The latest issue of The Nation features a digest version of a long article columnist Eric Alterman published online earlier this summer, along with a selection of responses to the longer piece. Alterman has coined the phrase "Kabuki Democracy" to describe an environment in which allegedly liberal or progressive politicians go through the motions of governing according to the will of their voters, but end up failing to fulfill many if not most of their promises. Alterman offers a number of explanations for this state of affairs, including right-wing intimidation of the media, the media's own declining standards, arbitrary supermajority rules in Congress that empower obstructionist minorities, and a lack of confidence throughout the culture in government's power to achieve great objectives. Something seemed missing in his account, and I expected his respondents to correct the omission, but none of them did. Not one of them seemed to think that the current two-party system, that regime that obliges liberals and progressives to settle for whatever the Democratic party offers them as the price for keeping the Republican monsters at bay, as a factor inhibiting the development of genuine progressive politics in this country. Alterman himself acknowledges the compromised nature of the Democratic party, its ideological incoherence and lack of discipline compared to the ever-more dogmatic Republicans. Despite that, he appears to take its permanent presence for granted, suggesting as the only potential remedy the organization of extra-political mass movements to pressure Democrats to govern progressively.
Eric Alterman, in fact, opposes third-party activism. For the last ten years he has blamed Ralph Nader for the presidency of George W. Bush, as if the only choices Americans have in a presidential election are For or Against the Republican candidate, the Against choices being automatically registered as Democratic. He is as much a creature of his benighted time as anyone he criticizes in his columns or longer articles, because he, as much as they, believes that the Other Side winning means the Fall of the Republic. In his mind, we are all obliged to settle for Democratic governance, though we still seem to have the right to pressure them anytime except during an election campaign, because the only alternative imaginable to him, Republican rule, is intolerable. It is not enough simply to oppose Republican candidates, as every Nader voter did; you must swallow your pride or your priorities and vote for the other strongest party, or else you may as well have voted Republican as far as Alterman is concerned. When one party's victory is intolerable, voting for any other party but the official opposition is also intolerable. When that logic prevails, why should Democrats respond to any kind of pressure from any sort of mass movement that Alterman or his respondents might conceive? I see no possible answer unless he thinks the mass movement should include rioting in the streets.
Alterman has attacked Nader for claiming that there was no meaningful difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. He observes, based on Bush's performance, that such claims are self-evidently false. They certainly would be if Nader or his supporters had claimed that there was no difference at all between the two parties. The question has always been whether they are different enough. They're different enough for Alterman because he seems to live in undies-soiling fear of Republican rule. For others not so blinded by fear, they may not be different enough. It might be paradoxical to propose a progressive party that is less fearful of Republicans than the Democrats, but we may have a model in the Liberal Democratic party of Great Britain, which stands to the left of the Labor party (which when led by Tony Blair was Bush's great ally in the world) but has formed a coalition with the Conservative party to share in the new government. A strong progressive third party in this country might eventually land in a position to do similar horse-trading with Republicans in order to share control of Congress at the expense of a hopelessly establishmentarian Democratic party. How much more unlikely is this prospect than the suggestion Alterman leaves us with of demanding change from that which we won't force to change?
Alterman may think that the Republic is in a bad way now, but if he represents the mindset of self-styled progressives then we're worse off than he thinks.