Progressive Politics and the Bipartisan Straitjacket: Stop Calling Me Shirley!

A commentary published in a local Florida newspaper, Highlands Today, likely expresses the frustration felt by a great many Americans. Warren Foster writes:
I am amazed at the blind loyalty that we Americans give to our two party system. I assure you that this loyalty is exactly what the red and blue want. They want a base that will vote for party across the board, no questions asked; unfortunately, many Americans do exactly that.
Foster goes on to argue that politicians should be judged on their character rather than on the basis of their party affiliation or their political rhetoric. Character, he states, is defined by what we do, not what we say. Seen in this light, few politicians from either party would not scurry back into the darkness like the cockroaches that they are. Foster concludes,
Let's dump the red and blue labels and focus on America. Let's be certain that we vote for those who love the Constitution and have a history of telling the truth. What we do defines our character.
Though Foster correctly identifies one of the major problems afflicting the US body politic, his solution does not entirely address it. Loyalty to the duopoly system of government and the Republican and Democratic Parties colors the very perception of what "America" is, and the duopolists are well aware of this fact. Indeed, many of them would be the first to argue that "we should dump the labels and focus on America." This is the first presupposition of the bipartisan ideology undergirding the two-party system, and a formula for political alienation under the two-party state.

In his acceptance speech on election night 2008, Barack Obama stated, "we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America." Obama's everyday discursive marker for the political precept that informs this sentiment is the phrase "Surely we can all agree . . ." Examples are not hard to come by:
On abortion: "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country."
On same-sex marriage: "there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination."
On partisanship and patriotism: "surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism."
I can't be the only person whose reflexive response to such rhetoric is: "Stop calling me Shirley!" But, consider in this context Paul Rosenberg's analysis of 'Partial Perceptions of Obama' at Open Left. The piece attempts to account for Obama's unwillingness or inability to implement progressive reforms of government, despite appearances to the contrary, and offers two explanations which are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, he cites a lack of "progressive infrastructure" capable of forcing the president's hand, and, on the other, he cites the discursive frame within which the president operates:
one over-riding factor is that he has come of age politically during a period dominated by conservatives waging hegemonic warfare, while progressives have not even woken up to what is happening. And one result of that is that Obama accepts as given the way that conservatives have framed a great many issues. Locked into their ideological framework, he then tries to do some warm-and-fuzzy things within the confines of that framework. But their framework necessarily limits those warm-and-fuzzy things to mere gestures at best, if not deceptive packaging for genuinely evil policies.
Undoubtedly, many conservatives would vehemently disagree with this assessment. Nonetheless, while Rosenberg is correct to focus on the effects of framing on policy outcomes, he fails to address the function of form on those outcomes. As a partisan of the duopoly system, that is, as a bipartisan, Obama's politics are necessarily recalcitrant to progressive reforms and interests. It is highly ironic that commentators at Open Left bemoan the lack of an effective progressive infrastructure while arguing that the Democratic Party is the only vehicle by which one can achieve progressive goals. As I've argued before, this contradiction is definitive of the closed left. Engaging in a politics beyond the scope of the two-party frame is the first step toward opening our politics to goals that lie beyond that frame. An editorial in Michigan's Western Herald sums up the situation nicely:

Probably the greatest crime perpetrated by the two-party system is that of depriving American citizens of a true voice in their government. With political opinions so varied and complicated as they are, how accurately can just two choices in every election truly represent the will of the people? If representation is so troubled, why then would we desire those representatives to have an easier time making law?


Samuel Wilson said...

Warren Foster is in danger of playing into the Bipolarchy's trap. One reason why it perpetuates itself despite presumably discrediting debacles like the George W. Bush administration or the Democratic equivalent of your choice is the parties' constant ability to create personality cults around new candidates.

Emphasizing "character" allows voters to believe that Bush would be different from his father, as was true, or that Obama would be different from Clinton, as is also true, while ignoring a continuity of party rule in either case that renders the change of front men merely cosmetic in most cases. In each case, it can be argued that party rule rather than presidential personality provoked people to choose the other side, yet the politics of personal construction encourages people to believe that each leap from one pillar of the Bipolarchy to the other is really a fresh start.

d.eris said...

Would you say that "character" and "personality" are interchangeable then? I am usually very suspicious of arguments by "character." They always sound very abstract to me, as if the person making the point about some politician's "character" would be unable to elaborate what they mean by the term in the concrete, as if it were ineffable. But I liked Foster's definition of character as history of action and the way he reflected this back at the reader/voter, implying that we too have no character, that, like the duopolists, we're all talk insofar as we just vote the bastards back into office year after year.