It is somewhat silly to assert that Republicans and Democrats, along with their appointed presidential candidates, are exactly the same on all issues. They have clear differences with taxation schemes, social welfare programs and social issues (abortion, gay marriage, gender issues, etc.). However, while I may be missing a couple, these represent a pretty narrow slice of all possible political issues. And for every other question of domestic and foreign policy, our two main parties seem to either be in agreement or unable to form their own nuanced opinion.
Where this is most glaring is in foreign policy, especially as it has manifested itself during the Obama administration. Obama began his foreign policy, like his domestic policy, with soaring rhetoric promising meaningful change in the way in which we deal with foreign peoples, specifically those of developing countries. This was most famously articulated in a speech he gave in Cairo in 2009.
Since then, however, he has largely kept in place most of George W. Bush's policies, and has widely expanded the "War on Terror" in the form of drone strikes. He has offered inconsistent support of the peaceful democratic movements in the Middle East, and has shown utter contempt for those movements that would threaten our expedient alliances with the Gulfi Tyrants (such as was seen in Bahrain and Yemen, and to a lesser degree Oman and Saudi Arabia).
These policies, along with our unconditional support of Israel and demonization of Iran, are pretty much exactly as they have been, and as I recently argued, show little sign of changing regardless of who enters the White House next January. This is one of the reasons I am particularly intrigued by the upcoming debate on foreign policy. I have no idea what will be discussed.
Which brings us to domestic policy. It is politically advantageous for Obama and Romney to characterize themselves as different as possible, and paint this election as a massive choice that will define the future of America. However, there really are only a few issues that these two candidates are willing to talk about.
In a piece for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald used the recent presidential debate as an excellent example of how certain issues are discussed and others ignored in an effort to exaggerate the differences between the two candidates. Basically, the entire debate focused on general topics such as the economy (which more or less comes down to tax policy and corporate regulation) and the role of government.
In a lot of ways, these represent basically the same topic for Democrats and Republicans: Democrats generally favor more taxes and more government intervention, and Republicans favor less of both. So each candidate was given a podium to go back and forth explaining how different he is from his rival, and how his rival's policy will destroy America.
But, as Greenwald argues, there are a multitude of issues that are simply being ignored. These issues range from the prison system and the penal policy more generally, the so-called War on Drugs, climate change and energy policy, a growing surveillance state, decreasing governmental transparency, the housing crisis, immigration, a massive racial-economic divide, and a refusal to prosecute those responsible for the 2008 recession.
Republicans and Democrats are also in almost complete agreement with regards to campaign finance regulations. While this has developed some nuance with the advent of the Super PAC, both parties more or less follow the same strategy of funding their campaigns. Because of this, there is little impetus to talk about this issue, despite a number of polls showing the electorate's perception that Congress has been bought by corporate America.
While the similarities abound, it would not be strategic for either Democrats or Republicans to bring these issues up. And the media, represented at its worst by MSNBC and Fox News, follow in step by talking about either the few areas where the candidates do actually differ policy wise, or focusing on such trivialities as their personalities.
What this all boils down to is the failure of our two party system. Republicans and Democrats have chosen a few issues to spar on, and ignore pretty much everything else without anyone holding their feet to the fire. Any attempt by third parties to penetrate the political scene is viciously denied. Either the media ignores their existence, or the Two Parties carry out coordinated campaigns warning about losing potential votes (Gary Johnson for the Republicans, the Green Party for the Democrats).
A pluralistic political scene is one of the most beneficial aspects of a truly representative democracy. Until we have access to not only a variety of opinions but also more importantly a variety of issues, we will make little political progress in this country. As Noam Chomsky put it, choosing between Republicans and Democrats is little different than choosing between Coke and Pepsi.