Duopoly Ideology and the Language of Politics

When they rail against the evils of the two-party system, advocates of third party and independent activism are often derided for engaging in a form of conspiracy theory. In this way, partisans of the duopoly parties defend themselves against substantive critique by seeking to discredit their detractors rather than addressing reasonable criticism. There is no conspiracy, the duopolists argue, Republicans and Democrats just control 98% of elected offices. However, while there is in fact strong evidence to support the claim that the duopoly parties do indeed work together to marginalize third party and independent candidates and campaigns for elected office, their collusion is only part of the story. As Sam Wilson of Think 3 writes:
The more I think about the American Bipolarchy, the more convinced I become that it is a structural rather than a conspiratorial phenomenon, the result of a sequence of decisions of policies, few of which were designed consciously to exclude rival parties.
The very language of our politics is strong evidence in favor of the structural argument. Aside from a number of old cliches (ex. there's not a dime's worth of difference between the major parties, American politics runs the gamut from A to B etc.), in many ways we lack the vocabulary to speak critically about the two-party system. It is no coincidence that critics of the two-party state are fond of neologisms: duopoly, bipolarchy, bipoligarchy, Republicrat, Demoblican etc. One result of this discursive deficit is that many Americans cannot conceive or imagine a politics divorced from the frame forced upon it by the Republican and Democratic Parties simply because we do not have the language and common dialect that would be necessary to do so. Two recent articles make this point plain.

At The D.C. Writeup, George Bianchi considers the prospects for Lincoln Chafee and Tim Cahill's independent runs for governor in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, respectively, arguing that "both have a reasonable chance of winning."
Both candidates have been elected to local and statewide offices, both are budget hawks and social liberals, and both are looking to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with their Democratic and Republican opponents.
Bianchi concludes: "The popularity of Chafee and Cahill suggests that the Rockefeller Republican model of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism remains viable in New England." This would be true, except – and perhaps to the chagrin of actual Rockefeller Republicans – they are not Republicans, they are independents! If anything, Chafee and Cahill's independent campaigns for governor suggest that the Rockefeller Republican model is no longer viable in New England. Considering a wider regional frame, taking into account Chris Daggett's independent campaign for governor in New Jersey as well as the numerous independents seeking the office in Maine and even Michael Bloomberg's switch to the independent line as mayor of New York, this suspicion becomes all the more plausible. What this makes clear is the importance and the difficulty of breaking with the language and ideology of the duopoly when talking about third party and independent politics.

A post at The Plank provides another example of the ways in which speakers often unconsciously slip back into the language of the duopoly even as they consciously attempt to engage in a multi-partisan discourse. Earlier this year, you might recall, Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and Michael Bloomberg met with President Obama to discuss education reform. Sharpton and Gingrich appeared on the Today Show this week to discuss their common effort. During the interview, Gingrich praised Obama, saying: "If the president's right on something, I think, it's a terrific thing to bring together this tripartisan group of independents, Democrats and Republicans" (emphasis added). Yet, as The Plank notes, Gingrich proved incapable of maintaining his initial stance and fell back into the language of the duopoly, stating, "I think there will be real bipartisanship on education" (emphasis added).


Dale Sheldon said...

I have to agree with Wilson's take. If you look at politics and our election laws from a game-theory perspective, it's not difficult to see how the only long-term stable strategies involve two-party domination; no conspiracies required, just independent actors trying their best to maximize their utility. The system will natural evolve toward such a state, and it takes large perturbations to dislodge it; but it always falls back to two. We need a new system of voting laws to escape it permanently.

Samuel Wilson said...

A further question is whether the Bipolarchy has evolved a structural resiliency that allows the latest (1860-present) version to survive the "large perturbations" that undid the Federalist-Republican and Democrat-Whig bipolarchies after much shorter lifespans. I agree with Sheldon that election law (especially dealing with the format of the ballot and access to it) is the key, but the Bipolarchy parties seem to hold it pretty tightly. The next question becomes, "What can we do about it?"

d.eris said...

Though the system may "naturally evolve toward such a state," that state has nonetheless still been institutionalized by the powers that be via laws and regulations. Collusion is also a viable strategy between independent players in a duopolized game. The question is indeed: what can we do about it? As I've been arguing, I think a viable strategy is engaging the system where it is most off balance, in one-party states and districts, by supporting third party and independent campaigns.