The Two Party System and the Urgent Need for Change

The narrow point of view, if honest, has value, but it’s too limited. Politically it can reinforce the status quo but not bring progressive change.  There’s always a larger, broader dimension which encompasses or at least accounts for the limited ones. In the political decision-making context, when the larger perspective becomes the base for the reasoning and decision, the problem disappears, that is, it’s "transcended." This is the way progress occurs.

We often hear our national politicians talking about "triangulation" and "compromise," meaning they stake their positions within the present perspective in between "left and right" on an issue, or "conservative and liberal," or "Republican and Democrat." This puts or keeps them in power because it helps fund their campaigns and projects. But progress does not occur because the perspective remains the same.

Of course, because they work in secret (which they justify by national security), we don’t know how our rulers think or even who makes the decisions for us. But we often hear from our national politicians in the media seeking to market the made decisions. What we hear from them is almost always one-dimensional.

For example, our President, apparently thinking of his devil Saddam in Kuwait years ago, recently said that democracies do not attack other countries. True. But what does this say about his claim that US is a democracy? Speaking from his "entrepreneurial" perspective, he’s also fond of saying that people all over the world yearn for democracy and freedom. True again, Mr. President. That’s why almost everywhere in the Third World people are struggling against First World corporate exploitation as protected and enforced by the US military and intelligence services. It’s called liberation. From his nationalism perspective, our President often claims that protecting the nation trumps all other considerations. He ignores the larger dimension, that Americans belong to several place communities, family, neighborhood, town, state, nation, world, and they don’t need any one community to use its power to destroy their interests in the others.

We the people of the world now seem to be entering a new Dark Age, where relations between us will depend on our class and access to power rather than equality, mutual respect and the rule of law. The burning question is how to turn things around and start making progress rather than more regress.

Most US progressives believe that any significant change will have to be sought by working within our present political system, because that’s the purpose of a democratic system like ours and it’s capable, if used adroitly, of doing what’s necessary. That’s why so much of the discussion concerns tactics within the present limits rather than expanding the parameters.

In this respect, an interesting article appears in the Talk of the Town section of the March 27 New Yorker Magazine. It’s by a respected progressive, Hendrik Hertzberg, an astute observer of the US political scene, who analyzes the situation from the usual "Democrat vs. Republican" perspective. In this essay he deals with the common complaints that the Democrats are in disarray because they have no unified position on key issues like the Feingold censure and the Iraq war. He correctly points out that such unity is not possible without a "federal power center" such as a presidential candidate running for office. (In fact, a unified position is impossible in any event in a non-value based electoral party, which is what our two major parties have to be). He concludes by referring to a recent poll which showed that although 70% of Democrats support censure, it:

"…also showed independent voters narrowly opposing censure. The mid-term election will be decided in places where no Democrat candidate can prevail without overwhelming independent support. Tactical calculations like these are never pleasant. But they are not always sordid and sometimes they are necessary."

In other words, Hertzberg is saying that Democratic congressional candidates running in the very few seriously contested races (less than 5% of the House seats) who are against invasive phone tapping and wars of choice should keep quiet about these things in order to get elected. Then, if they "win" the Congress, in the unlikely event (1) a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate would take a position on these issues and it was against wiretapping and unnecessary war, becoming a Democrat "consensus," or (2) in the very unlikely event a majority leader or speaker elected in 2006 would take such a position and somehow carried enough weight to command such a consensus, then conceivably we the people might be able to end the illegal, unconstitutional wiretapping and wars.

While this analysis may not be sordid and may be necessary assuming the limits of the system, it certainly demonstrates the futility of trying to change things by working within the system. Polls indicate 60% of US eligible voters want to end the Iraq war now. In 3 years no US voter has had an opportunity to vote against the war and very few in favor of a candidate who opposed it. 70% want to end the wiretapping.

What’s the larger perspective? Our political system is dysfunctional. In a functional system people power exceeds or at least equals the power of capital. If our system were functional, we could elect as a majority candidates who believe in and would actualize our values and policies. In the last 60 years we have increasingly learned that this doesn’t happen. What the people want makes little difference. It’s what big business wants that counts. Today only about a half of eligibles vote in presidential elections and about 40% in our gerrymandered House districts. How many more years do we have to figure it out? Is it time we faced reality instead of looking for tortured ways to succeed within a corrupted system?

The major parties are not unimportant. They determine procedures in Congress, such as committee chairmen and hearings, what and when issues will be debated and voted on, and they also serve as accounting firms, money raisers and "get out the vote" vehicles for the candidates. But they are not value based. This prohibits any progressive change based on people power.

Value based electoral parties have been unsuccessfully attempted in US, such as the Populists, Socialists, Progressives, Libertarians, and Greens. They used to succeed sometimes in parliamentary systems in Western Europe and elsewhere, where they represented differing fundamental approaches, such as conservatives, social democrats, socialists, communists. But here the two party straight jacket has been continuously institutionalized for over two centuries in our state and federal laws and it might take as long to undo it.

There are many reasons for our "two non-value party only" system. One, winner-take-all elections, is fully sufficient in itself as a cause. Alternative value based parties on the national scale are impossible also because of the way editorial decisions are made in the media, inability of non "winners" to raise money, ballot access laws and many other reasons.

Value based electoral parties are groups of people with common values who try to elect their chosen candidates to effectuate their values. They determine their own procedures, issues, approaches, policies and candidates. In the US these matters are determined mainly by statutes rather than people. With the statutory majors we see businesses contributing to both candidates where elections might be close. We see crossover primary voting and instant registration change, which allow members of one party to help choose the candidates of the other. The parties still have platforms but no one knows or cares what they say. The candidates, not the parties, determine their own values, issues, programs, policies, priorities, and hire their own campaign workers. Although often claimed, there’s never been a national party "consensus"

The rules, standards and institutions for other fields of human endeavor like medicine, education, science, business, investment, law, engineering, etc., are set and changed by using the political system, whose purpose is to allow for an appropriate degree of change within an appropriate degree of stability. But a dysfunctional political system can’t be used to reform itself for the very reason that it’s dysfunctional.

Working within such a corrupted, class based political system makes things worse for progressives. Those who do so presumably think it’s functional and spread their support for it. This helps create the fantasy among the people that they are being "represented" and have some choice in the decisions that are made for them. It thereby reinforces the political status quo.

All progressives of whatever stripe, unions, peace, civil liberties, privacy, antiracist, women’s rights, sexual orientation, environmental groups, etc., have one thing in common: the desperate need for a people based political system. Such systems are progressive by definition because the people in ultra-capitalist political economies always want progressive change, to protect themselves from capitalism’s ravaging aspects.

The only way to achieve this in US is to start a progressive people’s movement outside the present political system. As was done in Argentina a few years ago – form councils and meet in public buildings or if necessary the neighborhoods or streets. Such a social movement need have only one program: significant change in the political system to allow for people power to assert itself. It needs to propose specific changes and make its decisions inclusively and democratically, perhaps as a federation. Some changes will implicate statutes, others the federal and state constitutions.

Such progressive movement will acquire power if, when, and to the extent that a sufficient number of progressive Americans become involved. The exact use which might be made of the power will be determined later. As in Argentina, with increasing movement power, the existing politicians and new ones will probably have to institute change or lose their jobs. We’re now beyond the point of no return in our present system, which increasingly proves itself incapable of responding to progressive people needs. It’s time to try something else, something that can succeed, before it’s too late.

Tom Crumpacker is a retired lawyer and essay writer. He works with the Miami Coalition to End the US Embargo of Cuba.