21 October 2009

Against the Bipolarchy in New York State

The special election to fill the vacancy in New York's 23rd congressional district has its own Wikipedia page, allowing interested readers to keep track of the candidates, endorsements and controversies involved. The race has gradually captured the attention of the national news media because it has exposed fissures within the supposedly-monolithic conservative movement which even the most obtuse or ideologically blinkered observers can't ignore.

The vacancy opened when the President nominated the Republican incumbent, John McHugh, to become Secretary of the Army. Apparently unconcerned about the future of a "red" district, albeit one that preferred Obama to McCain last November, the incumbent accepted the appointment. Assemblyman Dierdre Scozzafava was nominated by a committee of Republican county chairmen in lieu of a primary election. A failed Republican candidate, Doug Hoffman, accepted the nomination of the Conservative Party, a long-established institution in New York that usually endorses Republican candidates automatically. Scozzafava is seen as too liberal on social issues including abortion and gay marriage, to receive Conservative support.

The most recent poll cited by Wikipedia credits Hoffman with support from 23% of the people surveyed, while Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, leads the race with 33% support. Scozzafava has 29% support in the latest survey. She will also appear on the Independence Party line, while Owens will have the Working Families line.

A growing host of conservative pundits, politicians and pressure groups has endorsed Hoffman, the most famous names among them being former presidential candidate Fred Thompson and neocon columnist William Kristol. Scozzafava has been endorsed by a more eclectic coalition that includes Republican elected officials, Newt Gingrich, the New York State United Teachers union, the National Rifle Association and the fanatically Democratic Daily Kos website. Kos himself, usually hostile to any challenge to Democrats from the left, here supports a Republican he deems more liberal than the Democratic nominee. He excuses himself by labelling Owens a "Blue Dog" who had been an independent before his nomination.

My own view is that someone who wants to advance the Democratic agenda, but is not greedy, should support Hoffman. Since the seat was Republican in the first place, Hoffman's victory would not be a loss in Democratic voting strength, even if people argue that anything short of Democratic victory in every election is a rebuke to President Obama. Never mind him. The opportunity here, not just for opportunistic Democrats but for all enemies of the American Bipolarchy, is to give a "third party" the elusive viability that would come from electing a member to Congress. My hope is that, given the climate of dissatisfaction with Republican representation of the conservative movement, a Hoffman win would embolden the Conservative party to contest more elections in its own right rather than complacently endorse Republican candidates. The benefit to Democrats in the short term would be, ideally, a permanent split in the anti-Democratic bloc. The benefit to everyone in the long term would be the emboldening of progressive and leftist New Yorkers, in the absence of a monolithic Republican-conservative bogeyman, to make their own break from the Democratic party, to challenge incumbents or fill vacancies in "blue" districts with actual independents committed to the agenda of progressive constituents rather than that of a big-tent national committee. The odds are probably against this best-case scenario, but if it even seems possible it ought to be encouraged.

But ideology blinds some Democratic sympathizers to the opportunity in front of them. I saw some discussion of the 23rd district on the Rachel Maddow Show last night, and the theme seemed to be the menace of extremism represented by the Conservative candidacy, the malign effect of which was anticipated to be the further purging of moderates from the Republican party. Hoffman's rise was not attributed to self-assertiveness on the part of Conservatives, but to a desire to punish the local GOP for nominating a moderate. It was interesting to see progressive propagandists pontificate on whom Republicans should nominate and the implicit duty of conservatives to defer to Republican leadership. It looked as if Maddow was trying to urge some kind of "moderate" discipline on both the GOP and conservative voters, and in that moment I almost heard the Bipolarchy itself talking. It goes without saying, I suppose, that Maddow's audience will want another Democratic vote in Congress despite the party's existing comfortable majority, but the show's attitude is of a piece with Kos's intervention to save Republicans and conservatives from themselves. Neither sees the potential benefit of even this minimal subversion of the Bipolarchy because they clearly dislike the people who'd be crashing the party. Conservatism licensed by the Republican party is barely palatable to them anyway, so one can imagine how unlicensed conservatism will strike them. It would probably be much like how the rise of unlicensed progressives and leftists would strike them,should the opportunity arise.

Addendum: Damon Eris at Poli-Tea has been following this race intensively for a while. Here's a collection of his comments on the campaign.


d.eris said...

Nice analysis. The important point, as you emphasize, is that a victory for Hoffman is a victory for third parties as such. The danger is that Hoffman's victory or defeat gets folded back into the bipolarchical logic, i.e. defeat = spoiler, victory = the "real" Republican won.

Anonymous said...

Another way to look at it is if there were to be a "purging" of the more moderate or progressive elements within the Republican party, it would only decrease the membership of that party and those purged would be more likely to start a viable third party which might attract the attention of the moderates and "conservative" elements of the Democrats. Either way, a split in one or both parties can only be considered a win for the thinking American.