One of the things that marketing does really well is to make small differences loom large. To believe the ads, the difference between Tide and Sunlight laundry detergents, between Coke and Pepsi colas, Nike and Adidas athletic shoes, and Shell and Exxon gasoline, are so vast and so consequential that you should make your decisions to buy one or the other very very carefully.
But common sense tells us that the differences are not so large, and the choices not so consequential that we cannot switch between them, or even choose not to choose at all.
Could it be that the perception of extreme polarization of American politics, the perceived gulf between the right and the left, the supposedly irreconcilable differences between the red states and blue states, are the result of the magnification of small differences – the result of marketing by the two parties to frame the debate as a choice, and maximize the perceived differences between a diet Coke and a diet Pepsi, between a mocha latte and a mocha cappuccino?
Perhaps the choice between alternatives that are almost indistinguishable is the result of a two-party system in which both parties must appeal to a broad center. That gives us the spectacle of the two parties trying to make a very big deal of differences that are otherwise trivial (they are both less filling; they both attempt to taste great). Each campaign has spent one billion dollars trying to stir up storms in teacups.
A multi-party system would be messier in that it would bring out more and different positions. But under the present system, those positions are aired and dispensed with early, in the primaries, when few people are watching: the Ron Pauls and Dennis Kucinichs have their say at the fringes, and exit left or right before even making it to the main stage (see their 2012 and 2008 ads below).
On the main stage, the debate is no longer about broad policy aspects because the two parties are essentially in agreement: the Republican candidate does not question that the President has the right to order the assassination of American citizens, or to order assassinations without legal process – presumably they both agree that that is AOK; The Republican candidate does not bicker about provisions of the Democratic President’s NDAA that encroach on civil liberties – those merely build upon and extend the Patriot Act introduced by his Republican predecessor; Both parties support democracy in the Middle-East. Except, of course, in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, where both parties agree it is inconvenient to support democracy. Neither party questions the seriousness of the other’s commitment to democracy in allowing these exceptions. Neither party wants to touch climate change as a topic when coal appears to be the fastest growing energy source over the next decade. Both candidates' plans will add trillions to the national debt (will that be on Visa or Mastercard?). One candidate will be great for the defense and health insurance companies' shares in the voters' 401k, the other will be pretty good.
The two parties are far more similar than they want voters to believe. The differences are carefully crafted, and marketing helps magnify them to give the impression of choice. But it remains Hobson’s choice.
Is it any surprise, then, that as many as half of eligible American voters will exercise that choice by not voting on Tuesday?