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writing for godot

The 1.6-Party System: When the two parties add up to less than the sum of their factions

Written by rogerkimmelsmith   
Thursday, 16 July 2020 21:26

As we are propelled more deeply into this confounded year, its tumult and its tension only intensify. Don't expect any let up. Crises upon scandals upon tragedies and travesties proliferate. None appear on course for resolution, and there are those who delight in stoking the chaos. An awful lot is shaking loose and coming up for grabs in the nation's politics and society. One astute commentator said we're being inundated by "a superabundance of the unresolved past." Even the long-betrayed Indian treaties are echoing back at us like a jeering jester, such is the vortex we're in.


Much of our prior, long-term status quo is being upended. To take one example: for many years, left-of-center analysts of our political and media systems such as Noam Chomsky have held that political debates in the United States tend to take place within a strikingly narrow spectrum of ideological perspectives, compared with the range of opinions commonly voiced in European nations and other parliamentary democracies. The dominance of our two-party system has often been held largely responsible for this phenomenon.


But a broadening of the political spectrum has occurred. In addition to the traditional liberal/conservative mainstream, both socialist forces and autocratic ones are now robustly represented in the streets and on our screens. The real energy in our political culture, since 2016, is found on these radical edges; the trend of the times is centrifugal.


Progressives may take heart from this sea change, and may justifiably credit Sen. Bernie Sanders for his role in expanding our political discourse. But credit Donald Trump just as much. It's now abundantly clear that Trump's politics hasn't a damned thing to do with conservatism, libertarianism, or any political philosophy embraced by the Republican Party before him. We could call his politics illiberal, though it's too weak a word, or fascist, possibly a too strong one, so call it autocratic or authoritarian. With his mafioso approach to power, he has rolled most of his party's elected officials on most issues.


A large portion of the GOP rank and file, we have also seen, forthrightly subscribes to or will readily embrace authoritarian views. They may not admit to doing so, but that's part of the nature of autocratic viewpoints: they deny the truth that they are autocratic just as they deny a great many other truths, scientifically proven or merely self-evident.


But make no mistake, there is a meaningful division between the red and orange teams—one that could deepen as time goes on, especially if and when the country heads into a post-Trump future. The past few weeks have made it easier to spot the daylight between them, and the pandemic is a big part of what's driving the wedge. You could perhaps capture this factional difference on the basis of one issue alone: mask wearing. Last month, the Pew Research Center found 86 percent of Democrats and Dem-leaning independents said masks should be worn always or most of the time in public places. The comparable figure for GOP and GOP-leaning was 52 percent, about an even split—the red/orange split, on its face.


Beyond this relatively small (but potentially life-or-death) disagreement, there's an ongoing, albeit largely subterranean, contest for power and control of the party between those solidly in the orange camp and other Republican players. The Trumpians appear united behind their dingbat, but fall short of a majority. The rest of the GOP menagerie, ranging from opportunistic collaborators to political animals making largely insubstantial feints toward autonomous action, and decidedly including five Supreme Court justices, adds up to another not-quite-half a party. Then, of course, there are the unelected powers of Wall Street, industry, technology, and media.




On the Democratic side, as we all know, a similar struggle or uneasy alliance exists between the progressive and establishment (sometimes called "centrist") sub-parties. This is more or less the long-lamented divide between the Democratic voter base and its donor class that has been locked in since at least the 1980s—unless it dates back to the 1940s, when party mandarins pushed Henry Wallace aside in favor of Harry Truman. The dichotomy is old, but the two Bernie campaigns have brought the fight more into the open and arguably lowered the point spread between the sides.


Again, neither Democratic faction can control the party on its own. They and the Republican sub-parties each consist of, let's say, roughly 40 percent of a party. They can only govern by striking a variety of accommodations, sometimes with each other, more often with... those unelected powers again, sometimes called "the powers that be."


It isn't hard to grant the idea of two two-winged parties forming four sub-parties, or a "1.6-party system" if you will. But we make a grave mistake when we place them into the archaic, two-dimensional left/right framework. This allows us only a benighted, impoverished understanding of the real forces in play. To say that we have a "far" left and "center" left, and "far" right and "center" right, vying to capture some precious territory known as the "center," is worse than misleading.


The fifth sub-party, according to my scheme, is entrenched corporate power. Senator Sanders described it quite accurately, you'll recall, when he listed all the forces his campaign vowed to "take on." But what an insidious swindle perpetrated on the public, what a sinister twist of language, that this political force of corporate oligarchy gets mistaken for, and deceptively described as, "the center." It is NOT the center of the body politic, or of public opinion, or of the ideological spectrum. It isn't even a space between what the two parties espouse, really, or where common ground exists between them. It IS the center of the nexus of real power. It is what Gore Vidal meant when he spoke of "the people who own the country."


This force governs through both major parties, and can exert its will and get its way most of the time on most issues, no matter which party controls which branch of government. It's always there to fill in the gaps left by the shortcomings of the two parties, and it accounts for their failure to represent their constituents, who are human rather than corporate persons. This hidden dimension of our politics operates both in and outside of the democracy, through campaign donations, lobbyists, and countless corrupt inducements. It is the strongest and the least accountable of the sub-parties. It's the reason why what we think of as democratic forces, the vox populi, turn out to matter so little and get their demands met so rarely in actual governance. And it's not likely to be dislodged in the immediate future.


On the other hand, the recent protest uprising reveals another means for popular voices to make an impact on policy. Street heat can make a tangible difference under some circumstances. It's hard to tell how far such a dynamic could extend. A strategy embracing civic volatility inevitably raises thorny questions of violence—way thornier given the demonstrated violence of autocratic and supremacist forces associated with the Trump sub-party. Nevertheless, the last month has been quite notable for its illustration of a movement-based force in politics. It could spark further change in people's notions of where power resides and how the reality of our political terrain differs widely from our conventional map of the (approximately) two-party system.




What could happen? A tremendous amount is in flux, no doubt. Some say human civilization is starting to collapse. So might we ever be able to strike a few blows at corporate domination, or at least put some telling dents in its two-party vehicle of ruling-class rule?


Play a little hand of no-trump with me, just for fun. Let's say it's 2028, and we're fortunate enough that the USA still conducts quadrennial POTUS elections. In what state might we find the parties? It could be that eight years after his humiliating defeat, and perhaps after a pathetic, lost-cause attempt to thwart his successor's inauguration through insurrection, the horrifying legacy of Agent Orange will have left such a toxic taint throughout the republic that the GOP's elected dinosaurs will be rapidly dying out and the red and orange sub-parties hurtling toward an irreparable fracture.


Such a scenario, as far-fetched as you may find it, could conceivably threaten the two-party system in the medium-term future. A different type of threat may well arise if the Democratic sub-parties fail to unite in 2020.


A personal disclosure: I'm a lifelong progressive and ardently supported the Bernie '16 campaign, which profoundly altered the country's political culture and was certainly the biggest breakthrough for progressives in decades. But I never quite got past an initial ambivalence, this time around, about my Brooklyn/Burlington boy's second campaign. I kept coming back to one troubling question, which even the most articulate of Bernie's supporters and surrogates couldn't quite answer: If the Trump presidency poses such a dire threat to the survival of the republic and planet Earth, and it does, shouldn't Democrats seek the widest possible coalition to defeat his re-election, even to the point of welcoming or courting help, emergency tactical support, from the dreaded Establishment?


Like it or not, Joe Biden's presumptive victory in the primaries answers my question.


I agree strongly with many critiques of Biden's malodorous policy record and his pro-corporate inclinations. Nevertheless, his willingness to engage in substantive, on-the-record policy dialogue with leaders from the Sanders faction shows a seriousness about stitching the party together and winning the election that never materialized in the 2016 Democratic campaign. The fact is, a Biden nomination presents not just our only chance to defeat Trump at the polls and secure a relatively peaceful turnover to a new administration, but to do so through a historically wide coalition of voters, including current and former members of all the sub-parties. Such a victory would usher in the country's best opportunity to set in motion a reversal of the Trump era's centrifugal politics, and keep alive the possibility of redefining the U.S. status quo in a way that aligns "the center" less with corporate priorities and more with the common good.




Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance wordsmith based in Ithaca, New York. He has written for The Progressive, Ithaca Times, National Geographic, Propaganda Review, Disarmament Times, Syncopated Times, Common Dreams, and Global Issues in Context.




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