15 September 2011

Hate Bipolarchy? Blame Republicans

Mike Lofgren describes himself as a former "GOP Operative," a "professional staff member on Capitol Hill" who recently retired. From retirement, he repudiates the Republican party and challenges the growing critique of Bipolarchy by insisting strongly that "both parties are not rotten in quite the same way," and that the GOP is far worse. Lofgren does not deny Democrats' multiple faults, but he contends that those who blame the two-party system for our current political troubles are making indiscriminate judgments -- just as the Republicans intended.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn.

Corporate media centrism only compounds this simplistic tendency to hold the two parties equally to blame for gridlock and stagnation, Lofgren argues. "The pundit's ironic deprecation falls like the rain on the just and unjust alike, on those who precipitated the needless crisis and those who despaired of it," he writes. Further:

This constant drizzle of "there the two parties go again!" stories out of the news bureaus, combined with the hazy confusion of low-information voters, means that the long-term Republican strategy of undermining confidence in our democratic institutions has reaped electoral dividends. The United States has nearly the lowest voter participation among Western democracies; this, again, is a consequence of the decline of trust in government institutions - if government is a racket and both parties are the same, why vote? And if the uninvolved middle declines to vote, it increases the electoral clout of a minority that is constantly being whipped into a lather by three hours daily of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.

Behind this Republican scheming is a threefold agenda that Lofgren describes with as much absence of nuance or objectivity as if he'd been a Democratic staffer for thirty years. His inside intelligence reveals -- surprise, surprise, surprise -- that the GOP caters exclusively to its richest donors, worships military might, and aspires to a kind of theocracy. He distinguishes his attack from conventional diatribes with his denial that the plutocratic and theocratic elements in the party are ultimately irreconcilable, taking as proof to the contrary that the Koch brothers give money to Rep. Bachmann. If his intent is to denounce the Republicans as a kind of cult, his achievement is to appear less like an apostate than a convert dealing now in Democratic demonology.

Lofgren would deny that charge, with constant condemnation of Democratic ineptitude to back him up. In his view, Democrats are incompetent, tone-deaf and downright cowardly in the face of Republican attacks. But what does he propose as an alternative? Precisely nothing. Nor do any of his apt attacks on Democratic inadequacy get to the structural incentive for Democratic do-nothingism, which is exactly that fear of the Republican party that Lofgren stokes so vigorously. To insist that Republicans are an apocalyptic menace to American institutions, as Lofgren pretty much does, pressures Democrats to do nothing more than not be Republicans. That immunizes them against pressure from their own base, so long as no one can see any alternative to Democratic complacency but Republican nightmares. Lofgren can lash the Democrats all he likes, but from what I can tell he has no answer to the current crisis other than somehow shoring up Democratic resolve and encouraging Democratic assertiveness. The cynics who condemn both parties may see matters more clearly and objectively when they expose how the parties thrive on mutual fear. That's not to say that some Republicans aren't a special threat in their own right, but it is a warning that the Democratic party won't save us until it's good and ready, and even then on its terms rather than ours. A hysterical attack on Republicanism like Lofgren's (seconded here by Andrew Sullivan) benefits the Democrats, despite his brickbats, more than anyone else. Anyone looking for a solution to the Republican attack on "government" within the confines of Bipolarchy will either look in vain or else find themselves looking for a solution to some Democratic problem before too long. At this point, to condemn both parties isn't cynical, unless only apathy results. To criticize Bipolarchy is radical, and the critical radicalism that results may be part of the antidote to the reactionary radicalism now prevalent in the GOP. But defeating one party simply isn't enough.

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