Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The “Two Unprincipled Parties” System

A lot of noise is made from time about how our so-called two-party system is what makes America strong. That might be so. But I wonder if it works the way people think.

The first thing I notice as I think about this issue is that we don't have two parties. We have a number of them. But it's true that there aren't a lot of people voting for these other parties, and voters pretty quickly learn that under the present rules (I'll blog about the virtues of preference-order voting another day), a vote for a third-party candidate is just a wasted vote. If you do vote for such a third-party candidate, you'd better be happy with the most popular of the big two candidates because you're throwing away your right to vote for the other of those two.

But my personal theory is that what's really useful about our system is not that it's about two parties, but that it's two unprincipled parties. Ok, perhaps I'm slightly stretching the meaning of the term “unprincipled” because I really don't mean “without any principles” and I'm not even meaning to say they're “hypocrites.” But I do mean “without specific and unchanging principles.”

I hear murmuring out there in the audience, but you can spare me. The Republicans are not the party of fiscal conservatism, small non-invasive government, patriotism, etc. I might have been a Republican myself long ago if something as simplistic and reliable as that described that crowd.

And before you get too comfortable, because I know this forum is mostly full of Democrats, the Democrats have their share of deviations from alleged principle, too. I don't see Obama talking about how he wants to give all gays the right to marry, for example.

What people will say or refuse to say is market driven on both sides. At any given time, both parties usually have an articulated platform, but over long periods of time, that platform shifts. And I claim that's mostly a good thing.

In fact, the opinion of Rush Limbaugh and the Rightwing Talk Media to the contrary, changing one's mind as one gains experience can be good. It's called learning, and it's good for us.

[Picture of scales]

So I think it's no accident that the two parties enjoy almost exactly the same coverage and that some elections are right around 50%. I think what happens in many elections is that the party that perceives itself as being behind gives up just enough ground in terms of its' alleged principles in order to get people to cross the aisles. They don't want to give up more than they have to because they each perceive themselves as principled and they perceive shifts like this as being done somewhat under duress, in order to save the party from being permanently locked out.

I used to listen to Rush until I decided I was just tired of him and couldn't bear it any more. It wasn't his ideology that drove me away—I enjoy hearing people who think differently than me. It was his attitude and tactics that drove me away. The same with O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes, and the rest of the Fox line-up. It's just re-runs after a while, with nothing new to learn, so I gave up.

One thing I remember Rush saying was that people who are middle of the road in their politics are without principle—in effect, that “moderate” is not a substantively meaningful description of a political position, that it represents unprincipled compromises between legitimate political positions. Cynically, I think he said this because he wants to drive his opposition to the far Left, or even just wants to pretend his opposition is already to the far Left, because it's just easier to make a case against extremists than against moderates. So it serves him to believe that that's all there are in the world: extremists, who are either himself (on the correct end), bad guys (on the wrong end), and people who have no legitimate positino at all.

I don't buy that there aren't legitimate positions in the middle; I think they're just not well characterized. It's more like the question asked Dorothy early in the Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” It may indeed be that there is no legitimate other kind of witch, but that fact doesn't mean there isn't some third position for Dorothy to take, it just means the choices are not offered in a very useful way.

One of the reasons I think Nature has been so successful with Evolution over so many years is that I don't think it worries a lot about labeling itself. It just goes with what's working and doesn't fuss about how an animal or whole species is named. Survival is what counts, not labeling. And I think that while the Democrats and Republicans try to impose a lot of naming as a matter of tactic, the engine driving the political system as a whole, and the two major parties in particular, is more organic than is commonly acknowledged, and is interested more in surviving than in adhering to any fixed set of principles.

In fact, if you look around the globe at other countries that have more parties, you'll see there are serious obstacles to any of those parties growing substantially. The problem isn't the number of parties, it's the principled nature of the parties. Being principled holds them back. Because to change parties, the people within them have to give up their principles! And who wants to do that? Whereas since being Republican or Democrat really doesn't mean anything, it may be difficult but it's not impossible for at least those people who view themselves as living comfortably in the middle to wander back and forth, creating the market stresses that force the parties to change from time to time.

The situation right now is a perfect example. A lot of people who thought themselves Republicans realize they are not well-served so have crossed the line. For someone who grew up self-identifying as a Republican, it may be weird or annoying to be called a Democrat. But it doesn't mean saying “Ok, I'll be a liar.” or “Ok, I'll stop caring about fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, part of what they're doing is realizing these parties are capable of shifting and that theirs has shifted out from underneath them. But things will shift back toward the middle, or even sharply back to the Republican field, if the Republican party changes to be more like what is needed to woo voters back or if the Democratic party fails to offer what people are seeking. Each party represents room for change, and a vacuum won't last long there.

So three cheers for people having the principles and political parties not having them. It's what keeps things working.


Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

These ideas are something I've thought about for quite some time. The decision to write about this today was by a desire to respond to Greg Randolph's article The Implosion of the Republican Party. Thanks, Greg.

The public domain graphic came from freeclipartnow.com.

Originally published October 28, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): planks, plank, platform, unprincipled, principled, principles, third-party, political parties, two political parties, two-party system, 2008 election, politics

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