On Learning from One's Students: the American Academic as Reactionary Apologist of the Two-Party State and Duopoly System of Government

Reading through some of the reaction to the UK's general election on this side of the Atlantic, I was struck by a difference between the responses of American college students, on the one hand, and American college professors, on the other. Obviously, the excerpts that follow are by no means comprehensive nor necessarily representative. However, they nonetheless prove instructive: these professors profess nothing but reactionary support for the existing relations of power and the ruling political class; they could learn a thing to two from their students.

Opinion pieces in two student newspapers emphasize the need to expand choice in US elections while stressing the importance of facilitating the creation of a more representative government. Both call for experimentation with proportional representation. From the Daily 49er at California State University Long Beach, a piece entitled, "British Elections Highlight Plurality System Flaws":

A central platform of last week’s British elections was the need for electoral reform. In other words, the U.K. recognizes the flaws of a winner-take-all or plurality system . . . A plurality voting system encourages the formation of two dominant political parties. In this country the Democrat and Republican parties are the beneficiaries of this system . . .

Compare this to a proportional representation system. This type of system encourages a multitude of political views and discourages the domination of two parties. This is achieved by awarding political parties legislative seats based on the percentage of votes their candidates receive.

An opinion piece in The Dartmouth from Dartmouth College, entitled "Open the Field," sounds similar tones:

In the United States, we use single-member plurality districts to elect members of Congress. This system has a number of consequences that are positively toxic for our country. The most pressing of these problems is that these electoral rules nearly always create a two-party system . . .

utter lack of responsiveness by Democrats and Republicans creates massive frustration for millions of Americans and contributes to the voter apathy that is pervasive in our political system. . . . A proportional representation system with a reasonable threshold for inclusion (to avoid repeating the mistakes of Israel’s Knesset, where any party can get seats with under 2 percent of the vote regardless of legitimacy) would fix most of these problems, and make our system more democratic, accountable and responsible.

Two professors, on the other hand, take the opportunity provided by the British elections to argue against the very idea of third party and independent political activism, and in favor of restricting political choice to the false choice between the Democratic and Republican Parties. At The Daily Beast, an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York, Peter Beinart, responds to those who argue for third party and independent alternatives in the United States, writing:

Good luck with that. The more you know about what’s happening in Britain, and the more you know about the history of third-party candidacies in the U.S., the more dubious the whole idea becomes.

Beinart then goes on to "debunk" a series of mis-representations, slogans and talking points relating to third party and independent politics that pass for common wisdom in the corporate media and the American academy (if time permitted, it might be interesting to respond to his piece point by point). Ironically, however, and like so many apologists of the ruling political class, Beinart fails to note that the more you know about what's happening in the United States, and the more you know about the history of the Democratic and Republican parties, the more dubious the idea of reproducing the reigning two-party state and duopoly system of government becomes.

In the second piece, a guest post at Balkinization by David Schleicher, the assistant professor of law at George Mason University School of Law provides an informative and interesting comparison of plurality voting and proportional representation, but concludes by arguing that more should be done to discourage third party and independent political activism in the United States. Schleicher writes:

However Britain reforms its political system, let's hope they do something. And let us use its example as a lesson. If the United States persists in having a FPTP elections, we should use our election law rules to ensure that we get the benefits of using that system. Our election laws should encourage a healthy competitive atmosphere inside the parties so that groups try to succeed inside the two-party system. And should we keep the oft-criticized rules that discourage the development of national third parties. Abandoning these rules, or closing up our primaries, would lead us to where Britain is today.

Yes, the Democratic and Republican Parties have clearly not been allowed enough leeway in debasing our discourse and poisoning our politics; gerrymandering and district rigging are the very embodiment of "healthy competition"; and the ruling parties effectively represent the tens of millions of Americans they systematically disenfranchise in the interests of maintaining and expanding the global warfare and corporate welfare state.

While Republicans are fond of arguing that academics are nothing but Democrats with advanced degrees, and Democrats often fancy academics as objective observers or enlightened technocrats – the two above specimens suggest a third possibility, namely, that American academics profess nothing but reactionary support for the existing relations of power and the ruling political class, the reproduction of the two-party state and duopoly system of government. They could learn a thing or two from their students.

Update: In the comments, Shawn provides a link to a post at his Ranger's Arrows blog taking aim at the Beinart article mentioned above. Ranger's Arrows, by the way, is aimed directly at the two-party state: end the duopoly.


Shawn said...

Good article. I discuss Beinart's fallacies in some detail on my blog here: http://rangerswg.blogspot.com/2010/05/beinart-makes-poor-correlation-on-third.html

d.eris said...

Hah. Thanks for that link. That's the second time now you've happened to address a piece I'd meant to but put off responding to!

Samuel Wilson said...

Beinart questions the viability of a professedly centrist third party but seems trapped by semantics. His notion of the center is defined entirely relative to the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties, but Thomas Friedman, for instance, proposes a "radical center" third party that would presumably reject the conventional left-right terms of political debate. That's just an example of thinking outside the existing categories, which Beinart seems incapable of doing. He shouldn't project his handicap onto the entire electorate.

d.eris said...

Another ridiculous facet of Beinart's argument is that all the "successful third party candidates" he lists to prove his point are all third party presidential candidates who actually LOST the election at issue! You'd think that someone who was actually interested in serious analysis would consider successful third party candidates who were actually successful. But, then, that would require doing the research that so many American political scientists and historians have proven incapable or unwilling to conduct.

Dinah Bee said...

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Shawn said...

Thanks for the kind words. I've enjoyed reading the posts here as well. :)