What If Presidents Were Elected in Pairs — One Democrat, One Republican?

For the benefit of all, an outside the “Man Box” approach would temper self-serving ambitions in those seeking the “highest office.”

There’s really no other way to slice it. Listening to the impeachment hearings is downright depressing. While brief thrills may be had, aghast or indignant, staking out the right-ness of your side, stepping back from it all as an American these days has been plain, old flattening, for everyone I’ve talked to, at least.

I was in this flattening-effect pretty deep when I came across a wild idea that, had the framers somehow baked the Constitutional cake differently, might have helped avert this polarized, impasse. It’s wild, so bear with me — after all, wild can start to look normal in today’s climate…  This was it: What would America look like if instead of electing one president, we elected two — the two front runners of opposing parties — in our current case, a Republican and a Democrat. The pair would be evaluated after four years based on what they had accomplished together by way of compromise and collaboration during their term.

Wow. Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? It’s hard to even picture in today’s climate, but trying it on just for fun, it challenged me to start thinking about how different our politics could be if our system had been built on a foundation that buttressed the value of relationship. What if politicians ran for election not just on their platforms, in other words, but also as exemplars of the ability to partner, listen, be creative in solving complex problems according to the needs and wishes of different constituencies. How would we need to adjust as citizens, if we knew that the election would result in ‘our side’ having to work with ‘their side’ for anything to truly get done? How would we, as citizens, relate to the country differently? How would it motivate us to get to know, or befriend, one another? How might we be soberer in our aspirations, seeking more knowledge in thinking about the needs of the whole, not just of ourselves? And what characteristics would we look for in the candidate?

Consider the following:

  1. We’d shift from a model that forces information on voters, convincing them of the absolute rightness of our position, (sometimes, uh, at the cost of lying), to a model where competition happens around the ability to listen, learn, respect and negotiate.
  2. In a polarized electorate, the delusional, (narcissistic) denial of the other side’s existence would get punctured, forcing us to face the reality of the whole country more squarely.
  3. We’d have to move from a dominator/submitter, winner/loser model to one where for anything to get done, differences would need to be respected — we’d have to SEE each other, not disregard, dismiss, belittle or defeat the other’s position.

As a thought experiment, it starts to reveal what an Executive Office could look like if the framers valued something in our human nature other than the ego, individual charisma and self-serving ambitions that often exist in individual politicians who ‘rise to those heights.’

Two street signs are mounted on the same pole, pointing in opposite directions. One says "Trust" and the other says "Mistrust"
Image by Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

Superiority vs. Partnership

Of course, this idea didn’t rise out of a vacuum. I write about post-patriarchal culture and citizenship and, along with many others, see Donald Trump not as a rogue phenomenon, but as the culmination of a rising polarization in this country fed by the growing threat of progressive change to a white patriarchal status quo. Trump, dubbed by some as the last gasp of patriarchy and by others, with less optimism, as evidence that the “American Experiment” has failed, is perhaps, we can agree, textbook patriarchy at its worst: A model of relating — if you can call it that — bent on domination, superiority, self-reliance and a might-makes-right unquestioned authority.

In her exhaustive research on patriarchy, feminist writer Riane Eisler arrived at one primary shift that would go a long distance in our culture as an antidote to the damaging, inbalance that patriarchal value systems wield in the world: Partnership.

Partnership isn’t just a concept, or a nice idea with a feminist ring to it, its something that exists throughout nature and is ubiquitous in its systems that support life. We think of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” supporting the rights of individuals because…well, it was set up that way. But what if our founders had understood, as many a mother does, that life just as much depends on relation, on inter-relation, on giving, sacrificing, and on recognizing needs. Life depends on mutually beneficial relationships as much as it does on learning to stand on our own two feet. This isn’t just “women’s wisdom,” though, or, as I said, a nice feminist idea, it’s the all-too-often untold story of what makes life, life. Of what makes life livable.

Tiny slim stems with new green leaves rise out of mossy patches in blue water
Image by Emmanuel Mbala (Unsplash)

I recently traveled to the Galapagos Islands — a truly incredible place to see where (and how) Darwin developed the theory of natural selection that would later buttress worldviews founded on the principle that the most competitive individuals, the “fittest” survive. However, on those islands, there’s an equally remarkable lesson to be learned about not just competing finches, iguanas and sea lions, but how much no individual, living being could exist without relying on others — within their own species and beyond. Even the iguanas – cold-blooded reptiles – can’t survive without piling on top of each other to keep warm! If a baby sea lion survives, it is at least partly because of its location within a network of supportive others in the ‘rookery.’ There is no survival of the fittest without the equally valuable survival of the group. The ecology of the group, in short, and all that supports it needs to be taken into account, not just the strength and toughness of the pack’s alpha male.

Similarly, relationship, how successfully we connect, is a human capacity, a human necessity, just as much as self-assertion, competition and becoming one’s own person is. In fact, you really can’t do one without the other. A winning sports team must work together for that NBA title, you need a community to find footing after a disastrous fire, working together. When our attention goes to just the winning, we take our focus off all the partnering relations that made any of being alive and succeeding at life possible in the first place.

Oil seeping across sand.
Image by Mario Caruso (Unsplash)

Polarities: Public/Private, Male/Female, Black/White, Democrat/Republican

Raised as we all are in a patriarchal worldview that separates autonomy/individual rights/politics from relationship/family/personal— we privatize this quality of (inter)relationship, relegating it, through the gender binary, to its ‘place’ on the home front, to women. This is arguably because the framers framed their Constitution in a time and place when this separation was heartily entrenched in the culture. Competition was for men, partnership for women. After all, working together in collaboration is what women do in the kitchen. Men, by contrast, compete to win, they fight to separate from the ‘mother’ country! When separate, they must battle against each other, then, in order to win and govern.

The framers developed a brilliant system for checking patriarchal men’s competitive worst instincts, (except, importantly, as they were enacted against women and slaves). In doing so, they set up a system with the goal of protecting themselves from one another. But they left behind some of the key principles they needed to include to represent more than just themselves. They left behind in their design the parts of life they relegated to the mysterious, a-political realm called the ‘private’ sphere — they place where women, servants and slaves supported the whole shebang in Washington. There, in that so-called ‘private sphere’ was the key not just to what’s necessary for white men not to not kill each other, but what’s necessary to support life.

What, then, if what was valued in our Constitution was different, or rather, if the net was cast wider. What if the framer’s vision wasn’t born from the division into the public and private sphere so prevalent in patriarchy, but if compromise, collaboration, and our inter-connection were held up as the greater good we needed to protect and enable in our governing institutions? What if the goods of the so-called private sphere were truly valued in the foundations of our public institutions?

The Patriarchal… “But!”

I can hear the objections flying: “This making women better than men is full of *hit. Let me tell you about the women I know who don’t know how to partner!”

“Partnership is a bunch of mamby-pamby leading to analysis paralysis. Tell me what happens when your so-called partnering leaders can’t agree when N.Korea has a missile pointed at California!”

“Yea, right. That’s an invitation to civil war. I think we’ll pass on that, stupid.”

The trouble is, we are SO steeped in the particular worldview that privileges a certain orientation to life, it’s hard for us to even imagine what a world would look like that prioritized the value of making the best decisions from the point of view of our inherent interconnection. I have no doubt there are enough brilliant minds in our mix to imagine solutions to things like the North Korea scenario. I have plenty of responses to share to all these objections. But minds just don’t get put to work creatively engaging new solutions in the service of a newly upheld ‘good’ or ‘value’ in governance if we’re too scared or defensive to open to that possibility. When these perspectives are tossed out at the doorstep with cynicism we’re stuck with a worldview that privileges cynicism over love, individuals against one another, now endowing corporations with these same ‘competitive’ rights. The irony is that what feeds these defiant rebuttals at their base is not the strength or the “Truth” of them, but fear. Fear of the very vulnerability in our inter-connectedness that we need our governments more than ever to respect and protect.

Polarization is a funny thing in this way. It builds and builds, reinforcing the belief that we must dominate the other, striking them out of existence, in order to survive. Our existing governmental system, in fact, is founded on polarization — that between the private/public, female/male and black/white. (Yes, the separation of powers was intended to off-set polarization, but as we see, it hasn’t worked. Yet, at least.) Our system is set up to privilege and value certain human aptitudes and capacities, prizing charismatic leadership and, in the case of Donald Trump and his newly forged GOP, to win over the lesser, inferior others’ (women/racial minorities) at any cost.

On a shrinking globe, however, where, in America, in one year we consume what it takes the planet four years to reproduce, the humbling impact of climate change is making our interconnectedness increasingly apparent. The security of our economy, our borders, of capitalism as we know it, is wholly at stake. We can’t afford the delusions fostered in polarization. We can’t afford the illusion that our side can do it alone. We have to figure it out together. Time is up. There is no ‘out’ we get from winning one over the other.

On a rocky mountain top at dusk or dawn, one boy helps another climb the last steps to the top
Image by Mohamed Hassan (Pixabay)

A Partnering Presidency

If nothing could get done in the Presidency unless a winning pair of a Democrat and Republican jointly agreed on the action, well….the dial would be turned up on the need to compromise for life. Suddenly fair play becomes valuable because the consequences of the lack of it stymie anything from happening, including one’s re-election. Earning each other’s trust becomes something important to cultivate and value once earned. We would be forced to see each other as equals, subject to subject, not winner to loser, not superior and more valuable than the other. Similarly, learning to listen would become paramount, serving to remind us we are one human body on one planet.

The problem with our governing systems may well be, then, that they were founded on basic principles about what it is to be human born from the minds of white, patriarchal men in a very different era. These white men created remarkable systems to temper their worst instincts against each other, (but not against the darker skinned, of course) coming to the table to defend their individual right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Founded on the tales from the Enlightenment about “man” in the “state of nature,” we are, of course, more today than just men and we face a very different state of nature.

I don’t want men to step aside for others can take over. We need them. To want them out so we can take over is to reverse the polarization, perpetuating our problems in all the un-natural ways this has already happened. I want white men to be in real partnership with the rest of us and for that, they need to see beyond themselves. They need to see first into the ‘private sphere’ and then out to the larger ‘country’ —to include all humans, our planet and the systems of collaboration and inter-connection that give us all life. Maybe a Partnering Presidency could help support that.

So…Perhaps these flattening impeachment hearings are the mother of invention! It’s a stretch, but a worthy one to make us think outside the “man” box. If Democrats, Republicans and Independents knew that whoever they elected would need to partner with the other side to get anything done they would probably be looking out for candidates skilled in the art of collaboration, men and women, (or from across the gender spectrum), best able to bring their hearts and minds to the table with the opposing side to address the complex problems in our country and world. If we all knew the presidency was about this in 2016, would anyone have elected Donald Trump? And if we knew now, in 2020, that a partnership presidency was the plan moving forward, how would it change the kinds of conversations happening in our impeachment stymied Senate, today?

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