30 November 2009

Bipolarchy Logic: The 'Perils of One-Party Control'

Gary Andres has just published a routine op-ed warning the Democrats against overconfidence in assuming that the 2008 elections represented a long-term political realignment in the U.S. He has nothing really special to say apart from his curious suggestion that the major parties' aspiration to control all branches of the government is self-defeating.

"[T]his year revealed that controlling all levers of power endangers a party's political health. It haunted Republicans in 2006 and Democrats in 2009," Andres writes. But how can that be? Shouldn't that represent total victory? Instead, Andres hints that victory guarantees eventual defeat. Why? Apparently because the party with exclusive power is stuck with exclusive responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the country. Thus the Republicans were blamed for Hurricane Katrina and the near-collapse of the Iraqi occupation and lost Congress in 2006, then the White House in 2008. While Andres snarkily remarks that the "mainstream" media isn't as quick to blame President Obama for this year's national blunders as they were to blame previous ones on Bush, he seems certain that if conditions remain bad or grow worse, the Democratic party will be blamed and will pay at the polls in 2010 or 2012.

Obama himself may see things the same way. That might explain why he seemed so desperate to apply a patina of bipartisanship to his major legislation. Republicans may believe it as well, which would explain why they've refused almost all such invitations from the President. As the minority party, the Republicans are officially irresponsible; they are not to be blamed if government measures fail. They are reborn in innocence as soon as they're cast from power while the opposite party takes its turn as the scapegoat. The opposition party is under no obligation to contribute constructively to necessary national projects. The logic of the Bipolarchy requires them to assume adamant opposition so that they can claim innocence at the next election. For voters, Bipolarchy logic dictates that all national failures are the fault of one party or the other, and can be remedied by switching from one party to the other. But too much success, resulting in "one party control," tips the balance the other way and threatens each party in turn with scapegoat status.

This is arguably how a Bipolarchy works in a period of national decline. Gone may be the days when one party could ride sustained prosperity to sustained hegemony. If the nation remains stagnant or slips further, each party may get more turns in power and lose power more rapidly as each takes blame for failures that are national rather than partisan. The cycle will accelerate, perhaps without limit, so long as voters continue to believe the myth of the defeated party reborn in innocence through opposition. So long as each party can blame the other for whatever goes wrong, the larger system can go without the critical examination it needs or the critical reconstruction it may need. The cycle can be broken, one hopes, if people can be made to remember that both parties have failed before, and to understand that in crisis times to stand aloof and claim innocence, as the opposition party now does, is also failure. No third party will accomplish this if it only offers more of the same of one sort or the other, exaggerated "liberalism" or exaggerated "conservatism." Despite the illusory comprehensiveness of the choice offered by the Bipolarchy, someone needs to say that both "liberalism" and "conservatism" (not just Democrats and Republicans) have failed enough already, and that there has to be another choice if the country is to survive.


Anonymous said...

Well, short-term memory problems aside, if things remain bad or get worse, perhaps the route to take is to remind people that, although the Democrats may bear responsibility for not fixing the problems, the Republicans are to blame for the problems in the first place. And keep hammering it home until it sinks in that both parties are to blame.

d.eris said...

"This is arguably how a Bipolarchy works in a period of national decline . . . each takes blame for failures that are national rather than partisan."

I think here you've touched upon one of the psychological supports for the reigning bipolar political order. It allows the electorate to avoid taking responsibility for the failure of government. It may be the case that people do not want to admit that liberalism and conservatism have "failed enough already" because they do not want to admit any kind of failure whatsoever, and hence continue to blame such failures on each duopoly party after the other.