22 November 2011

The solar theory of bipolarchy

In his latest New York Times column, David Brooks describes the current American political situation as a universe out of order. His model of cosmic order was first proposed in the 1950s by one Samuel Lubell, who argued that, in a two-party system, one party is the "sun," the other the "moon." For Brooks's purpose it's enough for Lubell to have argued that one party must dominate. As earlier writers have noted, Lubell made the further point that the "sun" party sets the national agenda on its own. "It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out," he wrote. In his day, or at the time he wrote, that was the Democratic party. As Brooks observes, it was the Republican Party from the election of President Reagan through the 2006 congressional elections. What worries Brooks now is that we seem not to have a sun. Neither major party has the power or public support to set the national agenda in the dominant way of the New Deal Democrats or the Reagan Republicans. Worse, from Brooks's perspective, each of the major parties behaves like a minority or "moon" party, not in Lubell's sense of reflecting a sun's radiance, but by cultivating a "minority mentality."

The Republicans feel oppressed by the cultural establishment, and Democrats feel oppressed by the corporate establishment. They embrace the mental habits that have always been adopted by those who feel themselves resisting the onslaught of a dominant culture. Their main fear is that they will lose their identity and cohesion if their members compromise with the larger world. They erect clear and rigid boundaries separating themselves from their enemies. In a hostile world, they erect rules and pledges and become hypervigilant about deviationism. They are more interested in protecting their special interests than converting outsiders. They slowly encase themselves in an epistemic cocoon. 

Lubell's solar model, with its implicit gravitational principle, is a provocative metaphor for the codependency or symbiosis of bipolarchy, but the metaphor also suggests an illusory natural two-party order. To his credit, Brooks invokes Lubell not to demand a restoration of his fallacious model, but to suggest that our universe might need a new sun altogether. He needn't have used Lubell's metaphors to indict the reactionary "minority mentality" plaguing each major party, nor could Lubell have explained how that mentality broke up his solar model. At least I can't tell from the minimal evidence within easy reach whether Lubell anticipated how the primary process would enthrall each party to a base increasingly alienated from the majority of the population. However it arose, the minority mentality has prevented the normal dialectical relationship of the major parties, in which, in Brooks's account, a defeated party "modernizes" to become competitive again and take its turn as the sun. Instead, the base of each party digs in and becomes more intractable, and stagnation results.

Brooks sees a possible solution in a "third force" -- he can't bring himself to say "third party" -- and another in the "brutal cleansing flood" of a "devastating financial crisis." Metaphors aside, he deems it imperative that some party or "force" take the initiative previously reserved for the Lubellian sun. One would assume, however, that in a democracy or democratic republic the people are always the sun, and the parties satellites. The Lubell model can only encourage people to misplace themselves in the political cosmos. Instead of waiting for a third force -- or, worse, the cataclysm -- the American people should play the role intended for them all along.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In other words "...this nation needs an enema."