Lose Your Illusion: Common Mystifications of Duopoly Ideology

When pressed to defend their opposition to third party and independent activism, partisans of the Republican and Democratic Parties – who are themselves dissatisfied with the reigning two-party status quo and the duopoly system of government – will often simply assert the brute fact of the two-party system. Despite their recognition of the fact that the two-party system distorts and warps our political process, and that the Democratic and Republican Parties are no longer effective vehicles for political representation, but have rather become obstacles to effective political representation, they state that because we have a two-party system, we have to work within the two-party system. This is the logic at the heart of both the mentality of lesser-evilism and the argument in favor of infiltrating the major parties, "taking them back" or "fixing" them, as the slogan of the day may have it. Otherwise principled liberals, conservatives, progressives and libertarians thus find themselves compromised by one party before they even confront the other, defeated from the outset by an ideological tautology.

Ironically, among the illusions that sustain the two-party system is the illusion that we have a two-party system. The US Constitution does not mandate any party system whatsoever; the framers where highly suspicious of what they called the "spirit of faction." The reigning Democratic-Republican duopoly system of government is rather an extra-constitutional political convention. In many ways it is little more than a fiction. At the local, state, and federal level, polities across the country are dominated by a one-party system of government in which the Republican or Democratic Party has a virtual monopoly on seats for elected office. Elsewhere, the major parties band together to ensure that there is no political opposition to the reproduction of the system which maintains their power. At the Libertarian Party blog, Mark Meranta relays a report from the Free and Equal Elections Foundation on recent actions by the Board of Elections in Suffolk County New York:
The Board of Elections in Suffolk County New York has ruled that the Libertarian Party candidates for three county offices will not be on the ballot come November. This action by the Board of Elections means that voters will only see one candidate on the ballot in the races for District Attorney, Sheriff, and Treasurer. The local Democrat and Republican parties have cross-endorsed one candidate for each race. “It is absolutely appalling that the voters in Suffolk County will have no choice on their ballot for these races,” said Free & Equal Founder Christina Tobin. “The Democrat and Republican commissioners at the Board of Elections have determined that they alone have the ability to choose officers in Suffolk County, not the voters.”
The fiction and fraud which is the two-party system is, of course, sustained by a myriad of prejudices and illusions. Among these is the erroneous notion that a two-party system is necessary in government. At the Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra, for instance, writes: "A vigorous two-party system is necessary to the body politic." More likely, the duopoly system of government is necessary to confirm Chopra's dualistic metaphysics in the realm of politics. Whatever the case may be in that regard, at Yes, But, However, we read in a similar vein: "Our country, every country, needs a robust two party system. Without it, you have unchecked power and graft." Yet, arguably, the two-party system is the very form for the concentration of unchecked political power, with each faction serving as an apparatus for the circulation of graft. The idea that the Republican and Democratic Parties function to "check" and "balance" one another is fairly widespread. NorCal Blogs provides an example: "Our two party system exists, in part, as a check and balance against each other." This notion is one of the most pernicious mystifications of duopoly ideology, blurring the line between the Constitution of the United States and an extra-constitutional system of political hegemony – as if the Republican and Democratic Parties were checked by anything other than the limitations of fund raising. Still, some believe it is their patriotic duty to support the duopoly system of government. From a letter to the Baltimore Sun: "it is patriotic to believe in democracy, a two-party system, and the process of checks and balances that are inherent in our government." In the final instance, it may well be the case that the ideology of the two-party state rests above all on a willing suspension of disbelief. At the HuffPo, Peter Clothier comes right out and says it: "in a political culture that my more rational self deems utterly deranged and utterly beyond redemption, I make the active choice, for now, to suspend my disbelief."

[Portions of this post are adapted from a guest piece for the Rotterdam Windmill.]


Samuel Wilson said...

I suspect that some of the affirmations of the "two-party system" that you cite only mean to praise it in comparison to one-party systems. But your point remains valid. But just as the bipolarchy is a kind of shadow constitution, so ideology perpetuates a shadow bipolarchy of "conservatism" and "liberalism." Voters are encouraged to identify with one group or the other, and to regard the two major parties as their proper vessels. This keeps the actually existing bipolarchy going, since its apologists can argue that splitting the Democratic party, for instance, splits the "liberal" camp and leaves the field free for monolithic "conservatism." If there's a brute fact to the bipolarchy, it's that one party is unlikely to break up until both do, or until both lose their current ideological identities. The real work against the bipolarchy may be that undertaken by people who question the validity or consistency of "liberalism" and "conservatism" at the same time until neither works as a rallying point or a bogeyman.

AnarchyJack said...

Excellent post, Damon.

I think that duopoly ideology is compelling because the dichotomy also works off of cultural perceptions of good and evil. During our acculturation as children, we are taught that good and evil are real things, absolutes completely independent of one another. People on the right tend to see the GOP's affiliation with Christian ministers as evidence of the party's inherent goodness and the Democrats' support for abortion rights as evidence of the party's inherent evil. Conversely, people on the left tend to see the Democrats' perceived support for organized labor and actual support for social programs as being good and the GOP's general advancement of monied interests as evidence of the party's lack of compassion, and hence, its evil.

The problem as I see it is less one of duopoly ideology than of identity politics. Even the most "independent" of people self-identify as either "right" or "left", "conservative" or "progressive" (AKA liberal), and hence, we invite the ideologues nearest our perceived locus on the arbitrarily contrived political continuum.

What of the secular humanist who finds abortion morally repugnant, or the Christian opposed to capital punishment? We know such people exist, but in the either/or dialogue of dichotomy and wedge issues the null hypothesis is always absolutism: right or left, conservative or liberal, white or black, right or wrong.

And I think that's where lesser-evilism creeps in to the discourse: having already been sold on absolutism, the false dichotomy is an irresistible impulse buy.

d.eris said...

Sam writes: "I suspect that some of the affirmations of the "two-party system" that you cite only mean to praise it in comparison to one-party systems." This is true, but ironically they are affirming the virtues of a "two-party system" over and against the reigning duopoly system itself! With respect to your conclusion, there is no question, relentless critique of the ideological underpinnings of both sides of the duopoly divide, at the same time, is absolutely necessary.

Jack, the moralization of political categories is definitely a favored rhetorical tactic of duopolist ideologues and reveals yet another contradiction of two-party ideology, which is implicit in your comment: both Democrats and Republicans believe that their side is the "good guys" while the other side is the "bad guys," but many, if not most, on both sides also admit that both sides are evil. I'm going to have to think about this some more. The examples of the anti-abortion secular humanist and the Christian anti-death penalty activist perfectly demonstrate the limitations of the false oppositions that structure our political discourse.

AnarchyJack said...

It's a hard one to wrap your mind around, but we have all kinds of models that don't properly fit reality. But think of it this way: we used to use two-dimensional models (maps) to describe geography, and eventually we came up with more accurate 3-D models, and finally, time-space models (GPS). Currently, we conceptualize politics one-dimensionally. Sure it's simple, but it describes political reality no better than a road map that doesn't acknowledge existing intersections and landmarks. The political continua of right and left are themselves the product of two-party absolutism, which is itself, a product of moral binary.

In reflecting on science prior to the advent of the Cartesian plane, we can guess why progress was so slow in coming: the tools didn't exist to think even two-dimensionally. If politics occurs in at least four dimensions, how can we hope to accurately model it in one?

d.eris said...

"Two-party absolutism," that's a good term, I'm going to use that one. I've come across a number of good neo-logisms recently, among them was "law enFARCEment." But I've also been thinking about Sam's notion of "partisan immunity," which he used in the context of a discussion of Cheney recently, and could be very productive for a thoroughgoing critique of liberalism and conservatism.