Partisanship vs Democracy

Here is a major problem of parties in the US political system.

We have a winner take all system. It creates a mindset of win at any costs and dominate by any means. Other (better functioning, one might argue) democratic governments allow greater multiple party competition while simultaneously encouraging cooperation and alliance-forming among the parties. One would hope that this could lessen the tendency of American-style territorial partisanship with its Social Darwinism and groupthink, and so it might give democracy a fighting chance to achieve democratic results.

The US system has come to operate with parties winning by excluding rather than including the most voters. Republicans dismiss minorities and non-Christians. Democrats dismiss lower class whites and leftist reformers. Both parties, in a bipartisan stranglehold, dismiss independents, third partiers, discouraged non-voters, and the disenfranchised.

Neither party fights for the rights, values, and interests of most of the American population. Instead, the two parties defend their turf and seek only to represent their respective small band of loyal followers. But in the end, the parties take their own partisans for granted, as the opinions of partisans is irrelevant since they’ll vote party line no matter what. This leaves both parties to do the bidding of big money, as research shows they do.

There is no incentive for either of the two main parties to act more democratically, to promote democracy, and to democratically represent the American people. Because of this, elections become empty spectacles to create an illusion of democratic process and consent of the governed.

We should and need to do better than this. But in order for that to happen, we have to demand better and put the force of conviction behind it. Otherwise, the force of desperation might lead us in directions we’d rather not go. Reform is the only way to prevent revolution. And, once revolution begins, it can’t be controlled.

My thoughts here aren’t particularly radical. They go back the American founding generation. It’s part of the original intent of the Constitution. George Washington, in particular, warned against the dangers of political parties. Washington may have been too idealistic in his criticisms, as factionalism may be an inevitable part of any large diverse society. Even if that is the case, his warnings about political parties remain and have proven true.

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about alternatives. The world is full of countries with different systems that can be studied and compared. Not all factionalism leads to American-style dysfunction and corruption. There is no reason we should remain attached to our dysfunction and corruption simply because it is our own. Think of it as a cancer needing to be removed so that the rest of the body may live.

If we don’t like the results we are getting and obviously most Americans are dissatisfied to an extreme degree with the status quo, then why not try something different in seeking different results? We Americans owe no loyalty to the two-party establishment. Our primary loyalty belongs to our country and and our fellow citizens, which is to say “We the People.” Democracy doesn’t mean power of parties and politicians; rather, it literally is power of the people.

7 thoughts on “Partisanship vs Democracy

  1. I think our culture is very polar, starting at our notion of good vs evil, but descending through take-it-or-leave-it thinking about business, the environment, and all kinds of things. Our Christian/isolated/frontiersman background seems to give us permission to wander far to the right, and the offset seems lockstepped into a kind of bipolar offset.

    I am very excited about the dramatic creation of Bernie Sanders backers as a harbinger of something that might end up with a coalition of the hawkish, moneyed center-left to center-right Hillary Clinton turf with progressives. It may well be time soon.

    • Calvinism in the US, introduced through Puritanism, embodies a dark view of the world. Puritanism was born out of persecution and then took shape through the English Civil War.

      Calvinist theology doesn’t just occasionally fall into a kind of fatalism but also an attitude of endless, even cosmic, conflict. It is division and divisiveness, an ultimate dualism of good and evil. The stakes are always high, an absolutist gamble of where you lay your bets.

      Some societies might worry too little about evil. We Americans are obsessed with it, fueling the Cold War in the past and now the War on Terror. It’s a mentality of fear and threat.

      This has been a major tradition in American society. Calvinism ended up spreading far beyond the original Puritan communities. It oddly became the defining feature of the South through New England missionaries converting the redneck heathens. The South had been a largely irreligious place until the 19th century.

      Sanders represents a separate tradition or set of traditions. I don’t specifically know what were his early influences and formative experiences. It seems to me that his politics inhabit more of a Mid-Atlantic worldview. Places like New York and Pennsylvania were always more moderate places, even back in the colonial era. They were safe havens from religious oppression and political extremism.

      The Mid-Atlantic mentality has maybe been less dominant in recent history. The Southern Strategy changed everything and not just for Republicans. The Clinton New Democrats essentially implemented their own Southern Strategy.

      The change with Republicans is particularly stark. Republicans were originally most popular in the Middle part of the country, by which I mean the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

      Lincoln himself was a Midwesterner and brought that sensibility to national politics. In Lincoln’s administration, he included not just moderates but also conservatives and radicals (even a Marxist). Lincoln’s brilliance was in bridging ideological divides to create cooperation. He envisioned a unified country. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln was powerfully influenced by the founding fathers, especially Washington.

      When Lincoln was in his teens, the last of the founding fathers died. The American Revolution was at that time still within living memory. The reason Washington was so worried about factionalism is because he viscerally and personally understood what happens when a society becomes divided. Lincoln also came to understand that. Both men came at a moment when a unified vision was so important.

      We’ve forgotten how dangerous divisiveness can be. Obstructionism and stalemate in Washington DC is the least of our worries. Anyone who thinks revolution or civil war can’t happen again is a fool.

      That is what makes Sanders so refreshing. One gets the sense that he’d like to speak for all Americans, not to set one particular group against another. That is what we need right now. We are facing immense problems and we need someone who is up to the task for doing what many claim is impossible. We better hope solving our problems isn’t impossible, for the alternative won’t be pretty.

      It seems to me that many Americans are ready for something different. We Americans are capable of doing great things, even if we tend to save our greatest innovativeness for when our backs are against the wall.

  2. Minorities and many women fear Donald Trump. Many left wing democrat radio host bring this up in my area (and I’m sure it’s mimicked all over the country) about how their are differences between democrats and republicans. And that minorities and women are better off voting democrats. There’s probably just a small shred of truth in that which is this tactic works and why Hillary will probably win this election cycle.

    Yeah, I gave up on the Democrats after 2008 and seeing how Obama was just another long candidate that towed the line.

    • There are real differences between the parties. Still, they are part of the same problematic system.

      I’ll give you an example. When Republicans have the presidency, economic inequality grows immensely and has done so for as long as such data has been kept. But when Democrats are in power, growing economic inequality tends to slow down.

      Yet Democrats, even in power, never really undo or even attempt to undo the policies implemented by Republicans. Sometimes Democrats are more effective at enforcing conservative politics than are Republicans. Consider Bill Clinton’s cutting welfare and pushing tough-on-crime policies in a way that would have been hard for a Republican president to accomplish to the same degree.

      The two parties end up playing the good cop/bad cop routine. Each in their own way promoting the same establishment worldview. The two parties are slightly different varieties of the same thing. There is a good piece about this by Corey Robin, in speaking about Democratic neoliberalism:

      “Except for gay rights and one or two items in that grab bag of foreign interventions, what is Peretz saying here beyond the fact that his politics consisted mainly of supporting various planks from the Republican Party platform? That was the intellectual daring, apparently.”

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