The Political Duopoly Must be Smashed

The midterms went badly for Democrats; they deserved it. Because American politics suffers under a duopoly party system, the election went well for Republicans.

The Republicans did not deserve it. Many, maybe most, of the people who voted for them would agree.

There had never been any doubt that the outcome, no matter which side won, would be bad, but the outcome we got is especially worrisome. Expect trouble ahead.

In liberal circles, it is widely supposed that the reason to worry is that the good guys lost and the bad guys won. This is not the reason at all.

The bad guys won. And, in some state and local elections, a few good guys lost. But at the federal level, where public attention was focused, there were hardly any good guys (or gals) running.

Of all the Democratic Senators who lost to Republicans, only one, Mark Udall in Colorado, will be missed. He was as good as anybody in official Washington on efforts to restrain the Bush-Obama surveillance state. Arguably, the other losers were lesser evils, but they are no loss.

If pressed, many a liberal would concede this point, but then go on to say that the real harm is that Democrats no longer control the Senate.

This is supposedly a bad thing. It may be but, again, not for the reasons they think.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Democratic Party pundits were full of reasons why losing the Senate would be a disaster.

If only the ingenuity they deployed concocting those reasons had been put to more constructive uses!

Whatever merit their tortured arguments have, the record of the past eight years of Democratic Senate control speaks loudly against their conclusions.

Majority Leader Harry Reid has done a creditable job keeping some truly awful legislation – fast track trade authority, for example – from coming to the Senate floor, where, with substantial Democratic support and Presidential encouragement, it would probably have passed.

But the Senate, under his leadership was hardly a force for the “hope” or “change” that candidate Obama and his cheerleaders used to jabber on about.

One much discussed reason for regretting the Democrats’ loss of Senate control is that the next Senate will likely investigate anything that moves that might embarrass the President. This, Democrats say, will be a pointless and wasteful distraction.

But somebody ought to hold Obama and Eric Holder and the others accountable for their “high crimes and misdemeanors” and for all that they have done to undermine traditional rights and liberties. Where are the Democratic volunteers?

Congressional Republicans will gladly take up the cause, but for the wrong reasons. With them in charge, the process will be unseemly, at best. Nevertheless, if they do bring any of the darker machinations of the Obama administration to light, some good might actually come from their shenanigans.

Has any good come from Senate investigations in the past eight years, when Democrats were calling the shots? Maybe, if he had a week to think about it, MSNBC pundit Chris Hayes could come up with an example; maybe Rachel Maddow could. Don’t bet on it, though.

The next batch of House Republicans may be dumb enough to move beyond fact-finding to actual impeachment proceedings, following the precedent an earlier generation of House Republicans established in the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Of course, if they had any smarts, they would realize that impeaching Obama is not only pointless — he has no more chance of being removed from office than Bill Clinton did – but also counter-productive.

The Clinton impeachment harmed Republicans’ prospects in the election that followed. An Obama impeachment would too.

Therefore, a rational Republican would go nowhere near the idea. But rational Republicans are a vanishing species. In today’s GOP, the inmates run the asylum.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also people who wouldn’t mind if Obama were impeached. Needless to say, Democrats, even liberal Democrats, consider the idea preposterous, but, for genuine progressives, it does have a certain appeal – or rather it would, but for its inevitable consequences.

If, by some miracle, Obama were ousted, Vice President Joe Biden would become President. Who would want that! Biden is worse than Obama by any imaginable standard.

Investigations leading to impeachment could be useful, however. Obama’s supporters need to know about the malfeasance their support has enabled – before they repeat their mistakes, this time for the benefit of someone even more bellicose than Obama and even more in corporate America’s pocket.

With Hillary Clinton in the offing, voters who vote Democratic reflexively and organized constituencies like the labor movement that Democrats rely upon for foot soldiers and money need to think clearly about the consequences of the lesser evil calculations they find irresistible.

A Republican controlled Senate might help focus their minds.

It will certainly focus everybody’s attention.

How could it not, inasmuch as Republican antics do at least have redeeming comic value? The in-coming Congress, like the race for the Republican nomination that will soon get underway, will be a godsend for comedians on late-night television.

What a cornucopia of riches — two, three, many Michele Bachmanns in the Republican dominated House and Senate, gubernatorial buffoons like Chris Christie sticking in their two cents, maybe even Mitt Romney again, or brother Jeb, the last of the eligible Bush family poltroons.

We should not underestimate – or “misunderestimate,” as George W. would say — the importance of something, anything, that might enliven the sheer dreariness of the political scene in these waning years of the Obama era.

Boredom narcotizes. It encourages acquiescence.

So bring on the crazies! Whatever else Republican whack jobs may be, at least they are not boring.

Also on the plus side, Republican control of the Senate might mitigate, slightly, the flagrant dysfunctionality that has become the new normal in Washington.

Being in control of both the House and the Senate, Congressional Republicans may be more inclined than before to pursue goals more lofty than merely thwarting Barack Obama.

With a Presidential election in the offing, they certainly have an incentive to seem less obdurate, and more capable of governing. Coming on like the clowns they are when the future of the world is at stake is hardly a recipe for electoral success.

The Republican leadership does understand this; they have said as much. And in the weeks leading up to the Democrats’ latest shellacking, they managed to keep their useful idiots under control.

Maybe they can do it again, though, for now, the prospects seem dim.

Within days of the landslide, the crazies surged back. For the time being, they seem more in charge than ever.

And there are more of them. Some of them moved up from the House to the Senate, and the election added to the supply in the House.

But all this, bad as it may be, is of far less consequence than liberal pundits would have us believe.

It hardly matters whether the in-coming Republican Senate will do more harm than past Democratic Senates have, or than the Democrats would do over the next two years if they could — because the plain fact is, and always has been, that nothing much will get done in either case unless the White House is on board.

This is why the truly worrisome consequence of the shellacking this time is that it will enable our Democratic President to do what he seems to have been wanting to do all along – to join Republicans in giving the pillars of American capitalism everything they want.

Obama apologists and the Obama faithful – remarkably, they still exist — have been claiming for years that this is not at all what their man wants; that he would rather serve the people but can’t, because he hasn’t gotten enough backing from the citizens and organized constituencies he regularly disappoints.

After this latest Republican landslide, the blame-the-people chorus is sounding out again – louder than ever.

It seems that potential Democratic supporters – African Americans, Hispanics, single women, gays and lesbians, and young voters of all descriptions – were just too lazy to get out to vote in sufficient numbers to save the Senate and the world.

Therefore, Republicans, already proficient at voter suppression and at mobilizing (morally and mentally) dead white males and so-called Reagan Democrats who know better but still vote for Republicans, won.

In other words, it is all the peoples’ fault, and/or the Republicans’, and/or anybody and everybody’s – except of course, Barack Obama’s or the Democratic Party’s.

This is nonsense, of course. But even if Obama were blameless, it would hardly matter because now, whether from conviction or from the force of circumstances, Obama is about to do for the Republican agenda — the naked, unadorned agenda of America’s most nefarious capitalists — what Republicans could never do on their own.

He may not have been able to get his supporters to the polling stations in sufficient numbers to keep the Senate from falling under Republican control, but he can still neuter their opposition to policies that harm the interests of the plutocrats he serves.

It is as sure as a law of nature: neoliberal, imperialism-friendly Democrats can do for Republicans what Republicans cannot do for themselves, because they can get the opposition to go along or at least to acquiesce.

This is a role Bill Clinton played and brought to perfection. Obama now stands poised to outdo even him.

Whether this is his heartfelt desire or his tragic destiny is irrelevant. Who knows, or cares, what Obama is thinking! What matters is what he does.

One of the things he does is get Democrats shellacked, and then draw the wrong lesson from the experience.

If he and his advisors had half the sense they were born with, they would immediately change course, at least to the extent of supporting some of the policies that they had led voters to believe they would support. Instead, they do the opposite.

Therefore, expect that the Grand Bargain will be back on the agenda; expect, in other words, that Obama will try, again, to drive another nail into the coffin of the few New Deal reforms that survived Bill Clinton.

Expect too that the tax “reforms” corporate America is aching for will garner White House support.

And, though the initial signs suggest otherwise, worry as well that Obama will cave on environmental regulations that inconvenience the fossil fuel industry.

Above all, expect pernicious trade policies – including the Trans Pacific Partnership (NAFTA on steroids, as it is known) – to gain a new lease on life.

It is a case, yet again, of American corporations versus the American people and the peoples of the world. Wherever Obama’s sympathies lie, when it comes down to doing something, there is no doubt which side he is on.

Republicans are on that side too, but there is nothing momentous that they can get done without White House support.

In recent years, the only forces within the government willing to stand in the way of the capitalists who pull Obama’s strings were some twenty or thirty comparatively progressive House Democrats, a few similarly inclined Senators, and “populist” Republicans, Tea Partiers, who would sometimes join forces with them.

It is not as strange an alliance as may appear. Awash in “false consciousness,” those Tea Party Republicans love capitalism, as they understand it. But they also, to their everlasting credit, have a healthy, irrepressible dislike of corporate fat cats and Wall Street banksters.

And, unlike the huge dead centers of both semi-official parties, they oppose efforts by the executive branch to usurp constitutionally mandated Congressional responsibilities.

To be sure, on gun control, they distort and then fetishize the Second Amendment.   But for protecting the broad constitutional architecture of American government, they far outshine the Constitutional scholar in the Oval Office.

The impending problem, then, is not exactly that Congress will be more of a force than it recently has been for all that is wrong in our politics. It is that the Democrats’ well-deserved shellacking will empower Obama to do what he would otherwise not have dared.

He may get away with it too — if Congressional Democrats follow his lead.

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It is different at the state and local level.   There Republican victories can and do make a difference in themselves.

The conventional wisdom has it that American politics at the national level is dysfunctional; the evidence that this is so is overwhelming.

But when it comes to starting and waging wars, or protecting banksters and war criminals, the federal government works just fine.

Dysfunctionality only comes into its own on matters that bear on the wellbeing of the “little people,” the ninety-nine percent.

Plutocrats are not the least put out by the infirmities of America’s political culture. What the “savvy businessmen” Obama praises want, they get; party polarization notwithstanding.

What they want is a government that enriches them.   If this means stealing from the poor (and nearly everybody else) to give to the rich, or inviting ecological catastrophes, or maintaining a state of perpetual war, they are OK with that.

It is not that they are exceptionally evil or mean spirited; it is that what they care about most, to the exclusion of all else, is what they can get for themselves.

This is what all the babble about small government is about, even when it is clouded over with libertarian ideology.

In the final analysis, libertarianism is bad philosophy. But libertarian doctrines are philosophically engaging. This is why they have a small but respectable following in academic circles, and why mainstream liberals love to take libertarian thinking on – as a foil for their own ideas.

However, in the real world of politics, none of this matters. For those who act on what they take to be principled, libertarian reasons, as much as for those who act purely out of untrammeled greed, it all comes down to making the rich richer.

Thus it is plain that self-declared advocates of small government are not really interested in shrinking the size of the government they purport to despise.   Quite the contrary, they support expanding the military and the national security apparatus and whatever else enhances the bottom lines of the hyper-rich. They favor more state, not less.

It has been this way for decades. How long has it been since the federal government did anything significant for the sake of anyone except the plutocrats who own the Democratic and Republican parties?

Obama apologists will point to Obamacare.  They are partly right: all things considered, that milquetoast reform probably has done, and will do, more good than harm for millions (but not all) previously uninsured people.

But it has also further entrenched the power of private insurance companies, for-profit healthcare providers and various other profiteers, setting back the cause of genuine healthcare reform for another generation.

With this one partial and highly equivocal exception, the fact remains: a federal government in the grip of neoliberal ideology is good for nothing worth doing.

And what it is good for ought not to be done at all.

Neoliberalism got going full-throttle in the waning days of the Carter administration, and came fully into its own in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Every American president since then, regardless of party, has carried on the “Reaganite” tradition. The difference is that Democrats, though seldom true believers, are better than Republicans, true believers all, at putting Reaganite precepts into effect.

Paradoxically, the side that seems less onerous, viewed out of context, can sometimes be the greater evil, all things considered. In recent decades, at the federal level especially, this has often been the case.

It can be this way at the state and local levels too. Sometimes, though, it is not.

The states were once, as the saying goes, the country’s “laboratories of change.” The description was always a stretch, but it did apply tolerably well to any of a number of innovative programs initiated by state governments during the Progressive Era. A few states kept at it longer — New York State especially, and also California.

This tradition never quite died out; indeed, there are still inklings of it today. Vermont, for example, is working towards implementing a statewide single payer healthcare insurance system. Vermont Republicans did almost well enough in the midterm elections to put this project in jeopardy. In all likelihood, though, it will go forward – though perhaps not as quickly as it might otherwise have.

At the state level, the midterm election was not a complete debacle. If nothing else, there were a few ballot initiatives – on issues ranging from marijuana legalization to raising the minimum wage – that ran counter to the general, retrograde current.

However, for the most part, the battles engaged electorally in this last election were defensive in nature. The idea was only to restore or, where still possible, to retain progressive changes won decades ago.

For example, labor rights for public sector workers were an issue in several state elections because, earlier on in the Age of Obama, the Koch brothers and others like them, smelling blood, set out to further hobble, if not finish off, the remnants of America’s once thriving labor movement.

They enlisted compliant Republican governors and state legislatures to advance their agenda. Then, in the aftermath of the Democrats’ 2010 shellacking, their efforts bore fruit.

Their 2010 successes could have been reversed in the 2014 elections. Instead, the opposite happened. Now even such securely “blue” states as Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland will have Republican governors.

For this, Obama has much to answer for; it was no easy feat to be that unpopular or to stir up that much backlash.

But his culpability and the culpability of the Democratic Party go beyond even this.

Wisconsin is a case in point. In the 2010 election, a flyweight named Scott Walker won the governorship, and the GOP won majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Walker immediately went after public sector unions, igniting one of the largest social upheavals to take place in the United States in decades.

The state Capitol was occupied for weeks; support for the workers and their allies was unprecedented.

In normal democracies, the state government would have fallen, and new elections would have been called. But, as our President reminds us every chance he gets, America is “exceptional.” In Wisconsin, the only recourse was a recall election that could not be held until the Governor had been in office for a year.

By then, the spirit of resistance had faded. Worse still, the Democrats ran a weak candidate – the one Walker had defeated in the election that brought him to power. And the national Democratic Party did almost nothing in his behalf. They evidently felt they had better things to do with their money than oust the Walker regime.

Had Obama campaigned in the state, he might have made a difference, especially in areas with large African American populations where he remained popular – despite his penchant for treating African American issues with malign neglect.

But instead of campaigning against Walker, Obama traveled – conspicuously — to neighboring states, Minnesota and Illinois, to raise money for himself and other like-minded Democrats.

It was not until the night before the recall election that he deigned to contribute to the ouster effort by sending a supportive tweet. Hallelujah.

The liberal pundits who blame the people for Obama’s “disappointing” performance in office hardly noticed, much less complained.

No doubt, for them, as for the plutocrats for whose favor Obama lives and breathes, keeping America’s financiers and corporate moguls happy, along with the leading lights of the military-industrial-national security state complex, is more important than helping American workers retain some of the benefits they won through struggle decades ago.

There is nothing on the horizon that is likely to force Obama to change for the better during his remaining two years in office. Quite the contrary, we can expect more of the same – and worse.

It is a truly disheartening prospect.

And, when the Age of Obama finally, mercifully, draws to a close, it could become worse still — should the Clintons return to the White House, as now seems likely, or if, as still seems unlikely, a Republican does.

Before long, we may find ourselves wishing Obama were still around.

As long as the duopoly party stranglehold remains unbroken, this is how it will be.

The lesson is plain: smash the duopoly. How to do this is the great unanswered question of American politics today.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, 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).


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).