Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Whither The Two Party System

Much of today's political toxicity supposedly comes from the ideological differences between the two parties, and the fact that neither side seems to be willing to accept the idea that the other side might have some valid points on any given issue. At least, that's the conventional wisdom.

The problem is, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

It's not that the two parties are separated by ideological differences. It's that they are too much alike, and many of these "differences in ideology" are actually manufactured to keep the two parties at each other's throats in the minds of the populace. Much of the uproar of late has little to do with partisan philosophy, in fact, and everything to do with the Distractor in Chief and the fact that the wheels seem to be on the verge of coming off his bus on a daily basis.

In actuality there just isn't a whole lot of daylight between the two parties, and this is a testament to how effective the Republicans have been at defining the conversation over the past forty years or so. Ever since the Summer of Reagan in 1980, the Republicans have been steadily moving to the right, dragging the rest of the country along for the ride whether we wanted to go or not. Each election cycle the GOP finds something on which to hang their ideological hat, then they demand to know why the Democrats aren't keeping up. From "family values" and demonizing Murphy Brown in 1992 to illegal immigration and demonizing Mexicans in 2016, the Democrats have constantly been trying to keep pace with the GOP, allowing the Republicans to frame the argument each time.

Somehow the GOP managed to implant the notion in the popular consciousness that conservatism is somehow more patriotic than liberalism. The result of this is that each time the GOP lurches to the right, the Democrats scramble to keep up, and the entire conversation is shifted toward the conservative end of the spectrum.

The end result of all this? There is little to no liberal representation in government any longer. Ronald Reagan would be dismissed as a wacko lefty were he to run today. Ted Kennedy would have only gotten elected to the Senate because of the status of New England as the supposed "liberal homeland." Bill Clinton was pilloried as another liberal Democrat even though he is basically a slightly right-of-center Blue Dog Democrat -- and once Newt Gingrich found something else to squawk about, the "liberal" epithet fell into disuse.

Liberals have been portrayed by Republicans as being soft on crime, fiscally irresponsible, disrespectful to the religious, soft on immigration, weak in foreign affairs, and each time one of these charges is made there is a whole pack of Democrats lining up to deny it ... and yet, no once has one of them stood up and defended liberalism. Each time, the Dems lunge a little bit further to the right, causing the GOP to move the goalposts again, and the cycle continues.

This despite polls that show Americans as a whole tend to favor liberal causes. For example, let's look at some Pew Research Center polls conducted over the past couple of years:
  • 67% of Americans surveyed believe that employers who have a religious objection to birth control should be required to include it as part of health coverage for their employees (4,500 people surveyed in September of 2016). The GOP pushed hard against this, even making it as far as the Supreme Court with the Hobby Lobby case.
  • 63% of Americans felt that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 51% in 2006.
  • In 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, opposed to 35% in favor. By 2016, 55% supported it while 37% opposed.

Add to these data things like interracial marriage (prior to Loving v. Virginia in 1967, 17 states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Caroline, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware -- had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. All other states, with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota, had had these laws previously, but they had all been repealed prior to the Loving decision), equal access to credit for women (a provision of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act inserted by Rep. Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne "Lindy" Boggs (D-LA) during markup by the Banking Committee in 1974), and other issues, and it becomes clear that the conservative movement is actually quite a bit out of step with the population as a whole.

Therein lies the problem. Liberals no longer have adequate representation. The Democratic Party is simply a slightly less conservative option for those who don't want to be affiliated with the GOP ... but for true liberals, those who espouse leftist thinking and philosophy, there is really no home for them.

I am not talking about the fringe elements, either. Granted, there are extremes at both ends of the political spectrum that are better left to their own devices -- far left activists calling for what amounts to anarchy; far right folks who feel that acknowledging that the Earth is round, or older than 6,000 years, is just a bridge too far. But for mainstream liberals, finding a political home is proving to be more difficult with each passing day.

Taking trump out of the equation (let's face it, the man is a political anomaly), the 2016 election was purely about personality, since Hillary actually had more in common with the Republican Party that with liberal Democrats of yore like FDR, JFK ... or even Barack Obama. She was decidedly hawkish in her foreign policy, a sentiment shared with the GOP. Her economic policies favored the wealthy and the donor class. Liberals of all stripes were faced with a sort of Hobson's choice on election day 2016 -- either vote for Hillary as "the lesser of two evils" (which she wasn't, not by a long shot -- but that is for another day), vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson even though neither one had a snowball's chance in hell, or sit the election out. We all know how that turned out ...

The way I see it, one of two things has to happen to keep liberals from being completely marginalized.
  1. The Democratic Party has to come out of the closet and embrace liberalism (one could argue that this is also an option for the Republicans, but given the close times with fundamentalist Christianity and the decades building their brand as one-stop conservative shopping, this is far less likely). "Liberal" doesn't have to be a dirty word. What the Dems need is someone who can articulate a new vision of the Party as a liberal haven, promoting policies that find favor with the left and present a clear alternative to conservative politics.
  2. A new third party has to establish itself as opposition to the conservative status quo. Since Democrats are basically "Republican Lite" these days, a third party will give liberals the opportunity to be heard and make their presence felt in Washington.
I had hoped that, after this election debacle, the Democrats would find their way and work toward reflecting the positions important to the average American. It is becoming more and more clear that this is not the case, that the Democrats are stuck in the same political mindset they have been for decades, trying to stay in the middle of the road while the country as a whole migrates to the edges. Meanwhile, the Republicans are not at all shy about courting those on both the near and the far right, stealing market share away from Dems. The people flocking to trump were the very same people with whom the Democratic message of equality of opportunity and forward thinking -- think things like renewable energy, immigration reform, and so on -- would have been very attractive if only it had actually been presented to them.

My thinking is that the Democratic Party has become too entrenched as a party of centrists, too comfortable playing the middle, to be able to give an effective voice to those on the left. This is why the only viable option remains a third party, one whose members aren't afraid to resort to some of the same bare-knuckle tactics used by the GOP, who are proud to wear the label "liberal," who are willing to demonstrate why liberals are good for all Americans, and who will make it a priority to show that patriotism -- true patriotism -- is not confined to the Republican Party.

Liberals need to give voice to the following issues, among others:
  • The idea that someone working a full 40 hours per week deserves to be able to support themselves without having to resort to public assistance (minimum wage).
  • Highlighting how strong unions give rise to better conditions for all workers, and that "Right To Work" laws are really about the right of employers to screw over their employees.
  • Getting the United States out of the business of waging war and into the business of waging peace. We can use our power throughout the world to bring conflicts to a close and bring warring parties to the negotiation table, and to broker peaceful solutions to decades-old conflicts.
  • Getting government out of the personal lives of Americans -- marriage, bathrooms, and all the other nontroversies manufactured by the right -- and allowing people to live their lives as they see fit, provided it does not bring harm to others.
It is only once these issues, and many in a similar vein, are articulated that liberals will be able to make any progress in restoring the balance of our electoral politics.

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