties ascribe to the political philosophy of liberalism and the economic ideology of capitalism. Indisputable as this is—and believe me, it is indisputable—this equivalency is not the principal source of my unease.

Others who hold a similar view—the view that both U.S. political parties are roughly equivalent to each other—often articulate their position using reasons I am friendly towards, but don’t share all the way down. I’ve yet to find a comfort in these “shared” reasons. I feel a strange gap between us, even when we share a common point of view.

For instance, Noam Chomsky’s been saying this for quite some time now. (And Chris Hedges have been echoing similar points more recently.) While I find his notion of “manufacturing consent” and other ideas appealing at a certain level, I did not arrive at my position because of him. I would never describe my politics as Chomskian. Where we agree is mostly coincidental.

I have, at times, felt a fleeting sense of solidarity with the dissent in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Large factions in each group make similar points about the equivalence of the two-party system. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I still feel disconnected from them. After spending time observing either movement, I grow increasingly uncomfortable and sometimes disgusted with them.

Where I do feel a strong, enduring connection with them is in their inability to articulate what they want. The Right likes to make fun of OWS and the Left enjoys doing the same to Tea Partiers for their  remarkable incapacity to make concrete demands or constructive suggestions. This weakness of each movement is something I can relate to. I, too, lack a clear description of my political unease, of what I really want. I only have an inarticulate feeling: a strong, itchy discomfort with the ways things are, with what I see around me.

This wildly affective speculation is all I really have to go on. I suspect this is true in the unrest we see elsewhere, everywhere. We see anger, outrage, hatred, sorrow, pride, and more. When we pay close and careful attention, I think we must admit that, at least in practice, there is no such thing as a political science. Political art rules the day. Politics is driven by the heart not the head, the gut not the brain.

Politicians cannot simply be smart. (And this fact is often alarmingly true!) We do not elect geniuses for president, and for good reason. A politician is first and foremost an artist, especially in this age of constant propaganda and pictorial media coverage: we cannot ignore the aesthetic, artistic dimension of politics. (This is why I believe we ought to have political art departments at colleges and universities, to counterbalance political science departments.)

This can be seen in the incredible attention given to the way a candidate looks. From make-up to wardrobe to body type, there is a crucial, albeit superficial, aesthetic importance on display during major elections. No one can deny this. The television, and now the internet, have transformed politics into a beauty pageant.

I’m not upset about this aspect of politics. After all, the Church is full of a liturgical, beauty-pageant rituals. In fact, this political pageantry strikes me as a deeply Catholic. We must recognize the sacramental nature of politicians and political rituals as external signs we can recognize, pointing us towards the internal gifts we desire and hope for.

It is the particular kind of political beauty pageant we have that fuels my uneasy feeling about the equivalence of Democrats and Republicans. Look at them: they look the same. They dress the same, talk the same, eat the same food, drive the same cars, live in the same houses—hell, they probably smell the same!

What I mean by “the same” is that, on the whole, there is nothing that stands out about a Republican or a Democrat that aesthetically indicates a strong, visible distinction between one or the other. (Those who try to invoke race as an aesthetic difference between the two, fall into the mistake of confusing the constituents with the elect and invoke a historical narrative that doesn’t tell the same story.) They may be diametrically opposed to each other in some ways, but aesthetically they are remarkably equivalent.

This becomes salient when I watch or read the so-called “news” and “debates,” when I surf the toxic space of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Both sides—Huffington Post and Drudge Report and alike—are ugly: mediocre to bad writing, smug and indignant, astoundingly pious and self-righteous. Fox News and MSNBC are equally simplistic, predictable, and convenient. (This is why the only media outlet I frequent is The Onion: at least there is some beauty to be found there in the form of comedy, satire, and wit.)

The ugly economic wrangling that feeds both of their glutinous appetites is obtained, distributed, and spent in vile, mutually complicit ways. The wars they wage together are not objectionable to me for their violations of justice, I oppose them because they are ugly, technological wars, wars that kill persons as objects, in monstrous, impersonal ways.

Prediction: the Republican and Democratic national conventions will be aesthetically equivalent to each other. Both parties are most obviously equivalent in their mutual, creative capacity for turning human persons into an objects. Not that they could ever carry out this perverse project, but they certainly treat people that way at alarming rates. Their have both cultured a thick, awful style of depersonalization.

When Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party protest these sorts of things in ways that are artistic, imaginative, and beautiful, I find myself at home with them. When they ignore beauty, disavow art, and become vulgar—and often anti-intellectual—mobs, I am disgusted and afraid.

When my friends say that they don’t see their pet party this way, I become dogmatic. To all Republican and Democrats: open your eyes, see what is in front of you at all hours of the day, see it as art and see that thin, cracking, plastic art for what it is!

We live in a nation-state where structural and systematic ugliness has acquired a monopoly over our political imagination. We are watching a pageant where neat and expensive outward beauty conceals messy and cheap internal ugliness. We participate in a public ritual where sacraments are inverted, disordered, and out of balance.

To reject the ugly and embrace the beautiful is a sufficient reason—a reason of the heart—to reject both parties as equivalent to each other, as ugly twins, a two-headed monster, a really bad duet. The first step to aesthetic re-enchantment and transformation is to know the difference between what is beautiful and what is ugly. The next step is to begin to remove one without doing damage to the other. If a child is covered in excrement, we must remove the ugly and preserve the beautiful.

But I shouldn’t be too strict in my aesthetic evaluation: nothing is ugly all the way down, beauty is everywhere, all things are pregnant with beauty. There is beauty to be found in these parties, among these persons who, like me, are broken and searching.

For this reason, I am inclined to participate in politics, in either party. To vote. But my reasons will not be for tribal, ethical, moral, or rational reasons: I will vote for aesthetic and affective reasons instead. Which candidate shows more potential for beauty? Which candidate is less likely to make our lives uglier?

There are a variety of prescriptions that could follow from this, one could vote for many different people for the same basic reasons, but only one political party will remain a viable option: a party to come, a party that is not yet here, a party of hope: the eschatological party of the future, of the Kingdom of God.

In the meantime, my political affiliation will remain unapologetically Catholic.

About Sam Rocha
  • Mark Gordon

    Terrific, Sam. I have often referred to the Democratic and Republican parties as two dead ends in the same blind alley. I think this constriction of real choices is by design. After all, Noam Chomsky has written that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” That’s what we have going on in the election of 2012 … that’s what we always have going on. And that’s all we will ever have so long as Americans get choked up on the Fourth of July but shed not a tear at the Easter Vigil.

  • Mark Gordon

    Terrific, Sam. I have often referred to the Democratic and Republican parties as two dead ends in the same blind alley. I think this constriction of real choices is by design. After all, Noam Chomsky has written that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” That’s what we have going on in the election of 2012 … that’s what we always have going on. And that’s all we will ever have so long as Americans get choked up on the Fourth of July but shed not a tear at the Easter Vigil.

  • brettsalkeld

    My oldest boy is a whiz (math, reading, science, sports, piano, you name it) and would make a terrible politician. My second is an aesthete (you should have seen his face the first time he heard an oboe!), and would make a fine Prime Minister. The oldest (like his Dad) can’t smile for a photo without looking incredibly fake; the second is as natural as can be.

  • brettsalkeld

    My oldest boy is a whiz (math, reading, science, sports, piano, you name it) and would make a terrible politician. My second is an aesthete (you should have seen his face the first time he heard an oboe!), and would make a fine Prime Minister. The oldest (like his Dad) can’t smile for a photo without looking incredibly fake; the second is as natural as can be.

  • Anne

    Hmmm. I gotta tell you, I’ve heard this complaint about the two parties in America ever since I came of political age in the 60s and yet, today, the complaint probably has less validity than ever before. If anything, the divide between the two has grown downright stark, even hostile, so much so that it’s brought the government to near standstill and constantly threatens the common good. Yet at the same time, you’re right in the sense that the true public policy differences aren’t fought with anything approaching the conviction they once were, at least by Democrats, who’ve moved the farthest away from original principles.

    The problem is what used to be considered issues of private morality, above all abortion, and to a lesser extent homosexual relations and other issues-of-the-moment such as the recent fight over the contraception insurance coverage mandate, have taken center stage in the public square, drowning out “secondary” economic concerns of Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike. Neither party seems willing or able to move attention on to matters of national and international importance. The Republican party has actually encouraged this trend to the point where a religious minority — a coalition of ultra-conservative Evangelicals and Catholics — has assumed moral leadership of the entire party, and no one who disagrees with it can speak his or her mind without fear of being drummed out.

    Americans used to consider the two parties “big tent” coalitions that fought it out for power every few years. The differences weren’t deeply ideological, just an amalgam of various interests. You fit in where your interests — or your family history — fit. Precisely because there was no stark divide, no profound moral imperative to vote for this party or that, peace was relatively easy to maintain when “the other side” won.

    Now that politics has taken on religious overtones, however, issues that rarely made it into public policy debates in the past, are argued as if the outcome were a matter of life or death (and with abortion, opponents are convinced they are the only ones committed to life, the other side freely attacked as promoting a “culture of death”). As the war analogies abound, true public policy issues — including some that deal with actual wars — wait in the wings, along with the common good.

    Which, I guess, is a looong way of saying I’m afraid thinking of politics in terms of religion is part of the problem, not the solution.

  • Anne

    Hmmm. I gotta tell you, I’ve heard this complaint about the two parties in America ever since I came of political age in the 60s and yet, today, the complaint probably has less validity than ever before. If anything, the divide between the two has grown downright stark, even hostile, so much so that it’s brought the government to near standstill and constantly threatens the common good. Yet at the same time, you’re right in the sense that the true public policy differences aren’t fought with anything approaching the conviction they once were, at least by Democrats, who’ve moved the farthest away from original principles.

    The problem is what used to be considered issues of private morality, above all abortion, and to a lesser extent homosexual relations and other issues-of-the-moment such as the recent fight over the contraception insurance coverage mandate, have taken center stage in the public square, drowning out “secondary” economic concerns of Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike. Neither party seems willing or able to move attention on to matters of national and international importance. The Republican party has actually encouraged this trend to the point where a religious minority — a coalition of ultra-conservative Evangelicals and Catholics — has assumed moral leadership of the entire party, and no one who disagrees with it can speak his or her mind without fear of being drummed out.

    Americans used to consider the two parties “big tent” coalitions that fought it out for power every few years. The differences weren’t deeply ideological, just an amalgam of various interests. You fit in where your interests — or your family history — fit. Precisely because there was no stark divide, no profound moral imperative to vote for this party or that, peace was relatively easy to maintain when “the other side” won.

    Now that politics has taken on religious overtones, however, issues that rarely made it into public policy debates in the past, are argued as if the outcome were a matter of life or death (and with abortion, opponents are convinced they are the only ones committed to life, the other side freely attacked as promoting a “culture of death”). As the war analogies abound, true public policy issues — including some that deal with actual wars — wait in the wings, along with the common good.

    Which, I guess, is a looong way of saying I’m afraid thinking of politics in terms of religion is part of the problem, not the solution.

  • Anne

    “As the war analogies abound, true public policy issues — including some that deal with actual wars — wait in the wings, along with the common good.”

    Perhaps instead of “true public policy issues,” that should read issues more readily dealt with in terms of public policy. The problem with abortion and other moral controversies is that they don’t lend themselves to relatively timely practical solutions, at least without resorting to coercion that breeds both contempt for the law and more division. In a pluralistic democracy, there’s no way around the need for building consensus before making demands.

  • Anne

    “As the war analogies abound, true public policy issues — including some that deal with actual wars — wait in the wings, along with the common good.”

    Perhaps instead of “true public policy issues,” that should read issues more readily dealt with in terms of public policy. The problem with abortion and other moral controversies is that they don’t lend themselves to relatively timely practical solutions, at least without resorting to coercion that breeds both contempt for the law and more division. In a pluralistic democracy, there’s no way around the need for building consensus before making demands.

  • Anne

    “Yet at the same time, you’re right in the sense that the true public policy differences aren’t fought with anything approaching the conviction they once were, at least by Democrats, who’ve moved the farthest away from original principles.”

    Hah. I keep finding reasons to edit myself.:)
    In reality, both parties have moved away from original principles more than once in their convoluted histories, switching places on the race issue as it pertained to civil rights in the 1960s. What I meant, I guess, was that, since the 1970s, Democrats have moved away from their FDR-era economic principles.

  • Anne

    “Yet at the same time, you’re right in the sense that the true public policy differences aren’t fought with anything approaching the conviction they once were, at least by Democrats, who’ve moved the farthest away from original principles.”

    Hah. I keep finding reasons to edit myself.:)
    In reality, both parties have moved away from original principles more than once in their convoluted histories, switching places on the race issue as it pertained to civil rights in the 1960s. What I meant, I guess, was that, since the 1970s, Democrats have moved away from their FDR-era economic principles.

  • Julia Smucker

    Sam, I completely resonate with your feelings of political homelessness. It never would have occurred to me to describe political posturing in liturgical terms, but it leads you to some striking insights here, and I especially appreciate where you end up with it.

  • Julia Smucker

    Sam, I completely resonate with your feelings of political homelessness. It never would have occurred to me to describe political posturing in liturgical terms, but it leads you to some striking insights here, and I especially appreciate where you end up with it.

  • onlein

    We seem to like divisiveness — even if it is illusory or false or manufactured. Within the church, we are unnecessarily divided on abortion. For one thing we use the pro-life pro-choice distinction. And some say you can’t be both. I say we can and must. Let one side march and picket and protest and work for law change, and the other side work to stop any further welfare cuts and to strenghten family programs including certainly WIC, milk for babies. We have the same general life-affirming goal of reducing the number of abortions. And we have varying perspectives, varying gifts of the Holy Spirit. But we like to focus on differences, and draw lines in the sand, even though almost all of us, for one example, use birth control. What is with us?

    Can’t we celebrate differences, or at least try to understand each other? Probably not. Certainly not on our own. But we aren’t on our own. We are all sinners and all but a blessed few are cafeteria Catholics. We all need grace and insight and understanding and forgiveness that we can’t produce and that we are in the church praying for and asking for. Well, it’s here. Yet we continue bickering. We can’t even give it up for lent. Jesus help us.

    • onlein

      Of course I meant we can’t give up bickering for lent.

    • grega

      Thank you onlein for this compassionate, humane and deeply humble post .
      I know what you want to get at but I am not sure we are ‘unnecessarily divided’ – within the church we certainly do have profound differences. It is a tough situation when one side talks about killing babies and actually sees it exactly that way while the other looks at it case to case under consideration of the personal circumstances.
      Clearly since the overall direction of our free society is one more in the direction of ‘personal’ liberty and responsibility the appetite for one size fits it all solutions will not increase anytime soon. Clearly we all encounter very difficult questions on our path through life- the same type of question is answered ever so slightly different by each generation. But it is safe to say that the answer we arrive at as a collective is not entirely unreasonable – quite the contrary. Our laws regarding abortions for example came about for very real desires and reasons – and yes they are very much within the framework of our constitution and law.
      I am an engineer by training – the way I see it we live in a very complex society( System) and the system responds has to be complex by nature.
      To pretend otherwise is unrealistic and wishful thinking – frankly I enjoy that we do have a complex world – much more interesting.

  • onlein

    We seem to like divisiveness — even if it is illusory or false or manufactured. Within the church, we are unnecessarily divided on abortion. For one thing we use the pro-life pro-choice distinction. And some say you can’t be both. I say we can and must. Let one side march and picket and protest and work for law change, and the other side work to stop any further welfare cuts and to strenghten family programs including certainly WIC, milk for babies. We have the same general life-affirming goal of reducing the number of abortions. And we have varying perspectives, varying gifts of the Holy Spirit. But we like to focus on differences, and draw lines in the sand, even though almost all of us, for one example, use birth control. What is with us?

    Can’t we celebrate differences, or at least try to understand each other? Probably not. Certainly not on our own. But we aren’t on our own. We are all sinners and all but a blessed few are cafeteria Catholics. We all need grace and insight and understanding and forgiveness that we can’t produce and that we are in the church praying for and asking for. Well, it’s here. Yet we continue bickering. We can’t even give it up for lent. Jesus help us.

    • onlein

      Of course I meant we can’t give up bickering for lent.

    • grega

      Thank you onlein for this compassionate, humane and deeply humble post .
      I know what you want to get at but I am not sure we are ‘unnecessarily divided’ – within the church we certainly do have profound differences. It is a tough situation when one side talks about killing babies and actually sees it exactly that way while the other looks at it case to case under consideration of the personal circumstances.
      Clearly since the overall direction of our free society is one more in the direction of ‘personal’ liberty and responsibility the appetite for one size fits it all solutions will not increase anytime soon. Clearly we all encounter very difficult questions on our path through life- the same type of question is answered ever so slightly different by each generation. But it is safe to say that the answer we arrive at as a collective is not entirely unreasonable – quite the contrary. Our laws regarding abortions for example came about for very real desires and reasons – and yes they are very much within the framework of our constitution and law.
      I am an engineer by training – the way I see it we live in a very complex society( System) and the system responds has to be complex by nature.
      To pretend otherwise is unrealistic and wishful thinking – frankly I enjoy that we do have a complex world – much more interesting.

  • J.

    *Re*-enchantment?

    • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

      What are YOU doing here, Jacob? (And welcome!)

      SR

  • J.

    *Re*-enchantment?

    • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

      What are YOU doing here, Jacob? (And welcome!)

      SR