Bipartisanship and the Need for an Independent Opposition

From this week's column at CAIVN:
The very form and structure of two-party politics ensures the marginalization and exclusion of Independents from the nation’s mainstream political discourse, allowing Republicans and Democrats to engage in their well-rehearsed charades. Hypocrisy is just one of the names for the game. . . . On Sunday, Ross Douthat tackled this theme in his opinion column for the New York Times with an article entitled "The Partisan Mind." Douthat observes:
we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.
Despite his reservations about such intellectual and political dishonesty, the conservative commentator ends his article on a positive note.  He states that, regardless of its drawbacks, this form of partisanship ensures the existence of political opposition and serves as a check on the powers that be.  Douthat writes:
It guarantees that even when there’s an elite consensus behind whatever the ruling party wants to do (whether it’s invading Iraq or passing Obamacare), there will always be a reasonably passionate opposition as well. Given how much authority is concentrated in Washington, especially in the executive branch, even a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all.
There is, however, a glitch in Douthat’s conclusion which results from his presupposition that the bipolar form of Democratic-Republican party politics is constitutive of politics as such.  If a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all, where are we to find political opposition when there is a policy consensus between the Republican and Democratic parties?  This question is not as absurd as it may sound.  Despite the perennial complaints about rabid partisanship in Washington D.C., bipartisan consensus does in fact exist.  One might suggest, perhaps ironically, that there is even a bipartisan consensus in favor of excessive political partisanship . . . 


AnarchyJack said...

The cracks in duopoly are indeed apparent, even with the pervasiveness of the partisan mindset. However, their foundation will remain intact as long as Americans allow themselves to be branded conservative or liberal, I have long argued such labels are bound inextricably to the current bipartisan structure. It is incumbent on independents as a group, not only to "decline to state" a partisan affiliation in terms of Republican or Democrat, but to reject their binary correlates in terms of political polarity.

Doing so would not be easy, since it would, of necessity, take much of the discourse out of the realm of pro and con, which is complicated. But the up side would be a discussion that everyone REALLY wants, which is the ability to choose an opportunity, rather than being forced to pick an evil.

Samuel Wilson said...

Douthat apparently thinks that partisanship is the only alternative to dictatorship. He can imagine a one-party state all too easily but has more difficulty with the idea of a no-party state, which is the ideal toward which a multiplication of parties approaches, and what the Framers hoped for all along.

There's definitely a discursive consensus between the two major parties, a shared language if not a philosophical agreement. A big part of that is the rhetoric against "special interests" employed by each party against (usually) different targets. Since interest-based politics is a more pluralistic alternative to ideological bipolarchy, albeit with risks of its own, it's important for each party to dismiss anything not easily reducible to a left-vs-right paradigm as "special interest" pleading, whether its a demographic minority or an economically important industry. But what American has the right to call another a special interest? That populist impulse almost always plays into bipolarchy hands, with the Tea Parties as just the latest example.

d.eris said...

Hey Jack, you write, "Doing so would not be easy." No kidding. I think the first step toward political independence is calling oneself an independent, there is a speech-act dimension to politics in this way. Then, registering as an independent. But the step after that is the hardest, as you note, rejecting the bipolar order argumentatively. This may be the most difficult because there are no obvious paths to take, there are no obvious leaders to follow, no groups issuing talking points telling people how to think, no "independent strategists" offering advice and commentary on tv daily, at least the way the Democratic and Republican parties do. There is still a lot that needs to be developed on this front, to say the least. In the last election though, I was quite impressed by the virtual unity of third party and indy candidates across the spectrum and across the country on their critique of the two-party state, ex. criticism of lesser-evilism, party over principle etc.

d.eris said...

Hi Sam, you write, "There's definitely a discursive consensus between the two major parties, a shared language if not a philosophical agreement." I think this point is indisputable. The points of silent consensus are the most difficult to confront and potentially the most dangerous for our democratic republic. These points of consensus often go unnoticed simply because Democrats and Republicans don't argue over them. But in many ways they structure all discussions that do take place, and discursively bolster the ideology that sustains the two-party dictatorship. But there are also well known issues on which the two-party consensus leads to the reproduction of failed policies: ex. the war on drugs, many aspects of the war on terror, creeeping police state and surveillance society policies, agreement that war criminals and criminal elites should not be subject to any form of prosecution etc. In the last election, Christine O'Donnel proudly stated that she agreed with Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan policies.

In building any independent opposition, these are precisely the sorts of things that should be politicized, namely, those things which Democrats and Republicans claim basically aren't "political" issues.

pete healey said...

If the next step beyond the rejection of the two-party "idiot consensus" isn't clear, let me make it clear. There are two paths you can go by, and simultaneously. One of these is your own sense of how things could or should be, and the other is the understanding that independents have to look out for each other and it is in our "general" (not special) interest to advocate for PR, proportional representative politics. Not only would it advance our particular ideologies and sensibilities, it would contribute broadly toward a healthier political culture. Advancing the particular AND the general at the same time. It can be done.

DLW said...

Alas, but most independents are not truly that independent.

And we must focus on potentially feasible election reforms that don't require violence/revolutions, since that tends to favor the better healed.

This is why I push for the use of 3-seated Hare LR elections for state representatives that let local third (LT) parties challenge the tacit areas of consensus without challenging their duopoly status on power.