It’s a Two Party System
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Increasing numbers of Americans sense a lack of agency because of the two-party system. Many people seem to feel that this is a limitation on their choices, discounts their individuality, and in various ways “hems” them in. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. (Whatever happened to high school civics classes?) The American system of democracy does not cost individuals any less control or influence. The misunderstanding can, however, lead to an actual lack of agency when a citizen refuses the opportunity to be actively engaged in one of the two parties and participate fully in the political process.

As the song of the West declares it, ‘don’t fence me in,’ is an American theme, Americans are famously independent, offended by being corralled into groupings, and resistant to restricted options. They like the right of voting for anyone they choose, and they like to make up their own mind without having others, or a process, narrow the choices. The very term “Independent” carries a preferential connotation and they like the basic idea of “being my own person.” Increasingly, people are registered as Independents. But what are the realities that come of deciding to withdraw from the two-party system? Actually, the more independent or removed from party politics the citizen, the less effect is that citizen’s vote or general impact on decision-making.

The American system of democracy is considered a Presidential system, not a Parliamentary system. It is dependent upon having a two-party system. If the two-party system is not working properly, the democracy is not working properly. If a citizen steps outside of the two-party system she or he will be stepping outside of the democratic system except as a spoiler or for the purpose of making a “statement.” One can recall very well the undercutting effect the candidacy of a third party had in helping to elect Bill Clinton*, and then the liberal third party candidacy that took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida to allow the Supreme Court to declare the election of George W. Bush.

The only exception to this reality has been those rare but important moments in history when a newly formed party has been capable of replacing one of the two parties within the existing system. In such a case, the new party has replaced the defunct party; it did not join the other two to become a multi-party system. If Americans are not satisfied with the limited choices presented within the two-party system it will become necessary to change the constitution radically enough to establish a parliamentary system.

When the United States formed its democracy, the founding fathers had to invent the wheel. The model to which they had reference was monarchy. They did not want a king and they were going to make sure about limiting the power of their government’s leader, as well as making sure of checks and balances on all officials, bodies, and even branches of government. But it was assumed that governance was centered on a leader, which they limited to terms of office as a presider, or “President.” Very quickly, certain new insights, practices, and institutions became revealed as necessary. For example, it rather soon became apparent that the judicial branch had to be empowered to determine if the legislative decisions were constitutional.

One of the American democratic institutions that almost immediately appeared and became institutionalized, even though not considered, or even thought of, during the Constitutionals Convention, was the political party. Just as quickly as they appeared it was as two rival parties. The system seemed to emerge “naturally” out of differences defined by the personalities, different proclivities, and disagreements among the founding fathers.

Meanwhile, this more radical form of democracy begun in American soon began to spread among the community of nation-states that had been ruled by kings and lords. These rulers and ruling classes had been having their power checked (especially financing of policies, programs, wars, etc.) in the development of a Parliamentary system, in many cases for over a period of centuries.  Because Parliaments and the systems to constitute and run them were already established it was only necessary to adjust to that system rather than adopt the new American Presidential system.

The earliest parliaments had gradually become the fundamental agent of government instead of a monarch. Centered not in a presiding executive, but on a primary legislative leader, this variation of democracy became the prevailing model for most developing democracies. Votes in national elections are not cast directly for a leader, but for the local legislator to serve in Parliament. This becomes, in effect a vote for the leader of the party to which the legislator voted for belongs. Without going into further complexities, this direct system of voting for a legislator and indirect system of voting for the leader of government opens options to chose from and the number of parties that participate meaningfully in government.

Fortunately, to date the American system that is limited to two effective governing parties has worked well enough that it has been maintained despite the far greater popularity of the parliamentary multiparty system around the world. Perhaps Americans will “change our mind” if the gridlock recently experienced continues, with the majority of the legislature so often acting in majority opposition to the President and the executive branch. But until the whole system changes Americans have to realize that the limitations are real.

Message to America: it is romantically unrealistic to suppose that voting for a third party candidate is going to have any effect in the pending election other than to undercut one of the candidates nominated by the two parties, or to make a statement of some sort of protest.

*”…most analysts conclude that his (Ross Perot’s) presence (Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote) drew support away from incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush (who won 37.5%) and helped swing the election to Democratic Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas (43%).” (Wikipedia)


PR – “Making the Sell”
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Scene: a bar in Chelsea, New York City
Date: Spring, 1970
Event: A Seminary Class on Issues of Moral Theology in American Society
Guest: CEO of a major Madison Avenue PR Firm

Student Question: What is the strength of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the weakness of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the most vexing moral issue in the field of advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: Please explain.
CEO: Let me put it this way. Our firm refuses to advertise for the sale of cigarettes, because we know enough to know that they kill. They cause cancer. Someday that will become accepted public knowledge, and in that day we so not wish to find ourselves explaining to our children why we chose to convince people to kill themselves. That’s the deal. We have a moral responsibility to choose what to sell, because we can convince people to buy anything.

Student Question: You are saying that you can convince people to kill themselves.
CEO: Oh yes. We can make people want what is dangerous enough to kill them – probably even if they know it will. So we don’t advertise cigarettes.

Student Question: What else do you avoid selling?
CEO: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

Americans know they are being manipulated by advertising, and except for those who use it, most people claim to hate it. But they embrace it.

Americans claim that they are sick and tired of the way campaigns come down to raising money for TV, sound bites, and negative campaign spots. But watching them over and over is how they make up their mind.

Americans claim to hate the way candidates are “handled,” the way they rely on an invented persona instead of genuine individuality, the way they “stay on message” instead of opening up to offer honest and creative ideas, the way they say what is safe and contrived instead of stating personal beliefs. But these are the very campaign techniques that work to convince American votes.

We claim to hate the selling of our political leaders, yet we force our candidates into the “PR product-for-sell” roles because advertising sells. We just keep making the empty content of PR work, for buying commodities and for the democratic election of political leadership.

In so many ways, while lamenting our lack of agency due to the manipulative ability of PR to sell us, we choose to go along with the shaping of the political market and the marketing process. We not only go along, we rely on it.

No single group has been worse about all of this than the parts of the church that have entered into the process of elective politics. Ever since Reagan gave an important role to the moral majority, churches Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational Christians have bowed to PR marketing and jumped into “the game.” The result is that the church has been wounded and weakened, in sharp decline institutionally in membership and moral authority. It is time for this to cease.

Masses have turned to the candidacy of Donald Trump as a reaction against “the sell,” seeming to overlook how this, in so many ways, is the very climax of political salesmanship – using every technique, going from old standard theories like the “big lie” to new lessons learned with reality TV. He has been sufficiently discovered and cannot be elected, but we know there are creatures lurking in the background darkness, taking notes and learning.

On the other hand, surely there must be smart and well intentioned people who see new opportunities for the political process, new ways to offer themselves or to find and bring forward candidates in whom they can believe and offer them to an American public that is genuinely at rope’s end with “the sell.”

One of the leading “mad men” of the 60’s, a Madison Avenue PR giant who saw what was developing raised the issue: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

The question seems wildly radical and the negative answer seems unimaginable. But in fact the question remains an open one. Pray sisters and brothers of the church, pray and prayerfully decide to do something about it.

(Disclaimer: Your reporter was not present at the class, but the accuracy of what was communicated is certainly verifiable.)


Group Think
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

All good people agree,
     And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
     And everyone else is They.

          Rudyard Kipling

We perceive a lack of personal agency when we feel certain about our point of view, find that decisions and actions taken on behalf of the whole contradict it or fail to satisfy it, and are imposed on us.

We may begin to address our frustration by considering why we feel so sure about the matter. Very likely, the reason will have little to do with reason or information; instead it usually will turn out to be due to the agreement within our social circle and within the culture with which we identify. If the great majority of people we associate with regularly, and with whom we feel we belong, think the same way, contrary political and social imposition is likely to feel like insufferable wrongheadedness, or even a matter of moral right and wrong. This comes from something termed, accurately enough in the language of the street (if not in textbooks): “group think.”

Today “group think” is a prevailing concern for a nation that is deeply divided along just such lines. That whole communities and segments of society are so segmented is painfully experienced. Yet we find ourselves as participants in the divisions. As individuals we all know the tendency to pick among the plethora of information sources now available to use those that can be relied upon for agreement and reinforcement of the social, political, and religious perspectives of our circles.

The open conversations and comments about issues at controversy today, say in a locker room, invariably are going to sound like there is agreement that goes so far beyond the point of mere consensus that the points of view are being offered as assumptions. But depending on where they are being propounded, (e.g. small town exercise club, basket ball gym, country club, college faculty club) such opinions will express the exact opposite points of view, falling on the contrary ends of respective spectrums.

When your point of view is supported on the rigidly solid ground of “group think” and yet you find yourself on the losing end of a decision, the frustrating sense of a lack of agency is going to be inevitable and probably accompanied by the feeling that you and yours are being awfully wronged.

Perhaps the largest grouping in which thinking seems to be fixed in agreement, with no acceptable room for disagreement, is – and has long been – within regions. How else can it be that white Southerners in the U. S. always vote as a single party block – as Democrats from the Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement and since then as Republicans? How else is there to explain that an engulfing number of white Southerners identify as conservatives and seem to feel that being a conservative is morally correct while anything else is relatively immoral? How is it that racial prejudice and injustice can remain so much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else?

I do not believe the questions can be answered in a way that identifies most people in a whole region as inherently conservative, or inherently right, or inherently wrong, or inherently evil. It is due to cultural “group think.”

One last word, and it is absolutely central to the whole, and ongoing, story of Christianity. It is central to the good news of God in Christ; it is Gospel. Giving into “group think” is really, painfully, stupid. No other word will do. We all do it, and that stands as evidence that we all can be pretty stupid. When we free ourselves from “group think,” we are going to experience a most humanizing freedom, shockingly refreshing. There is a social price to be paid, for sure. One will be accused of being a bad citizen of one’s own society – and very probably made to feel like that indeed is so. One may even have to pick up a bit of the cross. But such a citizen will discover that truth and freedom are worth the price.

It is the truth that will set us free, not “group think” conformity.


The Dominance of Politics by One Sphere of Society
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of personal agency, that most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Following the line of theological insight in David Tracy’s work, The Analogical Imagination, we may picture society in three distinctive spheres of activity, however much they may overlap and interrelate: that of the cultural, of the polis, and of the technological-economic-bureaucratic.

The cultural realm of society is that which examines the tradition that has been handed down, offers values, fosters ideas, contributes its own creativity, and so passes on the cumulative tradition to the next generation. This realm of activity includes the academy, the arts, religion, and so forth.

The polis is concerned with governance and decision-making within society. In mature democracies are found structures and institutions that provide checks and balances to safeguard against the ability of one part of government to dominate others.

The technological-economic-bureaucratic sphere is composed of those structures and stratification systems designed to determine the most effective and efficient means to carry out all the economic and technical development of society. This includes everything from factories to scientific labs to Wall Street.

One reason most Americans feel a lack of agency is that there is one sector of society whose specialist seem to be much more in charge than those of who specialize in the other two spheres. The techno-economic realm seems to feel that it’s leaders and experts should be the decisive agents of political control, and in fact that they were handed the lead as a feature establishing the conservative movement. Others have increasingly awaken to the reality that they have less and less say, pretty much in inverse proportion to the extent that those with enough money have taken charge of the elective politics. Ironically, even those within the inner workings of the techno-economic realm feel that they too lack agency. This is due to the fact that they are working against the way the system is set up, and while they can dominate, they can’t take over. Instead, what is happening is that the system has slowly but surely been breaking down and simply not working. Even though a businessman with the reputation as one of the most successful ever is the nominee of one of our two major parties to be elected President, it should be apparent that the business community has itself lost control – almost totally.

Let’s start with the theory of how different spheres of society are designed to work together in a democracy, over against the political system in which one of them takes over.

There should be no room to value any one realm of society over against the others, or to think that one is more important, more pure, or more humanistic – or more of a response to the call of God. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or essentially flawed in any of the spheres of activity within and on behalf of society. The working cooperation between the three, all gears interlocking, is paramount.

However, there is indeed an inherent dynamic of competition between the three spheres. Part of this arises out of the conviction of those primarily engaged in each, that what they are doing is of crucial importance. But this virtuous and highly motivating perspective can become problematic when it is becomes one of superiority, when people dedicated to their sphere of activity begin to think that their expertise and judgment is so superior that they should be able to make decisions about the other two spheres, and protect the self interest of their realm of society over and above the others. It can also happen when one realm begins to think that the other two should leave it alone to function as it sees best, without the checks and balances of things like regulations. This has, in fact, occurred in many societies, and we know the results well.

When the polis absolutely dominates we term it a dictatorship. For example, it often is the military that emerges from within the sphere of the polis to take over and run all sectors of society. When the cultural realm takes over, as Plato dreamed in his desire for philosopher kings, it is usually a theocracy that succeeds. That is, it is usually the religious sphere taking over to dominate all parts of society. When the techno-economic-bureaucratic sector is running the whole show we have a plutocracy – or it has sometimes come to be termed an oligarchy. None of these forms of totalitarian government have ever been something North Americans want.

There is a strong tendency today to be dazzled by the glittering successes and attractive simplifications offered by modern technology and a business driven economy. The Greek farmer embraced the plow as a wonderful new technological device, but brought to that and the other technological advances of his day a worldview that took them in contemplatively. The Greek took technology, like all of life, and absorbed its fascinating betterment for productivity and lifestyle into the harmony of the created order, into the logos (the driving rational principle) of the universe.

The worldview we have inherited, unlike that of ancient Greece, leads us to use the methodology, the goals, the criteria for technological-economic-bureaucratic success as values in and of themselves, to employ the motivating urges of the technological-economic-bureaucratic sector pervasively throughout society, far beyond the proper boundaries and without stringent regulations and other forms of checks and balances. The United States has developed a society that can be defined, by and large, as a consumerist society. Everything seems to be for sale, and the value of everything is viewed in terms of what it is worth on “a market.”

The consumerist understanding of human nature is at fault rather than technology itself, though consumerism and the popular accessibility to high-technology seems to elicit tendencies from each other which builds onto the problem. The capitalistic system also tends to reward capital as a value in and of itself, such that there is now a tendency to rely too much on financing, that is, on making money out of money, than on producing goods and services. Indeed, one way of using money to make money is in giving it to politicians and reaping the rewards that can be elicited – legally and illegally – through legislation and executive powers.

There is much to be said here, but for our purposes let us simply say that when we combine all the factors with the domination of money in politics, we find ourselves today rapidly approaching a state of plutocracy, and the church should want that to be avoided. The genuine Christian never fares well in totalitarian government, that is, when government is totally dominated by one realm of government. Is it surprising that this is true even when the theocracy is identified as Christian?

Is it surprising that the path we have been on has taken us too far and thrown us into a crisis? Are we ready to us wake up and smell the smoke? Are we ready to correct the relationships between the three spheres of society?