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Our Two Party System is Dead

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Photo by Daniel Lobo | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Daniel Lobo | CC BY 2.0

 

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) famously proclaimed the death of God.  Following this far more momentous precedent, it would now be fair to proclaim the death of the debilitating, semi-established duopoly party system that disables progressive politics in the United States.

The analogies are many.

Nietzsche claimed that it would take centuries for the Divine body to decompose.

By this, he did not just mean that it was no longer possible, without self-deception, to believe that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being who created all that is and with whom human beings can have personal relationships.  Materialist philosophers a century earlier could have said that, albeit not in as colorful a way. Nietzsche took it for granted.

His deeper claim was that ways of thinking and being – and forms of civilization — that rested on belief in God were finished as well.

This included quite a lot – not literally everything, but nearly everything of fundamental importance.  In his view, prevailing notions of truth and morality were among the first casualties.

He insisted, however, that it would take a long time for all the consequences to take effect. Therefore, the churches would likely remain full for generations.  The synagogues too, though Nietzsche’s view of synagogues was, to put it mildly, ambivalent; and, though he knew little and cared less about them, the mosques as well.

They might even seem to thrive.  But they would not be what they were because, with the divine corpse decomposing, their foundations were gone.

That, from time to time, there would be periods in which parts of God’s decomposing body would flourish therefore does not embarrass Nietzsche’s claim.  Church, synagogue, and mosque attendance might rise from time to time; and, for any number of reasons, some people some of the time might rally around the old, essentially defunct, religions.  But, at its core, it would all be a sham because, whether “believers” know it or not, superseded ways of thinking and being cannot be replicated except in ironic ways.

The implication was that the sooner people realize this, the sooner they see the world as it is and not as they would like it to be, the better the world will be.

It will be better not because people will be happier or because they will have an easier time navigating their way through life’s tribulations, but because it will be more honest.  Like Aristotle, Nietzsche was what we would today call a “virtue ethicist.” Honesty – and authenticity more generally – was high on his list of virtues.

He was also a critic of democracy and egalitarianism and other emanations of Enlightened thought.

And he was a master ironist.   It was in that capacity that — to use a word that Stephen Bannon and other Trumpists have besmirched — he called for the “deconstruction” of the God idea and all that rests upon it.  This was how he would have humanity realize the goal of Enlightened thinking, as described by Immanuel Kant and philosophers in the classical German tradition: it would free humanity from its “self-imposed nonage.”

***

It is impossible, of course, to say exactly when God died.  That death – so consequential for humanity and so irrelevant to everything beyond human control — was a process, not an event.

The death of the two party system in the United States is a process too.  But the consequences are so much more limited, and the time frame so much shorter, that it could look to future historians very much like an event — if there are future historians, that is; in other words, if, despite Democrats and Republicans and Donald Trump, we somehow survive environmental devastation and avoid nuclear war.

If our luck holds to that extent, the 2016 election season could well come to be seen as the moment when the duopoly died or, rather, when the process that did it in reached a culminating point.

For anyone with an even vaguely Nietzschean sense of the order and value of things, it can only seem grotesque to liken the demise of something as inherently base as America’s party system to the death of an idea as foundational and sublime as the Christian  — and Jewish and Muslim — God.

Nevertheless, the similarities are plain and the comparison is instructive.

Enlightenment thinking began to undo the God idea more than a century before Nietzsche came on the scene; and decades before he declared God dead, there were philosophers in Germany – for example, the Young Hegelians (as a very young man, Karl Marx was one of them) – who thought that the question of God’s existence had been settled and that the pertinent philosophical and political questions had to do with why the belief persisted nevertheless.  To probe those questions, the Young Hegelians sought to uncover the human meaning of ideas of God.

The duopoly system in American politics was also mortally ill before the duopoly died – not for nearly as many years, of course, but nevertheless, for a long time, as political settlements go.

The beginning of the end came in the late seventies, when Jimmy Carter was President, and when the political economic order that had been in place since the end of the Second World War seemed suddenly to have become stuck in a permanent crisis – with economic growth impeded and inflation on the rise.

Creditors found the situation intolerable; they also found themselves more empowered than they had been when the ambient economic scene was more robust.

Under these conditions, they were not shy about throwing their weight around in Washington.   Leading capitalists favored the Republican Party, of course; that was in their DNA.  But they channeled money to Democrats too.  Where there is influence to be purchased, they have always been bipartisan.

Within leading academic and policy circles, neoliberal political economists had been marginalized since the time of the New Deal.  Suddenly, their standing changed one hundred eighty degrees as the ruling class, and therefore the political class, took up the neoliberal cause.

The idea was to disencumber markets, capital markets especially, from regulations enacted to save capitalism from the capitalists, and also to give manufacturers relief from regulations that protect the environment.  Another major objective was to diminish the countervailing power of organized labor and other civil society groups, giving capitalists freer rein.

Under the cover of “supply side” economic theories, they also wanted to reform the tax code – effectively robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

And so, a political regime took shape that aimed to undo the progress of preceding decades.  The neoliberals set out not just to stop progress in its tracks, but also to turn back the clock as best they could.

On the Republican side, this led to purging the party of its liberal wing, attacking unions, resurrecting laissez-faire economic policies, and revving up Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and related efforts to bring “the silent majority” on board.  It led, in a word, to the “Reagan Revolution.”

The Reaganites did all they could to set Wall Street free to make money with other peoples’ money, and they encouraged the exportation of jobs to parts of the world where labor was cheap.  They reset the political agenda.  But, at first, they were not able to implement much of the agenda they established – in large part because Democratic majorities in the House and Senate wouldn’t allow it.

It therefore fell to opportunists in the Democratic Party to consolidate and expand the Reagan Revolution by bringing the opposition along.  This is the principal “legacy” of the Clinton presidency.

Bill Clinton was the best Reaganite President ever, better than Obama, better than both Bushes put together, better than the villainous old Gipper himself.   He did it because he could; not because he believed in “trickle down” economics or other Reaganite nostrums.  He did it to help himself and his paymasters, by working both sides of the street.

It was a slow process but, in time, on the Republican side, the inmates took over the asylum; while, over the course of the eighties and nineties, the Democrats became Republicans in all but name.

However, to this day, the old duopoly structures, like the churches and synagogues and mosques, have remained more or less unchanged.  In recent years, they even seem to have thrived.

Throughout the long nineteenth century – from, roughly, the War of Independence to World War I – the American party system was comparatively fluid; the Republican Party itself was a product of its transformations.

Since World War I, third party activity has played a far less significant role in American politics.  Third party organizing, on both the left and the right, has come to very little; indeed, most efforts have failed outright.   Even parties that have survived for several election cycles – the Greens, for example, or the Libertarians – have never had more than a marginal impact on the larger political scene.

It could have been different last year.  Disappointed Sanders supporters could have either brought the Greens out of the margins or forged a new electoral presence on their own.    It never happened, however; thanks, at least in part, to Sanders’ defection to the Clinton camp.

And so for the time being, same as it ever was, Democrats and Republicans are all we have.  Nevertheless, the two party system is defunct.  The party machines remain, the apparatchiks are still there, and “politics,” for most Americans, is still about electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans.   But like Christianity, on Nietzsche’s telling, it is all built on a foundation of bad faith.

Those who think otherwise are deceiving themselves; trying, in vain, to defy historical currents that are bound to prevail.  This is happening even now, before our eyes. It can sometimes be hard, as it were, to see the forest for the trees, but the evidence is there: each year, the ranks of “independents” grow, and levels of satisfaction with the major parties declines.

Where, not long ago, people identified as Democrats or Republicans, hardly anyone does nowadays; not even people who can be counted on to vote reliably for candidates from one or the other side.

***

As the electoral results from 2016 came in, it looked, for a moment, as if at least the Republicans were riding high.  No one thinks that any longer – not as their decomposition proceeds apace, just as palpably as the Democrats’.

Even on a worst-case scenario, a few more electoral cycles should suffice for both Republicans and Democrats either to dissipate entirely into the ether or else to survive as historical remnants only, hanging on by the skins of their teeth.

Entrenched institutional structures are keeping them both alive for now, but as the parties themselves become increasingly irrelevant, those institutions will be unable to go on playing that role.

Therefore, in not too many more years, the duopoly system will exist in historical memory only – in much the way that, in Nietzsche’s view, the God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam will, in due course, join the gods of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Had events played out in 2016 as most informed people thought they would, we would be at that point already.  Trump had, in effect, run against the Republican Party and defeated it; and Hillary Clinton was set to finish both him and the Republicans off.

Many voters hated her (mostly for the wrong reasons), and hardly anyone genuinely liked her, but at least she wasn’t a raving embarrassment.  More important by far, the political, social, economic and media “power elite” was behind her a thousand percent.

But she was such an awful candidate that she managed to lose to a billionaire buffoon.

Having decided that blaming elderly white working class voters in rural areas was unwise, influential Democrats and their media flacks now blame the Russians – with every breath they take.  Could they be that intent on starting World War III?  Or is it just that were they to face up to their own ineptitude, they fear they would lose their grip on the institutional power they still enjoy thanks to the duopoly’s continuing existence?

Whatever the reason, there is comfort in the realization that they, like the Republicans, are doomed.

Republicans need Trump to get their agendas through; Trump needs them because neither he nor his people are capable of governing.   It is a marriage made in hell.

But, sooner or later, as scandals surrounding Trump mount and as more and more Trump voters realize that they have been conned, Republicans will come to the realization that they are better off without the Donald, after all.

And Trump, desperate to hold onto his credibility by keeping, or appearing to keep, the promises he made while campaigning, will find it expedient that he would be better off without Republican deficit hawks tearing those promises to pieces.

Many, probably most, Trump voters could care less about the Republicans’ several agendas.  They didn’t vote for Trump because they were pro-Republican or even because they liked him.   They voted for Trump because they were fed up with the Democratic Party, and because they were inclined to think that a rich businessman who says whatever is on his mind would be a better “change agent” than a money-grubbing Washington insider who talks in weasel words.

Being in thrall to unjustifiable and patently false, but quintessentially American, beliefs about the essential goodness of rich businessmen, they thought that Trump was beyond feathering his own nest, and that he would know how to shake things up and make change – for the better — happen.

Boy, were they wrong!

As a rule, people resist admitting their mistakes.  But with Trump and his band of dunces calling the shots, it should not take much to convince the voters Trump duped that the man is more like the Wizard of Oz than the Ayn Rand hero they imagined him to be.

The problem, though, is that those voters were right last November about Clinton and the Democrats; and, except for some hand wringing about the need to be less dismissive of the sad sacks Trump duped, nothing much in that department has changed.

What has changed, however, is that, outside the Democratic Party and at its fringes, an anti-Trump resistance movement is taking shape.

As long as Trump and his minions remain preposterous, that movement will not subside the way that, for example, Occupy Wall Street did.  That condition is sure to be fulfilled; Trump and the people around him were born preposterous.  They cannot help themselves.

If the Democratic Party holds fast to its ways, the anti-Trump resistance will sweep them aside – either directly, by leading voters out of the morass that the Democratic Party has become, or, on the Tea Party model, by taking the Party over and transforming it beyond recognition.

Either way, the Democratic Party’s days are numbered.

The Republicans’ days are too.   Indeed, it is a miracle that the GOP has survived for as long as it has under the weight of its cultural contradictions.  And yet, that jumble of yahoo theocrats, rightwing libertarians, conformist suburbanites, High Finance buccaneers and well-heeled members of the Country Club set has so far managed to hang together.  Could that hideous mélange long survive Trump and the Trumpists too?  The chances are slim.

Nietzsche asked: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

We could ask, with similar justification, what are the duopoly’s institutional structures and engrained habits of thought and practice now if not the final resting place of a party system that would long ago have passed away, but for the efforts of Democrats and Republicans to maintain their stranglehold over the body politic?

The duopoly is dead; and the sooner this fact registers, the better off everyone who stands to gain from (small-d) democracy will be.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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