17 August 2010

Fear Drives the Two-Party System. Does Complacency Threaten the Republic?

My frequent correspondent d. eris, the proprietor of the independent Poli-Tea blog, calls attention in his latest post to the apparently contradictory findings of recent political polls. These find Americans poised to favor Republican congressional candidates over Democrats by landslide margins this fall, despite preferring Democratic to Republican control of Congress by an admittedly small margin. Of course, the different samples consulted in different polls may be expected to produce contradictory results, but the actual unpopularity of the Republican Party seems consistent in all surveys. So what's happening? Here's how d. eris explains it:

[O]f those who favored a Democrat-controlled Congress, 48% stated that they actually support Democratic candidates and policies, while 47% said they really just oppose the Republican Party and its candidates. On the other hand, of those who preferred a Republican-controlled Congress, only 35% said they support the Republican Party and its candidates, while a whopping 59% said they actually only oppose Democratic policies and candidates (emphasis in original).

d. eris correctly interprets this as proof that most probable Republican voters, and nearly a majority of probable Democratic voters, will be voting on a purely reactionary basis in order to prevent the "bad" party from keeping or gaining power. He sees this as a byproduct of the two-party system, aka the American Bipolarchy. "Simply put, the two-party system produces a literally reactionary majority, which is willing to support the major party it favors less because it opposes the other major party more," he writes, "This is the contradictory and paradoxical ideology of lesser evilism."

Lesser-evilism is only part of the explanation, however. It begs the question of why those who oppose the Democrats feel that they have no choice but to support the Republicans. The answer is obvious: while they feel an urgent need to beat the Democrats, they also feel it impossible to beat the Republicans. As long as they assume that some people will stick with the GOP, they'll assume that any attempt to create an independent party or movement opposed to Democratic rule will only guarantee further Democratic rule. If there's no chance of annihilating the Republicans in a single stroke, there's no point to challenging them. As a result, they settle for Republican rule on the short-lived but invariably recurrent assumption that they can't do worse than the current crop of Democrats, and will at least prevent Democrats from perpetrating whatever horror these opponents imagine.

However dissatisfied with Republicans these anti-Democratic Americans are, few will attempt to advance a more satisfactory alternative as long as the GOP exists to pre-empt the possibility of a majority for the new movement. As a result, Republicans can do nothing or propose nothing, as has been charged against them during this Congress, and still depend on the support of many Americans. But I'm not sure if the Bipolarchy alone suffices to explain why so many of us would rather settle for major-party incompetence than insist on our own desires prevailing.

I've begun to wonder whether our reactionary complacency is a predictable product of liberal republican forms of government. One of the defining features of such systems is the readiness of any faction to give up power when another faction wins an election. Each faction must be convinced that a failure to get their way will not mean the end of the world, or at least the republic. The obvious corollary is that people in a healthy liberal republic will not regard the victory of any faction as the end of the world or the republic. The first sign of decline may be when people begin to regard a particular faction's victory as a mortal threat to the nation. A bipolarchy may exacerbate that feeling, but it might also be the result of that original decline. Once the decline sets in, voters seem to become more interested in denying victory to the most-hated faction than in insisting on the triumph of their own principles. All of this may be rooted in a more fundamental confusion about the role of politics in society that threatens any republican experiment. Readers may disagree about this tentative diagnosis, but the irrational state of American politics today can't be denied. If republican government is to advance humanity, someone will have to get to the root of this problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"There is nothing to fear, but fear itself". So what now? If our politics has been reduced to the politics of fear and the only thing to fear is that fear...seems to me it creates a vicious cycle of fear creating more fear when, in truth, the fear they are hawking is really just as much a lie as the "self sufficiency" and "freedom" they hawk.