Two-party System: Envelope Pushed to Limit?

New coalitions are needed, to do the work we need done.

It is time to take a hard look in the mirror once again. Our democracy is an indirect democracy, so much so that we don’t even vote directly for our preferred candidates for president and vice president; we vote for the slate of “electors” who will in turn cast votes for them. In 2000, we saw the tremendous flaws inherent in this process and how it was originally designed to ensure “the mob” would not rule. The Senate was originally not chosen by the people at all. The mechanism for removing corrupt or ideologically biased Supreme Court justices is virtually non-existent, though it does, in theory, exist.

We can, through the House of Representatives, have more or less “direct” access to our elected representatives, and at lower levels of government, citizen involvement is not only eminently possible, and fairly commonplace, but urgently necessary. As Pres. Obama said on election night, this year: “America has never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

Self government is not easy; indeed, it is “hard and frustrating”, and “necessary”, if we are to have anything like a just society with a legitimate form of civilian rule. Democracy is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all of us. And, when we look in the mirror, in the year 2012, we can see that the two-party duopoly does not adequately express the aspirations, concerns, demands and creative collaborative potential of the American people. All too often, the choice between the parties seems to be a choice to counter the vices and inadequacies of the party that has been governing. Instead of the aspirational politics exemplified by the unique phenomenon of Obama’s two campaigns, we normally have something like the most reductive form of a constructive experiment in the peaceful transition of power.

In 2006, Democrats swept to power amid revelations of rampant corruption in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In 2008, a relative newcomer to the United States Senate, Barack Obama built a campaign of more than 13 million supporters and participants, an online network bigger than either party itself, secured record numbers of donations from record numbers of “small donors”, amounting to a record overall campaign warchest. The national passion for this de facto third party challenger to the inertia of the duopoly won him nearly 70 million votes, far more than any candidate in US history.

The response from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was to organize every action any member of his caucus would take, for the next four years, around the singular purpose of “destroying the Obama presidency”. (One might argue McConnell and his gang of pirates—the meaning of “filibuster” refers to 17th- and 18th-century piracy in the Mediterranean—have now forfeited all credibility, having sworn themselves to the sabotage of the American experience, for the sole purpose of getting rid of the most widely supported US president in history, but no one seems to be making that case, at the moment.)

In 2010, a billionaire-funded “astroturf” movement calling itself “the Tea Party” made an attempt to take over the Republican party, posing as populists but with an agenda to hand control of the party irreversibly to big business interests. Low voter turnout and a surge of populist fervor on the right, swept the Republicans back to power in the House of Representatives. The result has been “divided government” of a kind that is not only sclerotic and vitriolic, but unbelievably counterproductive and corrosive to American democracy.

Bipartisanship has been cast by Republicans as a betrayal on a par with treason, and campaign literature has consistently shown a reluctance to move toward any less emotionally unstable conceptualization of democracy. Hysteria and propaganda have replaced constructive problem-solving as first-order priorities for too many of our public officials. Part of the reason for that is the very real and warranted fear that the other side will, inevitably, regain power, at some point. Coalition-building is not rewarded as much as it should be in an open democracy.

On election night, this year, Republican strategists, from moderates through to fiscal and even social conservatives, spoke surprisingly openly about the party’s existential peril, going forward. If the Republican party wants to remain “a national party”, said Steve Schmidt, top adviser to the McCain campaign in 2008, it will need to diversify. The Romney campaign should be, he and others argued, the last Republican campaign that bets the farm on thinly veiled white supremacist language and the language of patriarchy and opposition to the rights of women and immigrants.

As the Republican party’s market appeal shrinks, necessarily, and the vote of young people, women and minority groups, expands, the party has two choices: moderate the extremist discourse that has been dominating the party’s national agenda or be relegated to the right-wing fringe. So far, the party has held off this inevitable reckoning with a hysterical cry against “socialist” domination of the American political system—and by socialist, they mean Democratic.

But that will only work for so long. The Democratic party is not a socialist party, and its way of creating, funding, maintaining and improving social service systems is decidedly more democratic and grassroots-focused than any European socialist system. The system of social services we have was largely created by the Democratic party, and so a moderate Democratic party—which is what we have—now sits astride the political center, more genuinely conservative on many issues than the Republican radicals calling for “2nd Amendment options” against the system we as a nation have established by way of democratic process.

As the Republican party shifts more and more to the right, the Democratic party is freed to take over more and more of the political center, and it has done so. The United States Senate and the House of Representatives both include Democratic members that are more conservative than most Republican presidents of the 20th century, even some more conservative than George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. And of course there are real liberals, unapologetically committed to the social agenda of human liberation and civil rights.

The Democratic party is positioned to own the system for a generation, if the other half of the duopoly falters. And it has faltered. In 2012, the Republican party was unable to muster even a single credible presidential candidate. Mitt Romney was never trusted by the American people, and his naming of Paul Ryan to the ticket was a weak-kneed attempt to appear serious on a single issue, where his party has been unable to propose any constructive solutions.

The Republican campaign flailed back and forth, desperately, from extremist Randian anti-Christian feudalism to pro-plutocracy to arbitrarily applied Christian fundamentalism, to grasping at straws on taxes, social policy, immigration, jobs and the environment. The Republican party campaign apparatus became a lie factory, spending over a billion dollars on absurd claims, not supported by facts, and which did not produce in the minds of voters even one clear, coherent message about actual policy planning.

Nate Silver was right to put the odds of Obama’s re-election as over 70%, then over 80%, and eventually over 90%, as it became clear that voters did not like Romney, did not trust Romney, did not support eliminating Medicare—virtually the only policy plan publicly stated by the campaign—, and did not believe they would ever know enough about Romney in order to believe he was on their side. Even Republicans consistently shared such feelings with pollsters and the press.

So, this week the political press is awash in talk about Obama’s great “coalition”, bringing together minority groups, social interest groups, the traditional Democratic “base” and even “smart money”—the kind of affluent political thinkers who understand they actually do better in a more equitable economy, led by a Democratic president, than they do in a laissez-faire economy where consumers are poorer and poorer over time. But what coalition exists to rival that new center-left? At present: none.

But for some time, it has been evident that there is a natural, if awkward, affinity between the Green Party and the Libertarian Party and the grassroots movements they aspire to represent. Both favor genuine liberation of the individual in civil rights and jurisprudence; both favor a ground-up democracy, not a top-down democracy; both favor participatory consensus-building over party committee rule. Both have a genuine appeal to make to middle class voters, on the potential of crafting policies that will humanize government, build quality of life for communities and rationalize our politics.

As the shift away from the old Republican way continues, the Republican party will have one crucial decision to make that will affect us all: will it moderate its discourse, open its doors to newcomers, embrace constructive pragmatic problem solving and socially viable 21st century individual and community liberation, or will it continue to move to the extremist fringe? If it comes back to the world the rest of us inhabit, the two party system might go on for some time.

If it does not, a Green-Libertarian grassroots alliance will be poised to assimilate the most intelligent and constructive voices from the Occupy movement, even the Tea Party grassroots, and certainly from committed independents, and might have enough appeal, over the next few election cycles, to become the 2nd party nationally by 2020. The rise of Barack Obama illustrated perfectly how a true insurgent, more focused on letting the voices of his supporters emerge from the background noise, can rapidly replace the old guard, when democracy comes to its truer expression.

Look now for opportunities to bridge the divide between Libertarians and Greens. Look now for opportunities to build grassroots coalitions that will influence or replace out-of-date partisans, starting at the local level. Look for opportunities like the Senate campaign of Bill Barron, in Utah—a principled independent running to restore genuine thinking about life at the human scale to our discussion about environment, energy, economics and industry. Look for ways to find your voice within the fabric of our “hard and frustrating, but necessary” democratic process for making public policy and law.

2012 is not a “mandate” for divided government; it is a reminder that we need a more thoughtful political system, where creative collaborative problem-solving is the norm, not the critically endangered species. The new era of constructive coalition-building starts now.

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