American democracy has been functionally describable as “a two-party system” for most of our country’s history. There have been “third parties,” but they have rarely been successful at breaking into the mainstream. One exception is the Republican Party, which took advantage of the collapse of the former “second party,” the Whigs, to become the other major party besides the Democrats, in the election of 1856, running bearded, long-haired John C. Fremont for President.
They didn’t win that election, but went on to win in 1860 with Abe Lincoln, and kept that string going for most of the next seventy-two years, until Roosevelt routed Hoover in 1932.
Meanwhile, other parties kept hoping to do what the Republicans had done. The Populists and Socialists never got much traction; the Progressive Party, championed by Theodore Roosevelt and later Robert LaFollette, came closest. The Progressives were actually a spinoff from the Republicans, and succeeded in diverting enough Republican votes to allow the election of Woodrow Wilson, who first kept us out of, and then got us into, World War I. Hey, it was a good excuse for arresting radicals and labor organizers. It’s kind of amusing, in light of the current political landscape, to think of the Republicans as the progressive part of our political spectrum, but that is how they started out–taking the radical position that slavery should be limited and, ultimately, eradicated. I am sure that, when they endorsed this idea in 1856, they had no idea how soon it would come to pass. That should serve as an inspiration to all of us. Thank you, Republicans!
So, what has being a two-party system meant for the form and direction of politics in this country?
The form has tended, over the election cycles, to make it increasingly difficult for there to be more than two parties. While many other countries’ democracies feature “proportional representation,” in which parties get seats in the legislature according to the total number of votes they receive, the US system is “winner take all,” with the occasional exception of a runoff between the top two candidates if nobody in a multi-candidate race receives a majority of the votes–but sometimes it’s winner-take all, as when so-called “independent”Joe Lieberman won a three-way US Senate race in Connecticut with just 49% of the vote after losing to a more radical opponent in the Democratic primary.
This circumstance means that, unless there are equally strong “minor parties” to draw voters from both “major parties,” a “third party” will tend to divide the voters in such a way as to allow a party whose viewpoint is endorsed by a minority–albeit a large minority–of the voters to take power. We have seen this happen in Canada, where Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party took advantage of the Liberal-New Democrat configuration to run the country, even though the Conservatives never received more than about a third of the votes. The Democrats claim that this happened in the U.S. election in 2000, saying that Al Gore would have won if not for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, although this conveniently ignores the fact that voter turnout in that election was barely 50%, and thus Gore could have swamped the Cheney-Bush ticket if he had inspired greater voter turnout. There’s also plenty of questions about the legitimacy of the election results in Florida, TYwhere voting was overseen by Kathleen Harris and Jeb Bush, who were open supporters of the Republican candidates. Like, the brother of the candidate, y’know?
Unfortunately for him, when Jeb Bush’s Presidential campaign in 2016 adopted the slogan, “Jeb Can Fix It,” the Florida election of 2000 was the first thing many voters thought of. But I digress…
So, unlike most other democracies, the form of American politics is designed to accommodate only two political parties, and those two parties are unlikely to give up their monopoly. How has this affected the content of America’s politics?
Before socialism became such a strong worldwide movement, the two-party system was kinda no big deal. There was only one possible economic reality, and the questions that needed to be answered in order to determine how it would function were fairly simple. Higher taxes or lower taxes? Should the country be more open to foreign trade or more protective of its domestic industries? Should the government allow more immigration or less immigration? More attention to foreign affairs or less? In those foreign affairs, how aggressive should the country be?
The rise of socialism in the late 19th century added another dimension to the political discussion by questioning the economic basis of society. In most democratic countries, this led to the creation of socialist political parties that became major actors. All the European democracies now have had strong, at least nominally socialist parties (and just how socialist those parties are is another discussion), but, here in America, the socialists have been unable to gain much of a foothold, especially after Franklin Delano Roosevelt “borrowed” most of their platform, albeit after watering it down enough so that it no longer challenged capitalism.
The result is that the political landscape in America is totally dominated by two parties that, in terms of foreign and economic policy, are scarcely distinguishable. Sure, the Democrats do stand staunchly for women’s reproductive rights, while the Republicans want to limit them, and in general the Democrats have a more liberal outlook on social issues, but that’s about where it ends. The Democrats make big noises about protecting the environment and maintaining a strong social safety net, but when push comes to shove, they, like the Republicans, are a party of, by, and for big business. “Freedom of choice” in American politics boils down to a choice between a tough, intolerant party that serves the needs of big business, and a superficially more caring, tolerant party that serves the needs of big business. Between them, they have jacked up the ante for playing the American political game to the point where you can only take part if you have corporate sponsorship or are independently wealthy–which almost invariably stems from corporate profits. Donald Trump isn’t just a guy–he’s a guy riding an enormous corporate structure that frees him from having to ask other corporations for money, so he can do and say what he wants.
This is a tough trend to buck. Bernie Sanders is the only politician who has been able to buck it, and his success is far from assured. In the likely event that his bid for the nomination fails, it will be interesting to see what happens to the energy and optimism he has invoked.
And that brings us to our current situation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don’t quite have a lock on their respective nominations, but it seems likely that they will be the candidates. If that is, indeed, the case, what will be its political significance?
In all those multiparty European democracies, the political landscape is undergoing a radical shift. The centrist parties are losing members and parliamentary seats, while left and right radical parties gain them. In the United States, that movement has taken the form of the Trump and Sanders campaigns, and that’s why traditional Republicans and Democrats are so upset about these candidates–Trump and Sanders are not controlled by the party.
As comedian/prophet Bill Hicks put it,
I have this feeling man, ’cause you know, it’s just a handful of people who run everything, you know … that’s true, it’s provable. It’s not … I’m not a fucking conspiracy nut, it’s provable. A handful, a very small elite, run and own these corporations, which include the mainstream media. I have this feeling that whoever is elected president, like Clinton was, no matter what you promise on the campaign trail – blah, blah, blah – when you win, you go into this smoke-filled room with the twelve industrialist capitalist scum-fucks who got you in there. And you’re in this smoky room, and this little film screen comes down … and a big guy with a cigar goes, “Roll the film.” And it’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before … that looks suspiciously like it’s from the grassy knoll. And then the screen goes up and the lights come up, and they go to the new president, “Any questions?”
“Er, just what my agenda is.”
“First we bomb Baghdad.”
“You got it …”
….and something like that will happen in the event that Sanders or Trump wins the election. They will be closely monitored as potential loose cannons, and find themselves unable to accomplish a lot of the things they promised their supporters even before Congress is involved.
In a way, Al Gore confirms this, albeit not quite as dramatically as Hicks. Al and I have a mutual friend, who told me, back when Al first became Vice President, how Al had told him that the role of Chief Executive was largely to serve as a figurehead, and so he and Bill actually had much less influence than everybody attributed to them.
Ms. Clinton understands this. Ted Cruz may not like it, but he understands it–not that he matters, because, and I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, Ms. Clinton is almost certainly going to be our next President.
Here’s the deal. While there is some heat between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters, and they would be in separate political parties in almost any other democracy, the Republican Party’s divisions run much deeper, if only because Republicans are less psychologically sophisticated and tend to cling to their thoughts and emotions much more readily than Democrats. That makes them bad losers. If Trump is the candidate, there will be massive defections, and derelictions, on the part of the roughly 60% of Republicans who have voted for other candidates. That’s right–in no primary has the “Republican front-runner” actually received a majority of the Republican votes. And, if Trump is not the nominee, he and his bad-loser followers will give tepid support, if any, to the nominee.
Whether that nominee is Trump, Cruz, or some as yet unnamed outfielder, the candidate will be heading a badly divided party that nonetheless will be excellent at playing the bogeyman role, and scaring most dissident Democrats and “independents” into voting for Ms. Clinton.
The problem with Ms. Clinton’s presidency is that, except for nominating a pro-choice Supreme Court Justice, her populist agenda will, like Barack Obama’s, just kind of fade away after she is elected. She has already clearly signaled that she is the best friend the Israelis could have, and promised to do all she can to criminalize the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement for the liberation of Palestine, which seems to be only the tip of the iceberg of her desire to further expand the reach of “the national security state.” During her tenure as Secretary of State, she made a major contribution to rising tension in the Middle East, and shows no signs that she regrets her advocacies and actions. As someone who apparently supports the continued use of natural gas, we cannot expect her to take more than token, insufficient steps to slow climate change. Five out of her six biggest donors are Wall Street Investment firms. She is not going to either regulate them or pass taxes that divert even a small percentage of their obscene profits into the public coffers, for the public good.
In summation, it’s likely that a Hillary Clinton Presidency, while it may save us from the ravages of uncompassionate, unthinking Republicanism, will be entirely inadequate to the task of cleaning up the mess we are in. We are rapidly running out of time to meet the twin challenges of climate change and resource depletion, and, in spite of her rhetoric otherwise, Ms. Clinton’s tenure in office is likely to be another four, or eight, years of insufficient action. There go the ice caps. Here comes the ocean. There go the seaside nuclear power plants. Oops.
But hey, this is a Green Party show/blog, isn’t it? Howcome I’m not bullish on Jill Stein and her plan to mobilize the forty million Americans who are in debt peonage to pay for their college educations and get herself elected President?
As I’ve said, the American political system is built to exclude those of us who don’t buy into the oligarchy’s narrative. Further, while I appreciate Dr. Stein’s vision and passion, she has yet to be elected to any office, where she might demonstrate to the citizenry that she has not just a passion, but a talent for governance. Bernie Sanders has spent thirty years building the foundation on which he now stands. Neither Dr. Stein nor the planet has thirty years in which to lay a similar groundwork at this point in our history, as we rapidly approach what may prove to be the end of our history.
We in the Green Party are like Lot in Gomorrah, looking in vain for enough honest, fearless people to save our city, or in this case, our planet. It is fear that has brought us our current political system, and it is fear that will elect Ms. Clinton. We have all but painted ourselves into a corner, with fear-based paint that may never dry out.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Albert Bates is right, and Ms. Clinton and the big money folks who support her will rise to the occasion, in their way, and we will get to answer the question of whether the planet can be salvaged without abandoning our radical fundamentalist capitalist monetarist outlook on things, which is based in ever-expanding debt and the notion that nothing is worth anything unless and until it is sold and somebody makes a financial profit on it. But, to paraphrase Jesus, what profiteth it a man if he gain a billion dollars and lose the world? The answers to all these questions are on the way.
music: Richard Thompson, “Roll Over Vaughan Williams”
Richie Havens, “Lives in the Balance”