Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two-Party Tyranny

Norman Podhoretz provides one of the most apt descriptions of the differences between progressive and conservative thought that I have yet seen:
“[I]n speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.”
Some might understandably disagree with Podhoretz’s negative framing of ‘liberal’ (i.e. progressive) thinking. It is easy to caricature the opinions of those that think differently than us. But I think that Podhoretz gets the general concept right. One group tends to see mainly those things that they believe need changing while the other group sees mainly those things that they believe need to be defended against change.

There are probably many in each group that don’t necessarily disagree with some of the main concepts of the other group. They just set different priorities on those matters.

Although I suggested in my last post that the vast majority of Americans can be somewhat neatly divided between the two major political parties, each of these parties is actually a large coalition that includes a broad spectrum of viewpoints. I think that it is probably safe to say that in each party, the largest number of people that agree enough to create a power base represent one of the two views expressed above.

But there are enough varied intraparty viewpoints and interests represented that neither party can successfully push 100% for the views of its main faction. When a party rides roughshod over the interests of other significant party factions, it threatens to fracture the coalition, resulting in a diminution of that party’s power. This is part of what happened to the GOP during the Bush years.

Apologists for our two-party system assert that each party provides a winnowing process that excises the most extreme viewpoints, reducing mainline debate to a tug-o-war between center-left and center-right views. Note that the term ‘center’ is always phrased first to suggest generally moderate outcomes that are in the broadest general interests.

Additionally, our two-party system usually creates clear winners and losers. This, it is claimed, provides a clearer mandate and allows our political leaders to accomplish important things. A regular quip goes something like, “You wouldn’t want us to be like Italy, would you?” This implies that multi-party systems such as Italy’s leave the government too weak to “get things done” and create such ambivalence that leadership changes too rapidly to provide continuity.

But given Italy’s experience with its dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s-1940s, perhaps they can be excused for believing that ambivalence in political power is probably a worthwhile tradeoff for the horrors brought on by even a benevolent strong government.

Although our two-party system provides governmental strength, why is it that most Americans seem to be oblivious to the tyranny inherent in such a system? As power is traded between the two major parties, each party tries to outdo the other in accumulation of power. The effect is that power over the lives of the people is continuously expanded; regardless of which party is in power. It matters little that one party claims to stand for ‘limited government.’

I heard part of an interview with David Frum (a prominent Republican conservo-moderate pundit) on the radio yesterday. In response to a question, he said that our two-party system will be with us for a long time to come, and that if you want to accomplish anything politically, it will have to be within that system. I didn’t like Frum’s answer, but I sense that he is correct about this.

Still, I maintain that our two-party system ill serves us. As I mentioned yesterday, it tends to impose two-dimensional thinking that is poorly suited to the complex issues we face. Moreover, the main feature of the system is steady accumulation of power with corresponding reduction of liberty. Almost all of the conflict in this political system serves as nothing more than a tool for distracting the public from this central focus on power. Yet most of us are sheep that obediently play into this deceitful power play.

Do viable solutions to this tyranny exist?

11 comments:

Bradley Ross said...

We have a lot of accumulated history, tradition, and procedure that favors the two party system. This alone may make it impractical to switch to a multi-party system. However, I think if we are going to get there, it will have to start with preference choice voting. (You've heard me harp on that before.) fairvote.org

Charles D said...

Podhoretz does describe a major part of the differences between right and left in this country (although he frames liberals in the negative), but he fails to observe that both can be right. I think both sides would agree that America has offered more freedom and prosperity to its citizens than most other nations, but that there are still Americans who do not share in those benefits - at least there is a wide disparity in the degree to which citizens share in our nation's bounty.

I would agree that the 2 party system is counterproductive at this point, but principally because both parties are controlled by the same special interests - large corporations, banks, Wall Street firms, and the military contracting industry. Neither party challenges those interests even when doing so would benefit their alleged core constituency.

Can the 2 party system be made to work again for America? Yes. But only if both conservatives and liberals demand that the Constitution be amended to make the framer's intent clear: the rights enumerated in the Constitution and its amendments apply to individual citizens only, not to corporations. When we remove corporate power, influence and money from the political process, we can begin restoring power to the people.

Reach Upward said...

"... the 2 party system is counterproductive at this point, but principally because both parties are controlled by the same special interests...."

Bingo.

I think it will be difficult to achieve widespread adoption of preference voting. But if it will help break up the current two-party establishment, I'm all for it.

Bradley Ross said...

When we remove corporate power, influence and money from the political process, we can begin restoring power to the people.

I think that freedom of the press necessarily implies corporate free speech. Why should a corporation with a news organization be granted greater speech rights than other corporations? I say, let them all speak. Upon what basis can we fairly do otherwise?

Reach Upward said...

I believe that our political system has transferred far too much control to special interests, some of which are corporations. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are substantially supported by the same interests. The points of disagreement occur in that narrow band where a few interests are substantially dedicated to one party over the other.

Unlike Charles D, I am not opposed to corporations as a matter of principle. However, I am opposed to big businesses that generate much of their wealth and power by plying the political system in order to stifle competition and use the coercive powers of government to force people to purchase their wares.

Businesses should exist and persist by offering goods and/or services for which people willingly exchange their own resources. One of the chief roles of government is to ensure that the proper legal structure exists to encourage this type of behavior.

Charles D said...

I am also not opposed to corporations, they have brought us a great deal of prosperity over the years. I do however, object to the idea that a corporation has the same Constitutional rights as an individual.

A corporation is a legal entity chartered by the states and in the case of a publicly traded corporation, has a fiduciary responsibility to increase shareholder value. Unlike individual citizens, it does not make decisions based on morality or its view of the good of the nation, it makes decisions entirely on whether they are good for investors - in other words, profit.

The founders never imagined that corporations would grow to become more powerful than many nations, and be able to spend billions of dollars to exert their will over the legislative processes of the state and federal governments. We now have codified into law the idea that these legal constructs have freedom of speech, the right to a jury trial, and the right to equality under the law with citizens. Because of the enormous power and wealth of some of these entities, their speech is much louder than that of individuals, they are able to buy hundreds of lawyers to defend their crimes in court, and they leverage their 14th amendment "rights" to overrule the attempt of citizens to curtail their operations.

Certainly individuals who work in or run big corporations can and should exercise their rights, including participation in the political process. They should be able to join together with like-minded citizens to pressure the government as long as no corporate money is involved. The corporation however, should be barred completely from direct or indirect participation of any kind in our political process. That is not their role. They were created to make things and provide services, not to run our country.

Bradley Ross said...

The Founders had the example of the East India Company which was stronger than many nations. I don't really know what they had to say about corporations. Something I should probably read up on.

I certainly agree that it is bad that corporations can exert so much power on lawmakers and bribery laws ought to prevent much of that sort of corruption. I just don't think that it is a good idea to tell corporations they can spend money to legitimately influence people on political issues. Perhaps there ought to be huge fines for blatantly false information that is spread which impacts an election or referendum with the option of a do-over.

Reach Upward said...

GMU law professor Todd Zywicki has argued that the 17th Amendment did much to bring us to the current state where most political action is driven by special interests. His work shows that prior to direct election of senators, special interests had much less sway in politics because it was simply too expensive for them to impact legislation. Not only did they have to ply the representatives in Washington, they also had to work most of the state legislatures. This was just too expensive.

These special interests combined to support the 17th Amendment because they could all agree on it. Their combined lobbying power proved sufficient to get the amendment proposed and ratified.

Once senators were elected by the same pool of people that elected representatives, the cost of affecting legislation dropped substantially, since far fewer interests had to be appeased. Hence, the significant growth of special interest driven policy and the incredible growth of the federal government during the past century.

Charles D said...

Interesting idea about the 17th amendment. Frankly, the democratic (small d) thing to do would be to abolish the Senate. We have recently enjoyed the undemocratic process by which 6 senators, who combined represent less than 3% of the American population, were given almost complete control of creation of the so-called health care reform bill. For years, we have seen the Senate dominated by members from the least populated states. Of course, the original purpose of the Senate was to prevent the unwashed masses from doing anything that would threaten the property rights of the wealthy. In that regard, it has been a smashing success.

RD said...

I would suggest returning the senate to the old way and switching the house of rep's to a nationally elected body where the vote is handled via a proportional voting system.

This would both remove much of the special interests, and provide a strong national government.

Look at the wide variety of party's that many European country's enjoy. Just recently for example the (not joking) Pirate party gained 3 seats in the Swedish Parliament. The Swedish parliament has 8 Party's currently.

Sweden Political Parties

Charles D said...

My idea would be to abolish the Senate entirely. Then dramatically increase the number of representatives in the House so that citizens have a reasonable opportunity to interact with their legislators. (Check the number of representatives vs. population in other developed nations to our own.)

Then let's have federally financed elections with a total ban on outside money, House districts designed by computers rather than politicians to be contiguous and equal, and instant runoff voting.

I want a pony too.