A liberal friend of mine once said to me, “Joe Lieberman’s not a bad guy. My problem with him is that he’s just not a Democrat.”
If enough liberals agree with my friend, Lieberman (D-Conn.) will face an uphill climb as he runs for re-election to the U.S. Senate. But if Lieberman loses because voters cannot place him in either the Democratic or Republican mold, then the problem is not with Lieberman. The problem is with the two-party system to which America clings. We are long overdue to replace this brittle political framework. Lieberman’s race is a case study of the reason why.
Joe Lieberman is extremely well qualified for the Senate. In three Senate terms, he has been chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Small Business Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 2000, he was just a few hanging chads away from the vice presidency.
These are serious accomplishments. Lieberman’s detractors do not question them. They ask only whether Lieberman is right for the Democratic Party. It’s not a question of abilities, but a question of opinions. Ben Simon’s column on these pages made the case that Lieberman is a poor fit for the Democrats, citing Lieberman’s support for John Roberts, Samuel Alito LAW ’75 and Alberto Gonzales, as well as Bush’s policies in Iraq (“Lamont could help re-establish Dems’ hold,” 2/27). But Lieberman has also fought in defense of classic Democratic causes, like funding housing programs and Amtrak, and keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge safe from oil drills.
Essentially, Joe Lieberman is a centrist. There are not many centrists in Washington these days. If Lieberman’s constituents agree with Ben Simon that Lieberman is not a Democrat, while nobody (least of all Lieberman) suddenly decides that he is a Republican, Lieberman would be without a place in the Senate.
This scenario represents a significant loss. Even those who disagree with Lieberman’s opinions must agree that his judgment and qualifications are sound. It would be ridiculous if Lieberman’s voice were not at the table simply because the set of people who agree with him on every single issue is not large enough to form a bureaucracy.
The Lieberman race is one example of the two-party system’s pervasive harm to American political culture. The rigid dichotomy between “left” and “right” misrepresents the wide political spectrum of ordinary Americans. It limits how effective we can be in solving our nation’s problems, as these very issues appear blurred behind partisan lenses. There are more than two ways to tackle most challenges, but you would hardly know it from American politics. In journalism, The Nation faces off against National Review, while TV shows like “Crossfire” and “Hardball” turn politics into an intellectual boxing match. We have all but forgotten F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
For an alternative, consider another democracy: Israel. Twenty-two political parties crowd the most recent Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government. There is a voice for every perspective: peacenik, pragmatic and ultranationalist; Communist, social democratic and free market; secular, Orthodox Jewish and Israeli Arab. Traditionally, only two have towered over the landscape — the left-wing Labor and right-wing Likud — but the splinter parties often wield decisive influence, unlike in America. When the electorate is divided, Labor and Likud, accordingly, govern in coalition.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a perfect example of Israeli flexibility. Sharon rose up through the Likud system. Last year, when his politics changed, he bolted Likud to start a new centrist party, inviting a former Labor prime minister to join him along with several of his ministers from Likud. Now this new party enjoys overwhelming popularity, because the electorate changed at the same time as Sharon. This shake-up gives centrist politicians and voters the wherewithal to finish disengaging from occupied Palestinian land. In Sharon’s old right-wing faction, so progressive a step would inevitably have been smothered.
A fractured system like Israel’s can be inefficient. It can even be unstable. But such a system has two things going for it: It opens the doors to a multitude of ways to solve any problem, and it represents the Israeli people with near-perfect accuracy.
Can you imagine if someone of Sharon’s stature, courage and popularity were forced from the top office — and in turn, if a move as bold and utterly necessary as the next disengagement were stifled — simply because the leader and the plan were not left enough for the left and not right enough for the right?
This fate would be Sharon’s in America. It may yet befall Sen. Lieberman.
Imagine if America adopted the Israeli model. After the impossibly-close vote in 2000, Republicans and Democrats would have governed in coalition. Americans’ widespread political disillusionment would inevitably elicit a response from Joe Lieberman, John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and the rest of the “gang of 14,” the seven Republican and seven Democratic senators who united to prevent a partisan showdown over the “nuclear option.” They would leave their parties to start a centrist camp, which would actually represent most Americans. Richard Gephardt (D.-Mo.) could lead a genuine worker’s party. Sam Brownback (R.-Kans.) could start a new splinter faction to speak (hopefully not too loudly, in this writer’s opinion) for socially conservative evangelicals.
No longer would narrow-mindedness and “groupthink” be mistaken for backbone and mettle. The government would actually mold itself to the American people, not the other way around. In contemporary American politics, to talk such sense is to tantalize oneself.
Noah Lawrence is a freshman in Saybrook College.