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Are America’s Political Problems ‘Structural,’ Or What?

Hint: The Answer Is, ‘What’

My son and I have a friendly argument about what exactly the hell has gone wrong with America. He locates the problem in the so-called two-party system. I have some sympathy with his argument; I do think that limiting voters to strictly binary options causes certain problems unique to America, and that at a minimum, introducing ranked-choice voting nationwide might help. But I believe the general breakdown of democracy and drift toward fascism that we see in so many countries today, nations with very diverse cultural and historical backgrounds, goes much deeper than any one state’s structural problems, such as the two-party system in America.

Still, it’s worth examining why this system arose and how it does contribute to the current crisis. The two-party system is not in the strict sense of the word “constitutional,” in that it is not part of the written U.S. Constitution. As students of American history know, the Constitution’s framers hated and despised political parties, which they called “factions,” and believed that they were the bane of any republic. They wanted what many twenty-first century American voters tell pollsters they want: the best individual for the position, regardless of party.

The framers hoped that political parties would not arise at all, and it was based on that hope that they came up with the concept for the Electoral College. Setting aside the various unsavory political deals they struck, the concept was a noble one, or at least defensible in principle. You see, men like Alexander Hamilton were afraid of direct democracy because they didn’t trust the common people (sure, they assumed that only white men with property would be able to vote, but the principle applies to any broad electorate). Specifically, they were well versed in the history of ancient republics and how often the common people in them fell under the sway of some unscrupulous demagogue. They also feared what we call the tyranny of the majority. That is why they built so many firewalls into the Constitution, such as the famous balance of powers between the three branches of government. Another crucial safeguard was the Bill of Rights, which was ratified immediately after the main body of the Constitution. The institution of the Electoral College, and the proviso that senators were to be elected by state legislatures (which the 17th Amendment replaced with direct popular elections in the early 20th century), were intended as two more walls between the untrustworthy passions of the common people and governmental power. The Electoral College was intended as a sort of one-time, single-purpose Congress, containing the same number of members as the Congress itself, who would all be elite, trustworthy men whom the common people could vote for. These men could then reasonably and dispassionately debate among themselves which man would make the best president. That was the idea, anyway. It worked in practice only twice, at the very beginning, in 1789 and 1792, when the Electoral College made George Washington president for two terms.

Such a system was always going to be on the defensive in a democratizing age, open as it was the unanswerable objection that the power elite of newly independent America couldn’t really prove that it possessed so much more civic “virtue” than everybody else that it had the right to govern in their name indefinitely. But the Electoral College contraption itself failed in the very next presidential elections after Washington’s retirement, which took place in 1796 and 1800, were hotly contested between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and involved the two brand-new political parties they stood at the head of, the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans, respectively. Now that “factions” had arisen, any chance that the Electoral College could function as a disinterested, dispassionate, deliberative body was gone forever, and the contraption became the political football it has remained to this day. What is curious is that the two-party structure has also endured through well over two centuries of political and social upheaval, the expansion of the electorate beyond anything the Constitution’s framers could have imagined, and the growth of the United States from a small, vulnerable new nation to the greatest empire the world has ever known. Since the closing years of the eighteenth century, the United States has always possessed two “major parties” (with the exception of a decade or so in the early nineteenth century when the Democrat-Republicans ruled unchallenged, the so-called Era of Good Feelings). The two-party system has stood like a rock since then, although the parties themselves changed names and identities, forming and dissolving several times through the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, we ended up with the two political parties whose labels we preserve today, “Democrats” and “Republicans.”

The system endures even though, as I have argued earlier in this blog, the Democrats and Republicans have almost completely exchanged identities from the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) to the present, showing the “parties” themselves to be little more than empty vessels than can be filled with almost anything. Today’s Republicans are essentially the Democrats of 1865, with their strongest geographic base among white Southerners who want to preserve the White-dominated racial hierarchy, if they can’t reinstate chattel slavery. By the same token, the Radical Republicans of the late 1860s, who wanted to move toward racial equality, have been replaced by today’s liberal-to-progressive Democrats.

The two-party structure endures even though the “establishment” of both parties has been displaced by internal revolts multiple times in the past century and a half. In the highly unlikely event that the U.S. Constitution and its informal companion, the two-party system, were to endure for another couple of centuries, one would not be surprised to step out of a time machine in the year 2222 and learn that the Democrats are once again the so-called conservative or right-wing party, and the Republicans are the so-called progressive or left-wing party, whatever that might mean in the twenty-third century.

The objection my son and many others have to this weird arrangement, which is unlike the party system of any other modern-day democracy, is that it offers voters a starkly binary choice. For example, if you are in general uncomfortable with the current rapid rate of social and political change, and favor American traditions of self-reliance and the free market, you are pretty much bound to vote Republican, no matter how much you might privately disagree with some of the party’s other stances, especially as it has become much more closely aligned with the views of evangelical Christians (and their outriders among certain Catholics and Orthodox Jews). On the other hand, if you approve of social change in general, you may find yourself forced to vote Democratic, even if you think the party is going too fast on certain issues and don’t approve of every single thing today’s progressives passionately insist on. And of course, the progressives themselves are frustrated by the Democrats’ overall moderation, but they are also compelled to vote Democratic.

This is not a trivial objection, and it’s true that in a pure parliamentary system, there tend to be several viable parties at any given time, which generally makes it a lot easier for most people to find a party that matches their worldview. But countries with such systems have not been spared many of the same problems that now afflict American politics. I happen to be familiar with the Israeli political system from long study and from having lived in the country for six years in the 1990s. Since the beginning of 2019, Israel has held four general elections, and a fifth is now impending. But the country’s political deadlock remains unbroken over this whole period. This impasse has little to do with what Americans or Europeans would recognize as a traditional right-versus-left split—the Israeli left has been little more than a rump consisting of two small and quarrelsome factions for twenty years. No, the problem is almost exclusively about whether former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the leader of the Likud Party, should return to this office or not. Another pure parliamentary democracy, Italy, is also in a state of chronic deadlock despite multiple elections in recent years, and despite the fact that there too, the left is pretty much out of the game. In both of these countries and many more besides, even the legendary socialist stronghold of Sweden, rising right wing authoritarianism is the main political story. Netanyahu, a veteran Israeli politician who was first elected Prime Minister in 1996, attached himself to Trump and seems to be consciously aping the authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, despite the latter’s barely veiled antisemitism. In Italy, the most likely winner of the impending elections is Giorigia Meloni, a relatively new figure in Italian politics who seems to be in the mold of Marine Le Pen in France. Although the latter has not yet managed to bring her National Front to power, she’s getting closer with every election. She and her Italian counterpart have learned how to moderate their rhetoric just enough to not seem dangerously radical in their preachments against African and Asian immigrants.

Nor is the problem of rising fascism limited to the Western World. India has a parliamentary system, and a seemingly quite popular Prime Minister who leads a right-wing, Hindu chauvinist party that is openly pursuing discriminatory laws and policies against the country’s very large minority of Muslims, and venerates Gandhi’s assassin over the legendary founder of modern India himself. The Philippines just elected the twentieth-century dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s son and namesake. Whatever is driving this worldwide trend, and despite the fact that there are obviously factors unique to each country, it’s apparent that no conceivable “structural reform” can turn back the night that descended in the 1920s and 1930s, and that threatens international peace and countless lives once again.

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