A History of the Two-Party System: Part 4 (The Present)
The power structure in the West and its institutional translators hailed the implosion of the USSR and its allies as the ultimate vindication of capitalism, as though the failure of one thing proves anything about another. Some even resurrected assertions about the end of ideology and the end of history.
As after 1945, the loss of its primary enemy forced an economy and society geared for war to find new enemies. The 1980s launched an international “war on drugs,” and 20 years later, the United States declared its “global war on terror.” Since both adversaries are endemic to the modern world—indeed to some extent byproducts of American policy—these amount to waging an undeclared but terribly lucrative and useful war without end.
The U.S. emergence as the world’s dominant superpower changed everything about the nature of politics within the country. Cold War liberals often rationalized the insane levels of military spending, and what they called the “abuses” of “McCarthyism,” as temporary obstacles to the assumed democratization and social progress of American civilization. The end of the Cold War demonstrated the fallacy of all that, exposing the permanent character of the U.S. warfare-national security state. While it might have led to a new discussion over national priorities, the easiest option involved finding another international enemy.
Yet the fact that the U.S. did not turn its resources to the abolition of poverty, medical research or any genuine improvement of the quality of life has changed nothing in the arguments of Cold War liberalism. Rather, liberals simply recycled their excuses for not pressing for change because of communism into assertions about the assertions about the necessities of fighting “drugs” or “terrorism.” All this leaves various alternatives to those who remember the past and seek to use it wisely to shape a more livable future.
Adventures of a Super-duper Megapower
Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” followed by a “war on terrorism,” would continue Cold War priorities in new channels, permitting even more lucrative opportunities. What we used to honestly call the merchants of death moved into new technologies, from Reagan’s Star Wars through the armed drones beloved of the Obama administration. The nature of the war required pinning drugs and/or terrorism on the map. While the senior Bush and Clinton moved quietly into the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels centered the attention of the world on the Mideast. And the most powerful military force on the planet—the United States really had no close rivals in that respect—insisted upon a major role in the management of it.
U.S. strategy had long relied on two client states sitting like bookends on either end of the oilfields. The loss of the Shah of Iran in 1979 left Washington more dependent on Israel, whose government simply set aside its commitments to peace with the Palestinians in the agreements negotiated by Carter. To restore its balance, U.S. policy urgently needed a major ally in the Muslim world. There existed no shortage of candidates. The Carter and Reagan administrations had already become involved with the Saudi-backed terrorists working to subvert the secularist government of Afghanistan that had been allied to the USSR.
While contributing to the ascendancy of what became the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Washington also established ties to the government of Iraq. The Reagan cabal financed and equipped both Iraq and the new government of Iran during the prolonged and bloody war between them. Operating on the idea that it could make contradictory agreements in secret made enemies for the United States on all sides.
A U.S. military presence followed. To the cheers of the contractors and generals—armchair and otherwise—America seemed to have finally shed “the Vietnam syndrome.” After giving mixed signals to Iraq about the “adjustment of its borders” with Kuwait, the U.S. opportunity came when Saddam Hussein annexed the oil kingdom. Washington launched Bush Senior’s Saudi-funded 1991 First Gulf War, cheered by a delighted media. Pundits even talked of Bush winning reelection without Democratic opposition in 1992. In the end, the cost brought down Bush and established the U.S. as a brutalizing cynical force in the region, the target for the kind of terrorist groups that it had itself funded and encouraged.
Indeed, the enemies that the United States faced after the end of the Cold War had been largely its old beneficiaries. Both U.S. political parties had jointly managed—with nary a peep of difference—the government that had supported Noriega (in Panama) to Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, but also agreed simultaneously to revise their assessment of them as enemies.
“Progressive” Dogmatism and its Great Betrayal
As evidence for its validity or usefulness faded, “progressive” institutions, organizations, and ideologues have clung tenaciously to their one great dogma, rooted in the faith that the two-party system remains an eternal, ultimately unchallengeable reality. As with the most reactionary commentators, self-described “progressives“ projected their own failures on those who declined to make them. This dogma asserts that it is more damaging to progressive interest to challenge the two-party system than to accept the need to stay within it. The more the evidence demonstrates that their own dogmatism has produced only bleak disasters, the more they ascribe those disasters to those who rejected their groundless faith-based strategy of “working within the Democratic Party.”
The realities of electoral politics changed radically in the 20 years since Reagan’s deregulation of the media. The same corporate media transformed itself into what observers called a public affairs entertainment programming. Not only did cable television become endemic, but the growth of the internet has also helped provide new citizen-consumers with the power to choose the most comforting bits and pieces to structure their own sense of reality. This made politics increasingly a conflict of hallucinations. In lieu of a debate over issues or even substantive values—matters of war and peace or global warming—“news” highlights what maximizes viewership (and advertising revenues).
With the presidency little more than a communicator, the mouthpiece for the real power remained in the large, unelected layers of what Eisenhower had quaintly called the Military-Industrial Complex, sustained by armies of lobbyists. Ironically, with politics increasingly reduced to the presidency, the presidency itself became increasingly an issue of celebrity.
Yet skepticism and resistance persisted, even at the ballot box. In the presidential election of 2000, Ralph Nader headed the largest independent progressive third party effort since 1948. Owing to the general media blackout on his campaign, the millions of Americans who voted for him actually represented a considerably larger portion of those voters who were aware of the option.
The presidential election of 2000 cost the American people more than double what they had spent 20 years earlier. In return for over $135.1 million they cast their votes and got a president who got fewer of them than his opponent. Nothing more clearly confessed the absence of any Democratic agenda distinct from warmed-over Reaganism than their failure to wage an effective fight for the office they had won. Consistent with their self-gratifying dogmatism, Democratic apologists insisted that they lost the election not because they chose not to mount an effective challenge to being counted out in Florida, but because too many voters had supported Nader.
Later, as Democrats cravenly followed George W. Bush in foisting horrific policies on the nation, their “progressive” allies continued to insist that responsibility for those policies fell on the Nader campaign rather than on the Democratic Bushlings they had helped push upon the voters. The assertion that those who do challenge the two-party system are objectively aiding the more reactionary forces in society has become all the more adamant the more disgusted voters are inclined to look for something better than what the Democrats have ever offered. Too, more than in the past, part of the disparagement of independent action of any sort has come to include the active hostility to street demonstrations and strikes.
Democrats responded to Bush’s victory by functioning as loyal promoters of the Republican agenda on every single major initiative of his administration. Most despicably, the Democrats embraced measures more draconian than those of the Cold War in response to Bush’s war on terror, sparked by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the forewarnings of which the White House failed to take seriously.
Perhaps the most depressing and disgusting political development that people my age have ever witnessed was the liberal (and labor) willingness to join with the rest of the Democratic Party in embracing Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war. They have also since become eager apologists for the despicable assertion that the government can lawfully kidnap, torture, and/or kill any human being on the planet, including U.S. citizens, without the least accountability. That constitutional authorities and lawyers could make such arguments with a straight face, and that liberals and progressives would defend such things, amounts to conceding the utter bankruptcy of the system.
Lurching Into Crisis
To some extent, though, the chickens came home to roost. Capitalism’s marked lack of self-reflection, characteristic of the Cold War, greeted the fall of the Soviet Union in a celebratory orgy of unrestrained and unaccountable greed that closed the 20th and opened the 21st century with an unprecedented polarization of wealth.
From the savings and loans crisis on, government repeatedly bailed out large corporations in trouble. After the first few years of this, Clinton and the Democrats insisted that the nation had to pay for the prosperity it had enjoyed in the 1980s, but that this burden should be shared by those who enjoyed none of that prosperity. Then, in 2008, the financial house of cards collapsed. The administration of Bush Junior proposed an unprecedented no-strings attached $700 billion bailout of the endangered banks and corporations, and the Democrats hurried to go on record in favor of it. There were no bailouts for the people, no challenge to the doctrinal hostility to progressive taxes.
The public turned to the relatively unknown Democratic contender, Barack Obama, a Black legislator from Illinois and first-term U.S. Senator. Those who remembered FDR or LBJ saw Obama as somehow the embodiment of New Deal or Great Society traditions. Those who did not saw the photogenic African-American fresh face offering platitudes about hope and change. It was broadly believed that Obama would end the wars, undo the camps, the torture, the surveillance state, and restore some of the worst cuts over the previous 20 years. In fact, though, Obama broke all records in terms of fundraising and got more corporate money than anyone who ever ran for president. His campaign declined public funds, which left it greater options in terms of private financing.
The American Presidency Project reports that, in 2008, the Obama campaign spent nearly $746 million, with the Republicans still at $350 million, totaling a vast increase over what both parties spent in 2000. Worse, according to Center for Responsive Politics and the Open Secrets website, the 2012 presidential election cost $2.6 BILLION (!!)—with overall campaign funding of $6.3 billion.
This realization sufficiently explains the dominant concerns of the new Democratic administration. Upon taking power, the Democrats saw the $700 billion bipartisan bailout of the Bush administration and raised it by an $831 billion bipartisan stimulus package. As with the Republican-initiated bailout, the Democratic-initiated stimulus offered no comparable help for those facing foreclosures, unemployment, rising tuition costs, and the other exigencies of the depressed economy.
In short, the two-party system provided yet another demonstration of just how the two-parties really compete with each other, only as rivals in their unblinking servitude to money and power. In fact, the victory of the Democrats actually deepened the trends they had been elected to modify or thwart. That is, the government continued to pull funding for hospitals, schools, and public services—and then used the lack of funding to privatize these functions as much as possible.
Real wages and salaries collapsed. Unions that had pinned everything on having Democratic allies in government found themselves under persistent attack, losing members and powers at an unprecedented level. More than this, Obama’s Justice Department, which repeatedly refused to investigate, much less indict criminal activities by the Republicans who had preceded them, has been even more vigorous in prosecuting whistle-blowers exposing wrongdoing in government and business. It has continued the policy of secret assassinations, as well as expanding the waging of undeclared war to new countries.
A demonstration outside the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
And the Democrats have actively deepened the mechanism for repression at home. This includes the unprecedented level of militarization of the police forces, even as these more blatantly brutalize African-Americans in the full confidence that they run no risk of direct interference by the Justice Department. The record is personified in the thuggery of Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whose mayoralty in Chicago has seen an overt war on labor, the poor, minorities, and those who dare demonstrate in that city, with the active collusion of the Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, even as various Patriot Act measures stripped American citizens of long stated rights, including freedom of speech and expression, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision ruled that dollars spent in electoral politics enjoyed the protection of free speech. Its 2014 Hobby Lobby case even mandated government respect for the moral sensibilities of soulless corporations declining to accord workers what they’ve earned, in deference to the allegedly religious convictions of the business.
What Can Be Done?
The two-party system boils down to the idea of self-government into a perennial deference to those in charge of the government. It accords the citizens no real power in governing, other than periodically checking boxes on consumer satisfaction cards that don’t even have space for “comments.”
It is axiomatic that those with a vital stake in the status quo won’t change it. Voting alone has never accomplished anything the power structure didn’t want accomplished. After all, the party system evolved not to allow the people to make decisions but merely to ensure that only “responsible” parties and “respectable” politicians would decide how to cut wages for teachers or hike tuition for students or best shave Granny’s allegedly extravagant Social Security check.
What, Then, Can Be Done?
The people DO have the power to change things. History shows how people—not the dominant two parties—used their numbers to secure abolition, to challenge the idolatry of the non-existent free market, or to establish the most basic equal rights. When large numbers of people reject their designated role as consumers of whatever the parties offer them and engage each other as citizens acting for their own concerns and interests, they force change. This challenges not only the power structure but institutions, organizations and leaderships that exist to mediate between the power structure and the discontented.
Related to the institutional structures are cultural ideas of “respectable” behavior that make even identifying the problems taboo. Unreflective people regularly assert that you have no right to any political views if you don’t vote, which—given the general restrictiveness of elections—basically dismisses anything beyond the parties to whom most voting and news coverage is restricted. Not discussing politics with our peers leaves one at the mercy of what we’re told by media and government and the priorities attached to them. These cultural limitations leave women, people of color, or working people generally even more restricted to behaving as consumers picking the least bad item on the shelf.
As in other forms of advertising and public relations, media symbols belie the absence of substance. Republican candidates attend the Grand Ol’ Opry even as they actively foster policies to permit companies to export jobs. Democrats preside over deepening levels of poverty imposed on African American communities but offer a Black president. Both parties have offered saleswomen suitable to specific demographics, all offering policies that will result ultimately in substantive harm to the lot of most women. All this fits a political universe where destroyers of the American economy wear flag lapel pins and those lobbying against the needs of poor do so in the name of religion.
So too, for half a century, the one thing that politicians, pundits, and professors of all sorts have emphasized is that “demonstrations don’t work.” To point out the obvious, they say this precisely because mass actions do work. In fact, taking the long view of our political history, independent mass action of one sort or another has been the only thing that has ever worked. Yet the “progressive” dogma persists that one must vote for “lesser evils” or be found guilty of aiding greater evils. This has suited both parties. Republican rhetoric against women’s rights pandered to their base, and allowed the Democrats to use the “Republican war on women” to win votes without having to offer even the old hollow promise of doing something in terms of policy.
In fact, if you are willing to vote for someone because they are not quite as bad as the alternative, you are not simply throwing away your vote, but using your ballot to sanction a shift in policies away from your concerns. The long-term effect of this has allowed the Democrats to become—to use Clinton’s own term—“Eisenhower Republicans,” while Obamacare has essentially federalized the general health care schemes of Romney, Dole, and Nixon. And it has carried the first modern republic, born in the struggle against monarchy, to the point where, in 2016, we will most likely be offered the choice of a Bush or a Clinton—dynastic figureheads to wield a kingly power over us while in office.
Following the lead of the AFL-CIO, many African-American organizations, and women’s groups, the “progressive left” rationalizes the same miserably failed doctrines. The Democratic Socialists of America, because “the U.S. electoral system makes third parties difficult to build,” expects “progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries . . . .” Progressive Democrats of America declares that it “was founded in 2004 to transform the Democratic Party and our country.”
By abstracting their values from what they do politically, they can imagine electing Wall Street flunkies as a means of fostering profound social progress because of what the voters have between their ears. In the social and political real world, a candidate who solicits votes based on his advocacy of draconian national security measures will likely promote those measures—regardless of what those who vote for him/her might be telling themselves, but have no means to socially and politically express.
Politicians and pundits playing on fear and hysteria—and on the desire to fit in—magnify their influence through those who echo their talking points. An almost hysterical sense of urgency certainly helps push people to vote against their own interests. Decade after decade, we have heard such “progressives” arguing that—just this one last time—we need to buy time for the people to put together a movement or build a better alternative than supporting the lesser evil. But when have they then built such a movement?
Not after 2012. Not after 2008. Not after 2004. Not ever. The very fact that they still make the argument is a monument to the Civic Attention Deficit Disorder that is the cornerstone of American two-party politics. Moreover, under the pressure of these arguments organized labor, women’s organizations, and even the self-designated spokespeople for the Black, Native American, and Latino communities have also veered away from mass demonstrations. strikes or any sort of independent action. The very existence of dissenters from these lesser-evil rationalizations requires the faithful to demonstrate their rectitude by focusing their ire on the unbelievers.
Think Anew, Make Strategic Choices
The experience of our recent past underscores the need to establish a radical presence in American politics. People who can’t give electoral voice to their desire for change simply accept their social and political invisibility. Those unwilling to challenge the orchestrated two-party hysteria render themselves useless in this process. We need to start where we can, among those many people level-headed enough not to fall for this flim-flam but too disorganized, as yet, to formulate their response.
We need a long-term electoral strategy for positive change on matters of the systemic assault on the natural world, for resisting the mass immiseration of humanity, for peace, justice, and equality. It should center on weakening the “progressive” habit of tailing the AFL-CIO’s support for the corporate Democratic Party, and its concomitant tendency to hallucinate the ghost of a comic-book superhero version of FDR.
Some have called for boycotting elections, and not voting is surely preferable to voting for what you don’t want. However, without making a public issue about why you are boycotting the election--something like a mass march on the Board of Elections—this solution has politically no impact, and is detrimental in that it diverts us from that central strategic concern. Voting for an independent alternative would be better, but sometimes not much. The most primitive variant aims at no more than a “protest vote,” using the ballot for the “moral suasion” of those with power. Establishing an ongoing third party that does nothing for voters but permit their more regular “witnessing” is scarcely of more value.
There are often options that neither represent a section of the capitalist class at the polls nor take positions that bar us from supporting them in principle. The Green, Socialist, and Peace and Freedom Parties fall into this category, as do a number of others. There is no reason why various socialist currents and the legions of independents interested in the issue could not combine into a general insurgent action committee. Such a formation could make endorsements, raise funds, even organize volunteer help. It could also discourage campaigns that divide the insurgent forces and weaken their impact, and encourage every effort to unite broadly all the available insurgent forces behind that common strategic goal.
Not only is such a first step strategically feasible, but a few successes along these lines could open the door to even wider options. It is time to start getting serious and make a beginning.
Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book, A Secret Society History of the Civil War, was published in 2011. The first part of this essay discussed the two party system from its beginnings through the Civil War; the second part covered Reconstruction through Progressivism; the third part covered the 1920s through the 1980s.