An Unwitting Dialectic of the Two-Party State and Multi-Party Government

The ideology of the two-party state is a nest of contradictions.  When confronted with a thoroughgoing critique of two-party government, and a convincing case for the necessity of expanding the scope of political representation in the United States, the apologists of the ruling parties often fall back on a stock set of counterarguments.  Among the latter is the claim that the Republican-Democrat two-party state already effectively functions as a multi-party system.  Democrats and Republicans alike will point to the various sub-factions of the Democratic and Republican parties and say: "We already have a four party system!" or some such nonsense.  Consider a recent opinion piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, entitled "Three Party Government."  In the introduction, he writes:
As the budget process in Washington lurches from crisis to continuing resolution to debt limit scramble — with Congress seemingly incapable of dealing with fiscal issues without the prospect of immediate financial collapse — it is worth considering the structural reasons for this seriousness deficit. Some view the culprit as partisan polarization or the disproportionate power of Senate minorities — both of which play a role. But the main challenge is this: Our two-party system has produced a three-party government. [Emphasis added.] 
This assertion might come as something of a surprise to the millions of Americans who live in states where the two-party system has degenerated into one-party government, not to mention those who recognize that the Democratic and Republican parties are essentially unified in their opposition to representing the interests of the American people in accord with the nation's Constitution.  Nonetheless, Gerson argues that despite the split within the Republican party between the "tea party freshmen" and "mainstream Republicans," the GOP caucus in the Congress functions for all intents and purposes as a unified whole.  He then continues:
On fiscal issues, the Democratic Party is really two parties. One consists of European-style social democrats, represented by leaders such as Nancy Pelosi . . . The other Democratic Party is socially liberal and pro-business . . . 
This is, in other words, nothing more than the old split between the supposedly moderate "blue dogs" and the alleged "progressives" in the Democratic party.  Gerson asserts that this split is the source of the "third party" in the US Congress: the Republicans, the blue dog Democrats and the social Democrats.  Ironically, however, though Gerson spends the entirety of his column arguing that this effectively amounts to three-party government, he nonetheless concludes the exact opposite.  Excerpt:
Again and again, Democratic leaders have failed to produce budget approaches that unite 90 percent of their caucus. This is not entirely their fault. The ideological distance between social Democrats and pro-business Democrats is wider than any ideological gap on the Republican side. If pro-business Democrats were formally independent as a party, like the Liberal Democrats in Britain, they might be tempted to form a coalition government with Republicans — using their influence not only to block the proposals of social Democrats but to gain a share of power. But America’s two-party system doesn’t allow for this strategy.  [Emphasis added.]
So, according to Gerson, our two-party system has produced a three party government, but America's two-party system doesn't allow for such a thing.  Were there any reason to believe that someone like Gerson is what you'd call a "dialectical thinker," perhaps one would be inclined toward a charitable reading of the contradiction between his premise and his conclusion.  But it appears to be nothing more than the product of a rhetorical ploy, or maybe just plain laziness or sloppiness.

Despite Gerson, however, perhaps the contradiction is productive after all.  As the apologists of the two-party state themselves argue, the two-party system has effectively resulted in a kind of multi-party government, as evidenced by the various factions that constitute the Democratic and Republican party coalitions.  But, at the same time, it does not allow for the political expression and ultimate representation of these myriad competing interests – which are to be expected in a country as large and diverse as the United States –, because they are always and everywhere subordinated to the interests of the ruling parties themselves.  Political freedom and independence today begins with freedom and independence from the Democratic and Republican parties.


Samuel Wilson said...

By this standard the U.S. has practically never gone without multiparty government, but that's like saying that "presidential Democrats" and "congressional Democrats" (not to mention Southern Democrats) were all different parties back when one branch didn't defer to the other so much and regions saw their interests differently. In effect, Gerson is equating legislators exercising their prerogative to vote against the dictation of party leaders with some special form of partisanship, or else he's equating ideology with partisanship. As it is, nothing stops a faction within one of the major parties from joining forces with the other major party in return for favors and considerations, as happened in the New York state senate a few years ago, so Gerson isn't even right about that. You pegged this piece right as "a rhetorical ploy, or maybe just plain laziness or sloppiness."

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

The problem isn't that there is a system where two parties dominate... the problem is those two parties do not represent a huge portion of the electorate, and actively get in the way of other parts of the electorate from trying to be represented anything near equally.

There is a point there that the factions within both could be seen as de facto parties, but if those factions still leave out huge portions of the electorate, what difference does it make?

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

d.eris said...

The more I think about it, the less sense Gerson's position in this article seems to make, so I've stopped trying at this point.