04 November 2014

Bipolarchy as a spectator sport

As voting continues across the country I'd be surprised if even Republicans believe that their expected victories in the congressional elections represent an ideological awakening or even a smartening-up of the American electorate. If the Republicans take over the Senate, it'll be no more of an ideological or intellectual revolution than it was in 2006 when the Democrats reclaimed both houses of Congress at a low point for the George W. Bush administration. The balance of power between the major parties most often shifts when voters simply get sick and tired of the people leading the country. As 2006 was a referendum on Bush, so 2014 will be a referendum on Barack Obama, a verdict on his competence more than on his policies or beliefs. Today's vote should not be interpreted as a mandate for limited government any more than the Democratic victories of not so long ago were mandates for big government, or the Republican victories before that were previous mandates for less government. There are ideological cohorts in both parties, and in the media, who set the terms of the debate, but voters for the most part judge people, not principles. Perhaps ironically in an age when the major parties are identified with ideologies more than ever, that helps keep the American Bipolarchy alive. No matter how many liberal leaders fail or earn Americans' contempt, liberalism is never repudiated so completely that it can't come back again, and neither is Republican conservatism despite the repeated failings of Republican leaders. I suspect that most American voters -- not to mention any hidden majority that might be out there -- looks at party ideology as something akin to the distinctive ad campaign of a car insurance company or a fast-food restaurant chain. It gives people something to talk about to keep the product in mind, but their decisions are most likely made on other grounds -- not because you think Flo or the Gecko is cuter or funnier, nor because one political party or another is more ideologically correct. The real majority of people who bother to vote most likely vote for people, not principles. Repeatedly they make pundits who predict the demise of a major party after any bad defeat look ridiculous. The major parties are simply too useful to the American people; they're like the major leagues in any popular spectator sport, or at least that's how they're seen. If you want to prove yourself an effective politician you'll rise to prominence in one party or another; remain independent and you prove yourself, intending no reflection on two past presidents, a bush leaguer. One you make the majors, you'll be judged on talent; you may wear the right uniform, but if you don't perform you're a bum. If no one's any good the fans will whine with nostalgia over the good old days, but they don't go and start a new baseball or football or basketball league, do they?

In other words, despite all the ideology and rhetoric, the major parties endure because they're basically hollow; the electorate sees them as vehicles through which promising politicians prove themselves. They may also endure because the electorate itself is hollow, unwilling to commit for the long term to liberalism or conservatism, not to mention more radical options. They want someone who "gets things done," and that's true even for most of those who say they want government to leave them alone. If the incumbent of one party can't get things done, the nominee of the other party is presumed to have the best chance of getting things done because he's proven he can get things done, or so it seems, by getting nominated. The public's great blind spot is our failure to see the major parties themselves as obstacles to getting things done. That no more occurs to most people, it seems, than would the notion  that the National League and/or the American League are to blame for bad baseball. For too many Americans, the division of government between the Democratic and Republican parties is as much a part of the natural order as the division of Major League Baseball between the American and National leagues, with all smaller leagues serving only to feed talent to the big two.  No one has tried to rival the Major Leagues in about 100 years, since the quick demise of the Federal League. You might look to other sports for more promising analogies, but in football, for instance, the AFL's challenge to an NFL monopoly in the 1960s only resulted in a bipolarchial merger that made the Super Bowl the sport's Election Day. Since then the USFL and the XFL have failed miserably to reproduce the AFL's success. In politics, the Democrats and Republicans have stuck around long enough to become the sort of institutions that most people, perhaps unconsciously adopting sports analogies, would see no reason to challenge.

I often ask what it would take to make one of the major parties go the way of the Whigs in the 1850s, on the assumption that the rise and fall of the Whigs shows what the natural lifespan of a political party should look like. The Whigs elected two Presidents during their brief career but this didn't guarantee their "major league" status for more than a generation. If the Whigs fell, we should expect the other major parties to fall at some point, and we should wonder, as I do, why they don't. But I suppose there's another way of looking at it that may or may not trouble you. That way of looking at it is to see the fall of the Whigs in the mid-1850s less as proof of the health of the American political order than as a sign that civil war was imminent. Should Americans stop seeing politics as a game or a spectator sport, things could get rough. I don't say this as a warning against change, but as a precaution against surprise. The American Bipolarchy may not fall without a fight, whether the parties do the fighting or not.


Anonymous said...

I think a part of the problem is that most Americans have simply become too "brand" conscious. The problem with this is that one assumes a certain brand=quality, otherwise it wouldn't have become a "brand". But when you look closely, you find that the brand you prefer is made in the same sweat shop as the generic brand. You're just paying a lot more for the same thing.

Samuel Wilson said...

Also, the brand identified those companies that could penetrate all markets due to economies of scale that had nothing necessarily to do with quality. It was how an outsider competed with(and conquered) the reliable local grower or manufacturer. But commercial brands can die and have died while the Democrats and Republicans live on, so I don't think brand-name loyalty alone explains their survival. That's why I brought up the sports analogy. By now people may assume you have to have the two major parties just as you have to have the AL and NL in baseball or the AFC and NFC in football. They may see no reason to imagine alternatives, however impatient they are for better talent.