“The United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.”
— Noam Chomsky, from a 2008 interview in Der Spiegel
Being an expatriate American in Berlin, I am occasionally asked by my German friends to explain what the hell is wrong with America. “CJ,” they ask me, in their scary German accents, “was zum Teufel ist los mit Amerika?” In the past, this question normally referred to the latest mass shooting at some school or church, or the murder of yet another innocent Black guy by the American police. These days, of course, it refers to Trump, and the American political system, generally.
My friends do not understand this system. They have a different system over here. Although it is dominated by two big parties, it’s nonetheless a multi-party system. Currently, there are fourteen parties seated in the Bundestag, the federal parliament. Berlin’s state government is comprised of six parties, none of which hold a majority of seats. Coalition governments are the norm. Election campaigns are primarily financed by the state and party membership dues. Television ad time is limited by law. It isn’t a democratic utopia or anything, but it is, for the most part, democratic.
So it usually comes as a bit of a shock when I explain to my semi-socialist friends that the present-day United States of America is, technically, a de facto one-party state. I emphasize the “de facto” part, because, obviously, the United States of America is not a classic one-party state, i.e., a state wherein one political party maintains the exclusive right to govern, and all other parties are either banned or strictly controlled by the ruling party. In that type of system, there are no elections, or, if there are, they are staged affairs. My German friends, a few of them having grown up in the GDR, and the others in close proximity thereto, are very familiar with that type of system.
So I use that as a point of reference. I remind them, my former communist friends, that in that type of classic one-party state, the Party rules primarily by force, in an unapologetically despotic matter. Although it may, from time to time, demand demonstrations of loyalty from the people in the form of parades and fake elections, the Party does not require the people to be genuinely enthused about these parades, or to believe that these fake elections are real. It simply needs them to show up and clap, or go to the polls and push whatever button the Party wants them to push. Likewise, the Party does not require the people to actually believe whatever blatant propaganda its media disseminate, or the ideology its intelligentsia espouses. It is enough that they mouth the Party’s slogans, and do not openly criticize the Party. Basically, in a classic one-party state, the Party maintains its hold on power by dominating the people’s behavior — the people are permitted to believe what they like, as long as they don’t express it openly. My former East German communist friends remember all this very clearly. This sets me up to make my point.
See, unlike in a classic one-party system, I explain, in extremely clumsy German, to my somewhat curious ex-communist friends, in the de facto one-party American system, the Party cannot content itself with merely controlling the people’s behavior, and allowing them to believe what they like in private. Rote compliance is not enough, not in a system that relies on the appearance of governance according to the rule of law. Thus the Party needs the people — or an overwhelming majority of the people — to actually believe in its ideology, which it disseminates not as blatant propaganda, but as news, opinion, cultural commentary, art, entertainment, et cetera. Multi-party elections are allowed, but other parties are prevented from competing in and winning elections of any actual significance. These elections are not staged, or fake, but carefully managed simulations of democracy. The Party does not compete in these elections, or, rather, the Party alone competes in them. It does this via its proxy parties (the Republicans and the Democrats), the finances of which it tightly controls, and by ensuring that running for political office is so absurdly and prohibitively expensive that no one can succeed without the Party’s backing. Every four years, the people are either whipped into a state of mindless panic by the media (which the Party owns) or sold some hopey, changey vision of the resurrection of the American Dream, and then driven to the polls to cast their votes. The results, sadly, are always the same. In the American de facto one-party system, it makes little difference whether one votes Republican or Democrat … one votes for the Party.
“Who, or what, exactly, is the Party?” my suspicious friends usually ask at this point. “The Party is the business party,” I inform them, quoting that old Chomsky interview, the one I quoted at the top of this piece. Normally, I’ve had a few beers by then, so I may refer to it as the “corporate party” or the “corporatocracy,” or something like that. Other people call it the “corporate plutocracy,” or the “oligarchy,” or the “one percent.” It doesn’t really matter exactly what you call it. Every American knows what it is. When they tell you, “politicians are bought and paid for,” which the majority of Americans will, the Party is the people who bought them. It’s the supra-partisan investor class of insanely powerful individuals and corporations who are actually running things.
This has never been as obvious as it has throughout this election season, thanks to the candidacy of Donald Trump, which has forced the Party out of the shadows and into the unflattering light of day. Witness the mass defections to Clinton of virtually every neoconservative and Republican bigwig you could possibly think of … and long before the big groping scandal. Witness the relentless and concerted efforts of the mainstream (i.e. corporate) press to delegitimize Clinton’s opponents, not just Trump, who, being a repulsive clown, has made it laughably easy for them, but also Sanders, back when he was saying things that actually mattered, and it looked like maybe his sheepherding schtick was going to interfere with Clinton’s coronation. Witness how the American ruling classes, i.e., business leaders, Wall Street, Hollywood, politicians, academics, et al., have effortlessly fused into one gigantic deeply-concerned non-partisan entity frantically reciting from the same PR script the horrors that will befall humanity if every single American citizen does not go out and vote for Clinton.
All of this, of course, is extremely unusual. The Party, under normal circumstances, goes to great lengths to maintain the illusion that … well, basically, that it does not exist. Which it doesn’t. Not organizationally, at least. There is no grand conspiracy at work here, no international Jewish cabal or Babylonian Brotherhood of lizard people. No one, not even Jennifer Palmieri, is sending daily talking points to the corporate media and ruling elites. And no one has to. They know what to say. They’ve been trained what to say, and think, and believe, most of them, from the age of five or six. They commenced this training in their private prep schools, continued it in their private boarding schools, and later in their private universities. Along the way they made the acquaintance of other elite young persons like themselves, many of whom, through some weird coincidence, also ended up in powerful positions in business, government, and the corporate media. Those unfortunate few who weren’t born on third base learned how to dress, walk, talk, where to vacation, lunch, and so on, all the other important markers of membership in the Inner Party, as they networked their way up the ladders of power. These folks don’t need to jet off to wherever the Bilderberg Conference is meeting next year. They attend the same exclusive parties, dine in the same exclusive restaurants, enroll their children in same private schools, sail around on each other’s yachts, blurb each other’s latest memoirs, donate to the same celebrity causes, and so on. I think you get the picture. As the late George Carlin so elegantly put it, “it’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”
The point is, neither is Donald Trump, despite his billionaire celebrity status, as I inform my now quite confused German comrades. Money alone doesn’t get you in. You don’t just waltz into Party Headquarters and announce your intention to run the place. There are ways to do things, hoops to jump through, asses to kiss, bones to make. They need to be sure, when the chips are down, that you’re willing to put the Party first, and murder a few hundred thousand people in some faraway country they need destabilized, or bankrupt millions of American families to further enrich their friends on Wall Street. Being Puppet-in-Chief of the Party is not all playing grab-ass with Bono, droning families, and pimping the TTP on the Jimmy Fallon show. No, the position comes with responsibilities, not to the American people, of course, but to the global capitalist ruling classes.
By this time my horrified German friends are wondering whether I’m a Trump supporter, which I have to assure them, repeatedly, I am not. See, the thing I’m trying to get across to them, in fluent but ungrammatical German, is that the Party’s problem with Donald Trump is not that he’s a racist, misogynist moron, but, rather, the fact that he’s been trying to skirt the extremely elaborate vetting process the Party maintains to ensure its puppets understand where their bread is buttered. Trump, narcissistic idiot that he is, actually believed that he could run for President, and win, without the Party’s blessing. So the Party needed to teach him a lesson, and to dissuade any future billionaire idiots from doing likewise, which is what we’ve been witnessing. This is what all the Hitler stuff, and the Putin stuff, and all the rest of it, has been about from the very beginning. They’re hoping they can force him to withdraw in disgrace, but, if not, they want to destroy him in November. A squeaker is not going to do it this time. The Party is looking for a Clinton landslide. They need to make an example of this Trump … and they’re counting on you to help them do that.
And this is the hardest part of trying to explain all this to my German friends … the part about how millions of Americans, the very Americans whose families the Party has been ruthlessly exploiting, debt-enslaving, denying basic social services that virtually ever other Western nation has somehow figured out how to provide (like affordable education and healthcare, housing and basic support for the poor) in order to amass obscene amounts of personal wealth they could never spend, how these very Americans, whose grandchildren are going to inherit a planet the Party is ruining for the sake of fourteen brands of deodorant, self-driving cars, and internet phones, how these very Americans are going to go out on November 8th and vote for the Party. And not only are they going to go out and vote, they’re going to pressure you to go out and vote, as if the fate of democracy depended on it, or as if November 8 were some kind of National Masochist Day or something.
The one little ray of hope I have to offer my, at this point, terribly depressed and deeply frightened German friends is that something like forty percent of Americans will not be casting a vote for the Party. They will vote for no one, out of some misguided sense of self respect, or something. Others will cast a vote for Stein, or write in Pigasus, or Alfred E. Neuman. I know, it isn’t much to cling to, but the revolution has to start somewhere, and it isn’t going to have a chance to do that until people stop voting for the Party’s puppets … or some neo-nationalist throwback alternative.
In any event, in another few weeks, the spectacle will finally come to an end, except for Clinton’s coronation in January, and America will go back to business as usual, and it’ll be like none of this ever happened. Peace will reign throughout Oceania, Love (of the Party) having conquered Hate.