Saturday, February 27, 2010

Team Sports in the Winter of Our Discontent

I sometimes use a pretty simple analytical model to sort out the dynamics of American politics, beginning with the observation that politics is a team sport. In the U.S. two-party system, it is a team sport played by three teams, one of which doesn't know that it is a team or that it is playing.

There's the Republicans on the Right, the Democrats on the Left, and then there are various folks, including most professional journalists, who identify as political "independents" or non-partisans. None of these groups is homogenous, of course; that's what it means to be "a team". They are coalitions, which act in a semi-coordinated way in the competition to acquire and exercise political power.

Politics, particularly Party politics, in the U.S., through most of American history, has tended to be much more complicated that it currently is, even though the two-party paradigm has usually been sustained successfully, even in times of great stress, like the Civil War. Even scholars of the second two-party system, 1824-1856, when the Whigs contended against the Jacksonian Democrats, struggle to explain the social identity differences between the Parties, or why a particular person was a Democrat or a Whig. Strong political movements or causes, like anti-slavery, or temperance, or women's suffrage, tended to develop obliquely to the Parties. In the 1850s, anti-immigrant sentiment played a part in destroying the Whigs and building the Republican Party; in the 1880s and 1890s, populism divided the Democrats; in the early 20th century, Progressivism affected both Parties. Religion and regional identities and ethnicity also played a large part. Virginia and Massachusetts dominated the country's politics, beginning with the independence movement; in the late 19th and early 20th century, Ohio seemed to dominate the affairs of the Republican Party, while the Solid South of agrarian white supremacist Southerners came to anchor the politics of a Democratic Party that was turning to urban constituencies in the North.

Since the Democrats became the unlikely instrument for finally ending segregation and legalized racial discrimination in the 1960s, the presumptive loyalty of white Southerners to the Democratic Party has been eroding. And, with the decline in labor unions, the Democratic Party's base among the working classes has also declined. The relatively poor are still more likely to vote Democratic, than Republican, and white males are more likely to vote Republican, but these differences reflect primarily differences in worldview and economic circumstances. In contrast to the past, Party identification has lost its complicated, orthogonal character, and become almost entirely a matter of political attitudes and worldview -- "ideology" in a fairly weak sense. All Republicans are conservative; all Democrats are progressives or liberals. Almost every Republican in the Senate or House is more conservative than almost every Democrat.

If you like quantitative data, there are some folks, who've done some number crunching on Congressional voting, and it is quite revealing

This political polarization is related in a variety of complex ways to both a relative decline in the salience of issues of race and ethnicity, and a rise in economic inequality.

Not to belabor the point, American politics is increasingly dominated by the agenda of the very wealthy and of the social and economic class, which runs large American business corporations. Other organizations, which might represent broader constituencies, like labor unions and professional organizations, as well as fraternal, ethnic and religious organizations, have declined in sometimes absolute, but always relative power, in comparison to large business corporations.

The Corporate Executive Class has become the sole and dominating political center of gravity in the Land, around which all three political Parties -- the two Political Parties, plus the "independents" -- revolve. I am not saying that either the Republicans or the Democrats are some kind of false front for Corporate interests, or that the relationship of either Party's politicians or voters to Corporate money and power is simple or uniform, nor that the Non-Party's relationship to Corporate money and power is simple, either. I propose to use the simple, three-Party scheme of analysis to identify some of the complexity and dynamics.

It is a discouraging analysis, because to look honestly at the dynamics of American politics is to realize that the Republicans, the Democrats, the Independent Voters and the Mainstream (non-partisan) Media are all manipulated instruments, if not actual creatures, of Corporate Business Power. I intend to avoid too much passionate ranting, but I'm deeply dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and the self-destructive policy course it seems to condemn the country to follow.

The uni-dimensional continuum of American politics has put the vast majority of those inclined toward an authoritarian cluster of political attitudes -- those to whom so-called populist appeals are traditionally made in American politics -- into the Republican Party. That, by itself, is an unusual state of affairs. In most eras, the cross-cutting of regional interests and ethnic identifications has tended to divide the authoritarians between the Parties. It has changed the character and style of the Republican Party in ways that make the Republican Party less attractive, even to many well-educated, secular conservatives. The increasingly authoritarian character of the Republican Party, as a Party of the Right, has always undermined its competence in governance, which has further alienated some of its Corporate Executive supporters. The Obama coalition and strategy in 2008, revolved around welcoming into the Democratic coalition, a small slice of conservative voters and elite leadership, increasingly alienated by the Republican Party, and a big slice of Corporate financial support. The demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration was an object lesson, as well as a means to various ends.

"The demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration was an object lesson, as well as a means to various ends." I quote myself, knowing that this is a curious proposition. Remember though, that I am writing about complex, mass behavior. Politics is a team sport. There's a division of labor, a division of intentions and interests and roles, leadership and followership, glory and spoils. Division is what it is all about, and just enough unity to get to 50.1%.

When I started this blog, it was because in the wake of Bush's election in 2004, I felt fairly certain that the country was headed toward a crack-up, a confluence of unfortunate events following in train from Bush's unwise policy-making, which would create some kind of political "perfect storm" that would precipitate a political realignment and restructuring.

The "storm" came in the rise of the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, but the reforms of the political economy I looked for, have been stifled. Few of the useful lessons, I hoped the American body politic might draw from its experience with George W. Bush, appear to have been learned. Far from overthrowing the regime constructed by George W. Bush, the Obama Administration has been intent on confirming and reinforcing it, with just a thin veneer of enhanced competence and a more progressive manipulation of symbols.

Adding a small slice of conservatives to the Democratic coalition, put the Democrats into power, but, it made the Democratic Party slightly more conservative, and in the coalition of moderate conservatives with progressives, which makes up the core of the Democratic Party, the conservatives have demanded all the power to govern. The result has been a continuation of conservative government, under the aegis of the progressive Party, effectively removing all means for progressive or liberal opposition to governance on conservative and neo-liberal principles.

The liberals and progressives are not able to introduce liberal or progressive policy, but they are being blamed for the failures and shortcomings of continuing neo-liberal, conservative policy.

In the meantime, the increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party -- the Republicans -- have adopted an obstructionist attitude, and await the swinging of the proverbial political pendulum from the failed Party -- now the Democrats -- back to the Republicans. That Republicans are obstructing policy ideas that they actually favor is an irony noted by a few observers, while progressive Democrats are demoralized by their own impotence -- co-opted into desperately supporting an agenda of economic policies that they would ordinarily oppose, adamantly.

In this strange dynamic of the powerlessness of the supporters of the Party in Power, the Non-Party third Party -- the "independents" and their "leadership" (journalists and journalist-pundits) -- have played a powerful and necessary role, in pushing narrative analysis and description that tends to narrow the agenda and to confirm the powerlessness of the leading politicians in the Democratic Party. More about this in a subsequent post (I hope).


  1. A slick, smooth-operating lawyer, projecting a "vibrant" profile after a decrepit predecessor, highly ambitious and therefore highly conformist, who accedes to power by promising to restore the status quo ante by "reforming" it, while struggling to hold together the "center" which will not hold, and all the while possessing only the dimmest operational grasp of the actual economic system he seeks to preserve/"reform". Sounds a lot like Obama, no? AFAICT, aside from the contract law courses at Harvard, he's imbibed the neo-liberal brew at U. of Chi. with the slight leavening of behavioral economics/"libertarian paternalism", and that's all he knows, while delegating the rest to his "highly qualified" advisors.

    But who else does that basic description evoke? Perhaps Gorbachev? (Who attempted to revive the fortunes of the central planning system by decentralizing it, without realizing that the system had long since been a Potemkin village operation atop what amounted to an already de-centralized industrial barter system, thus "decentralizing" policies were actually re-centralizing and provoked an further economic decline).

  2. I hesitate to try to read too much into the biography or psychology of one man. Many leading politicians seem to me to know less, not just about economics, but less about politics, than I do. Obama is not one of those. I suspect that, like Lincoln, he has seen his possibilities stretching far out in front of him, from a very early age. He's chosen his economic advisers, on the basis of a deep and accurate sense of the politics.

    I don't like his economic policy. It is not a course I would wish for my country, a course of economic decline. I don't know if this course will be unstable. Almost perversely, I wish and hope that it turns out to be unstable, so that we get another chance to choose another path. But, I honestly don't think I understand economics well enough to distinguish my perverse wishfulness from functional likelihood.

    I am pretty sure the U.S. political economy is not in the advanced state of decrepitude that the Soviet Bloc was in, circa 1985. Conservative, even reactionary regimes are perfectly capable of settling into super-stable stagnation and decay, persisting over long periods. In some ways, the Soviet Union had done that after Stalin died in 1953, and Gorbachev arrived at the end of that long ripening. It seems quite possible to me, that Obama will "succeed" in stabilizing a plutocratic oligarchy, that will continue for another 30 years. The rot may have just begun.

    It also seems quite possible that globalization has made "our" plutocrats, citizens of the world, and the world may not be as super-stable as the decaying U.S. The coming upheaval in China, breakdown of the Euro, or some resource crisis brought on by peak-oil or peak-something, or some bizarre military overreach by the U.S. military could combine. [Some idiots, for reasons I cannot fathom, apparently think bombing Iran would be a good idea -- an adventure like that would, imo, set off a global arms race and re-alignment of alliances, ending in the political, economic and military humbling of the U.S.