Not long ago, we could judge political candidates by their views on issues we cared about to see if there was a match with our own (e.g., abortion, war, spending, immigration, gay rights, unions, and the role of government). Party affiliation was important but not critical, and many, if not most, Americans probably voted for candidates of both parties at some point.
Not anymore. As Democrats and Republicans developed contrasting views on a range of issues, they increasingly demanded that their candidates commit totally to the party's platform. Today, pro-choice Republicans are as rare as anti-union Democrats.
Today, more Americans identify themselves as Independents rather than as Democrats or Republicans. This tells me that the hardening of the parties' positions on every major issue is not in step with what Americans want: good government, problem-solving and nuance on the issues. Instead, the parties demand extremism and rigidity.
We no longer need to know a politician's positions because their party label tells us everything. While many Americans may like the clarity and lack of thought required by the parties' clear contrasting positions, many others, like me, are frustrated. Most Americans I know see a Hobson's choice with the candidates from both parties. Democracy theoretically thrives on vocalized contrasting positions. But our nation isn't benefiting from the stark choices presented by the two parties. The loyalty test, demanded by the activists who dominate both parties, gives us a candidate pool with an incredibly narrow range of extreme views.
The result? Americans now face the next presidential election with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the choices. President Obama's own supporters are "exhausted" and lack their former zeal. Even his campaign launch displayed such tepid supporters that the left-leaning Jon Stewart lambasted the effort as pathetic.
And for those looking for an alternative on the Republican side, every candidate has to meet an incredibly lengthy litmus test of issues (e.g., support the wars, oppose health care reform, be pro-life, support guns, oppose any tax increase, be against immigration reform, and oppose gay rights). Today, the pool of probable GOP candidates shares identical positions on nearly every issue.
If you agree that wine and politics are the only two things left with only two choices and want to do something about it:
1. Run for office or support courageous candidates who are willing to stray outside the party lines. Michael Bloomberg, the Maine senators, certain anti-deficit candidates, and even those from other smaller parties deserve wider support.
2. Let your voice be heard. Write letters to the editor, post on blogs, draft op-eds, and engage others. You'll almost certainly find others who are just as frustrated as you.
3. Support institutional changes that strip power from incumbency, like proportional voting, non-party primaries, and objective redistricting.
4. Join the NoLabels Movement. This group of centrist politicians and voters wants to solve the problems by building a grassroots effort based on compromise.
5. If you not only agree that our two parties are failing us but also view yourself as "fiscally conservative, socially liberal," then join that page on Facebook and build a movement. If you are "fiscally liberal, socially conservative," then join that page. If you have other views, then form a page and attract like-minded people.
With each party allowing only one set of views we are increasingly unable to solve real national problems. Unless we act, we will burden the next generation with a weaker America than we inherited.
Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents more than 2,000 technology companies and owns and produces the International CES. Shapiro is the author of The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.