31 July 2011

Three fixes for the two-party system?

A consensus is building among angry Americans that assigns much of the blame for the debt-ceiling crisis on the country's traditional two-party system. In the Albany Times Union John T. Sullivan Jr. argues that the American Bipolarchy used to work for the collective good but has been corrupted by ideology and dependence upon special interests to the point that it "has become anachronistic and dysfunctional, and seems haplessly unable to heal itself." Sullivan shares a widespread nostalgia for the days of Tip O'Neill, the Democratic legislative leader of the 1970s and 1980s who's become a symbol of a congressional conviviality that reputedly transcended partisanship and kept the country on an even keel. Sullivan proposes Gerald Ford as a Republican counterpart to O'Neill, and laments the absence of such figures on either side of the aisle today. Their disappearance reflects a deeper problem: the loss of a "national consensus" that relegated extremists to the margins while both major parties pursued the common goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today, Sullivan protests, the Republicans are the party of the "haves," in open opposition to the "have-nots," while Democrats, despite appearances, are still held back from the reasonable middle by teachers' unions and other powerful interest groups. He regrets the lack in the U.S. of "a parliamentary system to allow the ideologically marginalized to marginalize themselves," though it's hard to tell whether he means an easy ability to form third parties or an easy way for party leader to relegate extremists to the back benches. To sum up, Sullivan appears to believe that Bipolarchy was fine in a pre-ideological era, but that ideology has somehow facilitated the takeover of both parties by special interests in place of consensus builders. For this, he proposes three remedies.

There's no point in creating false suspense. None of Sullivan's three options includes breaking up the two-party system. In fact, one of his suggestions would mean conceding more power to one party at any given time, by putting every seat in Congress up for grab in a Presidential election year. His hope is that for at least four years at a time, "everyone [would be] rowing the boat in the same direction [and] we would begin to solve some of the thornier problems we have." To make these more decisive elections more fair, Sullivan would impose public funding on all candidates to eliminate the assumed influence of special interests. I remain uncomfortable with this option, since it creates a dependency on the state that wouldn't be necessary if money were truly to be eliminated from politics. There is also no guarantee that publicly-funded political advertising would result in less ideologically extreme rhetoric, unless the state is to play a censor's role as well. If that's the outcome Sullivan assumes, we can infer an assumption that ideology derives from special interests, which isn't necessarily so. Finally, in what Republicans will take as a damning show of "liberal" colors, Sullivan calls for the restoration of the infamous "Fairness Doctrine," once more requiring any venue that airs partisan opinion to provide time (if not "equal time") for opposing points of view.

Sullivan hasn't given up on Bipolarchy yet. He regards it as a once-efficient system that has been hijacked by elements against which it had no apparent immunity, despite its onetime efficiencies. He acknowledges that this hijacking took place in the absence of a once-dependable "national consensus," though he may think that the hijacking caused the failure of the consensus, and not vice versa. He seems to believe that a two-party consensus can be restored by reducing the influence of ideologues and special interests, who through his reforms ought to be marginalized as they were before. His ideal, however, is a troubling one. His utopia seems to be a two-party system without meaningful differences, where two behemoths contest elections for the sake of pluralism (or the appearance thereof) but actually disagree on very little. He seems to identify such a system with a golden age of the American economy and social welfare that has more to do with global imbalances that have since been rebalanced than with the conduct of parties. He may also misattribute today's ideological extremism to special interests rather than to the anxieties of decline and the scapegoating impulse. In any event, it wouldn't be right to argue with an assertion that Americans need to pull together. But if Sullivan means nothing more by that than that the Democratic and Republican parties need to pull together, then we have a problem.

1 comment:

Calmoderate said...

I am convinced. A third party is long overdue.

Who? Americans Elect? Someone else?

I don't just want to 'drain the swamp'. I want to flush the filth.