by Bruce Dunlavy
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I recently saw this quotation posted on a social media site and attributed to Plato:
“The price good people pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

I’ve read it elsewhere, invariably credited to Plato. I’ve read a lot of Plato, but I have never found that observation in his work, nor has my research been able to uncover a place where it can be found. And, frankly, it doesn’t sound like Plato to me, anyway.

It appears to be another variant of “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” which is attributed to Edmund Burke but likewise cannot be found in his writings. I see within these and similar statements a political manifestation of the Manichaean theme that the world is a battleground between only two forces, the Force of Good and the Force of Evil. And the cohorts of the Force of Evil are always working to capacity. Ergo, if you are not on the side of Good (i.e., my side) then you are facilitating Evil (their side).

Manichaeism was an ancient religion that developed in Persia in the Third Century B.C.E., and soon spread across much of Asia and into north Africa and Europe. Attacked as heresy by expanding Christianity and displaced by Islam, Manichaeism had been largely extirpated by 1000 C.E. Today vestiges of Manichean religious beliefs exist officially only in the dualistic cosmogony found in some Zoroastrian traditions of the tiny Parsi community in western India. Unofficially, though, there is considerable Manichaean sentiment among Christians, many of whom in their private beliefs include a dualism which pits God against Satan.
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Manichaean dualism is rife in the American political system. George Bush the Younger expressed it quite bluntly on several occasions when he said (in several variations), “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Bush, of course, did not invent this political usage of this tactic (known in logical circles as a false dilemma or false dichotomy). It goes back at least to Cicero and Caesar, and no doubt can be found in much earlier writings if one looks hard enough. In fact, before Bush’s first pronouncement of the notion – nine days after 9/11/2001 – the exact sentiment had been expressed a week earlier by Hillary Clinton: “Every nation has to be either with us or against us.”

In that particular instance (following the attacks on the World Trade Center), the ultimatum was directed on behalf of the United States toward the rest of the nations of the world. But it has a long history of use within the culture of American politics as well. The two parties that have dominated the American political scene since 1856 have employed it repeatedly in order to suppress any competition from additional parties.

Harvard political science professor Louis Hartz, in his 1955 work The Liberal Tradition in America put forth what became known as the “Fragment Theory.” His contention is that the nations that had risen in the West from European colonies (particularly the English-speaking ones) did not inherit the entire European political spectrum, but only a center-right fragment of it.

Indeed, the extremes do not exist here. There has never been, for example, a strong fascist nor a strong socialist tradition in America. In fact, classical conservatism, with its emphasis on stability and order and rejection of a primary focus on individual liberty, is not found, either. Conservatism in America has mainly served as a rear-guard holding action against progressivism. Classical liberalism, the political philosophy of all the Founding Fathers, identifies freedom as individual rights to life, liberty, and property. The differences the Founders had were about the extent to which a commonwealth could encroach on these liberties.

Thus what the United States has is not conservatism and liberalism, but varying degrees of liberalism. If the European political spectrum runs from zero (monarchical feudalism) to anarchy (ten), the political spectrum of the United States runs from four to five. The two factions that have run the country from the beginning have worked hard to keep it that way, and they have been quite successful.

The two parties do this by exaggerating their differences and promulgating the aforementioned false dichotomy. The Republicans regularly denounce the “socialist” policies of the Democrats, and the Democrats do the same with the “neo-fascist” policies of the Republicans. The parties tell us that we must choose: “You are either for us or you are for turning America into Venezuela.” “You are either for us or you are for turning America into Nazi Germany.”

Given those alternatives, no wonder so many people say they hold their noses when they vote or take a barf bag into the polling booth. More importantly, it is no wonder that half of Americans don’t vote and a third of Americans never vote. If the choice is between Hitler and Lenin, is it a choice worth bothering with? There are no other options. Do the major parties like that? Of course they do.

Thus the other options are squashed by the major parties. Since they control the State legislatures, they control the ballot process. They make it very difficult for any other parties to poach on their hunting grounds. If any minor parties do make the ballot, they still lack access to the money-grubbing process that drives elections. No party without big money can get candidates elected, and no donor seeking legislative favors will give money to candidates who cannot win. The only potentially serious candidates who are not of a major party are independents who can run on their own personal fortunes.

Next year the entire House, a third of the Senate, and the President will all be chosen in American elections. Look for more of the demonization and polarization that marks our biennial march to the national polls. It will be there.

It will be there because it works. The major parties have kept themselves in control by emphasizing relatively minor political divisions (should the Department of Energy be abolished?) as vast chasms and telling you that if you vote for anyone but them, you are voting for Evil. They will keep telling you that a vote for a minor party is the same thing as a vote for the Forces of Darkness and Hell. They will continue to promise that the opposing party will eat your children. “If you are not for us, then you are for child-eating.”