Over here you see people lining up quietly to cast their votes for Democrats or Republicans; over there you read an article about how a Republican president started mass surveillance of citizens and the next, a Democrat, furthered the program.
Here you see a middle manager rubbing his jaw over some 30-second televised twaddle about how the guy he was going to vote for in the Senate race doesn't buy the idea of America's special mission to spread democracy; there you read that only in our hemisphere, only in the last twelve years, America approved the overthrow of two democratically-elected governments (Guatemala and Paraguay) and attempts on two others (Venezuela and Ecuador).
Every network news program in the land splashes the video of some cockney Brit with a knife holding forth on caliphates while his victim patiently kneels beside him; yet a few clicks of the mouse will find inform anyone of ongoing American drone attacks on terrorists and their neighbors young and old.
But you rarely see those contrasts in mainstream debate.
The greatest disappointment of American political culture, especially in this election year, is the sheer paltriness of the political debate. The electorate's choice is between lemonade with sugar or sugar with lemonade. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;... whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. What would Jefferson make of our posturing candidates trying to be tougher-than-thou on illegal immigrants, more balanced-than-thou on the budget, or more patriotic-than-thou regarding the America's role in the world?
One thing he would notice immediately is how narrow the political debate is, how narrow the political spectrum.
Take drones, for example. They have killed thousands -- and maimed Allah knows how many others -- most during the Obama presidency. The best estimate is that, only in Pakistan, hundreds of those killed were civilians. And for good measure, the drones continue to fly over the villages, terrifying children and sending everyone running for cover: terrorism in its purest form. Yet have you heard a candidate suggest we ought to stop this barbaric practice outright? That we ought to do things right and either declare war on Pakistan or end our attacks there?
Take terrorism in America. Has any candidate suggested that what terrorism there is -- simply defined here as political assassination -- is negligible? In the early 90s in Spain, where I live, a bomb was going off right in the major cities almost every week. That was a wave of terrorism.
Take Israel and Palestine. It would be the work of a moment for the United States to declare that it will not use its UN veto power in Israel's favor until a Palestinian state is a living reality. But you will hunt in vain for an American candidate willing to take on Israel.
One of the healthier aspects of European democracy is that small fringe parties exist to make these points, and every parliament in Europe has its seats with vocal extremists. It's true that these parties are never elected to run the country -- they occasionally play king maker or attain a ministry -- but they play the vital role of offering a wider variety of answers to public problems than you would ever find in America.
A wider political spectrum has the added benefit of giving democratic outlet to those fed up with the major parties. And it makes European politics less -- slightly, crucially less -- subject to big money and corporate influence. If you doubt that last point, just look at France's answer to fracking: a flat nationwide ban, and that despite an all-out lawsuit by its own national oil giant, Total.
But the U.S.? America's democracy will not recover until it throws off the dual oxen yoke of the Democrats and Republicans. As that modern sage Chris Hedges wrote : "I f we do not rapidly build militant mass movements to overthrow corporate tyranny, including breaking the back of the two-party duopoly that is the mask of corporate power, we will lose our liberty."
When a candidate begins to ask if we can't cut back the surveillance state or eliminate most of our bases abroad or make a principle of not overthrowing foreign democracies, you'll know something has changed. But how far from that day we are!