Neither Workable nor Sustainable: the Ideology of the Two-Party State and Duopolist Doublethink

Among Democrats and Republicans, the two-party state and duopoly system of government provides the absolute horizon of politics as such.  From this perspective, independents and third parties can suddenly appear in a menacing formation at that horizon, but for the most part they disappear beyond the committed duopolist's line of sight.  The ideology that sustains the two-party state has numerous internal blind spots as well.  Reflecting on the well-documented civic ignorance of the American public, Matthew Yglesias writes:
I’m never that upset about reports of Americans’ widespread civic ignorance. The nature of our party system means that a voter can really only express a very crude kind of thumbs up or thumbs down preference at the ballot box, so it’s not clear to me how a more nuanced understanding of the world would actually effectuate itself in terms of policy change.   But this is one of the reasons why I worry about the lack of accountability in our system. . . . . if things go well, then at the margin this helps incumbents. If things go poorly, then at the margin this hurts incumbents . . . That’s not necessarily ideal . . . but it seems workable and sustainable.
In other words, the two-party state thrives under the conditions of public ignorance.  And, as a supporter of the two-party state, Yglesias is effectively content with high levels of public ignorance because it is a condition for the reproduction of the two-party state.  On this view, the more informed a voter is, the more frustrated he or she is likely to be by the forced, false choice between the Republican and Democratic parties.  If things "go poorly," as Yglesias puts it, and a given voter is motivated to cast a ballot against his or her sitting representatives, the only choice within the two-party frame is to support the representative of the other major party.  Needless to say, this is not considered a viable option by most eligible voters, judging from the high re-election rates of incumbents and the high level of public discontent with the Democratic and Republican parties.

Rather than cast a ballot, the wide majority of eligible voters simply opt not to vote in the wide majority of elections.  Thus, in addition to public ignorance, low voter turnout is likely yet another condition for the reproduction of the reigning two-party state.  Of course, there are minor reforms that would improve significantly upon the "very crude kind of thumbs up or thumbs down preference at the ballot box," such as range voting, but incumbent lawmakers are hesitant to support such reforms for obvious reasons.  Interestingly, though Yglesias states that the current party system is workable and sustainable, he goes on to argue that this is not in fact the case.  He concludes:
What doesn’t seem sustainable to me is the system we’ve been evolving toward in which a legislative minority is able to block action and then reap the rewards of any policy failure that results. This feature of our institutional set-up, much more than public ignorance, threatens to wreck the “market” for sound public policy.
We are thus provided with a classic example of duopolist double-think.  For this supporter of the two-party state, the current party system is workable and sustainable, but it is in fact neither workable nor sustainable.


Samuel Wilson said...

He did write "seems." On the other hand, there might be circumstances when principled (rather than exclusively partisan) obstructionism might be the right course and deserving of reward. Now might not be such a time, but the imperative to "get things done" need not always prevail, as Yglesias seems to think it should.

d.eris said...

Yglesias's critique is fairly common in the mainstream liberal Democrat blogosphere. They accept the two-party state as such, but argue against the way the two parties function within the context of the two-party state, stating that the way the ruling parties currently function is more appropriate to a parliamentary system. I've seen Kevin Drum make this argument at MoJo.

As for the imperative to "do something," whatever that "something" might be (ex. launch an improvised war in Libya), maybe that's the appropriate Democratic complement to Republican know-nothingism.

TiradeFaction said...

This is reminding me a lot of my ongoing discussion/debate with DLW. He doesn't quite make the same argument as "Yglesias", but it's essentially "I support the two party system, I just want it to function differently". To me this is a case of "not seeing the forest for the trees". Perhaps the perceived malfunction of the two party "system" isn't really a malfunction, but in actuality, a function?

As to the two party system being more "sustainable", I'm not sure I'd quite use that word, but it is fairly *stable*, or at least was. But is stability what you look for in a democracy, and does this particular "stability" generally produce good outcomes for it's citizens? In many ways, I'd argue not. The PRC is a ruthlessly efficient and stable entity, but hardly produces genuinely good social outcomes for it's citizens.

d.eris said...

"Perhaps the perceived malfunction of the two party "system" isn't really a malfunction, but in actuality, a function?"

heh. I think you've hit the nail on the head there, TF. The supposed "malfunction" is a feature not a bug, as they say. There is a similar problem with issue advocates who argue that "we must work within the two-party system" to achieve outcome X. The funny thing is that, in such a situation, the parties are guaranteed support from the interest advocacy group as long as the party DOES NOT actually follow through for that group on that issue. Because the group will always say the way to achieve their policy goal, so long as it is not met, is to work within the party. This is as true for conservatives with respect to the GOP as it is for progressives with respect for the Dems.

TiradeFaction said...

Exactly D.eris. I can say this with experience working with single payer healthcare advocacy groups, who, despite being literally shat upon by the Democrats (Single Payer activists were arrested when demanding the Democrats give their proposal *at least* a fair shake in consideration), feel they need to give their overwhelming support to the party because "Oh noes, an evil Republican might win if we don't!". which as I've brought up before, amounts to the psychological damage the two party "system" inflicts.

I did actually write up a post regarding this issue on DLW's blog (can be seen here and the use of "Local third parties" to do a sort of dual strategy, using third parties as vehicles of engine in the two major party primaries. But, I also realize this strategy is inherently self limiting, and I'd like to see general third party building (particularly on a state wide basis) that can challenge, and hopefully bring accountability towards the two major parties.

d.eris said...

""Oh noes, an evil Republican might win if we don't!" . . .

You forgot to add the conclusion: "That's why we have to support this evil Democrat!"

Of course the same goes for conservative dead-enders of the GOP. "Oh noes, an evil Democrat might win if we support an independent or third party candidate who actually represents our views/interests, that's why we have to support this evil Republican."

Of course, the evil(er) Republican or Democrat might win in either case even if no one supported independent or third party candidate. The illogical conclusion of duopoly ideology, in this instance, is the abolition of competitive elections as such.

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

TiradeFaction said...

Oh yeah totally goes for the GOPers as well. I don't get why exactly it made sense to anyone to include Libertarians, social conservatives and big business all in one party. The same goes with Democrats, who host urban social democrats (what America calls "liberals"), rural populists, and "moderates". Ultimately something has to give, and many groups in the "coalitions" (as some call our two major parties) are going to be chronically underrepresented. It's strange though, that for the past 30 years, it's actually been none of those groupings actually represented in the major parties of choice, but the $$$.

You know the old saying "never put all your eggs in one basket", well....the very definition of that is American party politics :D

d.eris said...

"Libertarians, social conservatives and big business all in one party."

Wasn't that Reagan's three-legged stool? That's the argument that GOP dead-enders trot out any time someone recommends third party or independent activism rather than blind allegiance to the Republican party.

Republicans and Democrats like to refer to "big tent" politics. But that's just Republican-Democrat circus politics.

TiradeFaction said...

Yeah, apparently a lot of libertarians still have a hard on for Reagan, which I kind of find amusing since he escalated "defense" spending and government intrusion of the arts.

To be fair, we shouldn't just "decry" the "two party system", since it is the reality of the situation, but I think it's helpful to critically examine it, and at the very least, provide constructive criticism of it (as you do very well). Hopefully we can get a discussion going on about viable strategies third parties can take in confronting the political situation in the US.