Reactionism: the Iron Law of Duopolist Punditry, Part II

As I wrote yesterday in Part I of this piece, it is an iron law of political punditry that, whenever discussion of third party and Independent alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans breaks through the mainstream media's exclusionary filter, we are sure to be inundated with innumerable articles and commentaries regurgitating the ideological dogmas that sustain and maintain support for the two-party state and ruling political class.  Most recently, the phenomenon is apparent in the reaction to support for Americans Elect among a handful of mainstream political commentators.  Part I dissected a recent post by Wendy Kaminer at The Atlantic, today we'll take a look at an article in The American Prospect by Ben Adler, entitled, "Crashing the Party System."

Much of Adler's piece is nothing more than a series of attacks against Americans Elect and "the views of people like [Thomas] Friedman and [Michael] Bloomberg."  Ironically, it appears Adler did not bother to research Americans Elect in any serious manner, or else he would have undoubtedly cited many of the concerns that have been raised about the group by people like Jim Cook at Irregular Times, who have been critically investigating it, rather than engage in the standard forms of political snark that pass for discourse among Democrats and Republicans.  Indeed, Adler does not even appear to have read the sources he does cite in the article.  He writes:
the repeated failure of the centrist third-party movement has not discouraged its promoters . . . The usual pundit suspects, though, are foolishly promoting Americans Elect . . . Other third-party proponents have also weighed in . . . At Tech President, Micah Sifry asserts that “the third-party moment is back,” and “Americans Elect is going to strike a nerve.”
It appears fairly certain that Sifry's prediction is already coming to pass.  Americans Elect has clearly struck a nerve in people like Adler.  If he had bothered to read Sifry's lengthy article, however, he would have learned that Sifry is a vocal critic of the organization and its method. Sifry writes:
Our country desperately needs more viable political parties to expand the political conversation and engage more voters . . . Unfortunately, I have severe doubts about the prospects of Americans Elect being that party . . . 
Of course, a shoddy method is only to be expected from the mainstream media's proponents of the two-party state.  Nonetheless, I have no interest in defending Friedman or Americans Elect.  I began relaying suspicions and concerns about the organization on the basis of ongoing investigations by Richard Winger and Jim Cook almost two months ago.  If folks like Adler get their news about third party politics from columnists such as Thomas Friedman, well, let's at least try to hold back our laughter.
In the rest of his article, Adler puts forward a number of arguments against third party politics and advocacy as such, many of which should be familiar to regular readers here at Politea, thus demonstrating once against the lack of imagination and creativity that characterizes the supporters of the Democrats and Republicans.  The first is a variation on what I have previously termed the historical argument, according to which all future third party and Independent movements will fail because many of them have failed in the past.  Adler writes:
But the repeated failure of the centrist third-party movement has not discouraged its promoters.
That is rather precious coming from a liberal supporter of the Democratic party, no?  Rather than address Adler's lack of political self-awareness and his brand of historical fatalism, let's move on to his main argument, which states that a "third presidential party" is neither possible nor necessary.  From Adler:
Supporters of third-party candidates ignore or gloss over the inherent reasons the American political system has had two major parties for the last 150 years.
False.  In fact, supporters of third party and independent alternatives to the ruling parties are much more likely than the average duopolist dead-ender to be intimately familiar with the ways in which the Democrats and Republicans have systematically rigged our political and electoral system to facilitate the monopolization and consolidation of power in their own hands at all levels of government over the last 150 years.  The dead-enders of the duopoly parties, on the other hand, ignore or gloss over this history, and prefer to frame the two-party state as if it were a metaphysical condition of politics as such rather than a contingent historical formation.  Adler continues:
In a system of winner-take-all elections, it behooves factions to join forces to create a plurality. Unless we switch to proportional representation, which would require a constitutional amendment, we simply won’t have more than two major parties . . .
Here we see a prime example of the procedural argument (see this post for elaboration), followed by a prescription for infinite deferral popular among those who recognize the deep flaws in the reigning two-party system but whose political cowardice enjoins them to lend it their support.  Our liberal Democratic friend then moves on to a consideration of third party strategy:
Anytime a third party emerges, it will ally with one party to form a winning team. Eventually, it will fold into the other party to bolster both their chances of winning. Anyone with a basic understanding of math, game theory, or political science should be able to see this.
False.  Adler here reverses cause and effect, as anyone with a basic understanding of history and logic can plainly see.  Historically, successful third party organizations in the United States do not tend to "ally with one party" to "form a winning team," nor do they tend to "fold" themselves into the other party to "bolster their chances of winning".  On the contrary, successful third party organizations have historically been co-opted by the major parties, when large portions of their platforms have been stolen by the major parties and incorporated into their own political programs.  Typically, as this process progresses, the major parties have tended, at the very same time, to pass laws and regulations making it even more difficult for third party and Independent candidates to obtain ballot access, participate in forums and debates and so on.  See, for instance, the history of the relationship between the Democratic party and the Socialist party in the first half of the twentieth century.  Returning to the article under consideration, the author then glances across the great pond:
If you want an example of a winner-take-all system in which three parties have actually managed to stick around for a long time, just look at the United Kingdom, where the Liberal Democrats never win national elections but several times they or their predecessor parties have siphoned enough votes from Labour to give the Conservatives a plurality, empowering the country’s conservative minority. Is that what Friedman wants to see happen here?
If you want an example of a winner-take-all system in which three parties have managed to stick around for some time, you need not look abroad, since Vermont provides us with an obvious case in point.  Not only has Vermont elected the longest-sitting Independent in the US Senate, it is also home to one of the country's most successful third parties, the Vermont Progressive Party.  But it is easy to understand why a dead-ender of the Democratic party would rather make the comparison with the United Kingdom, since, in this case, it allows him to forward the hackneyed spoiler argument

Adler then moves on to his second point, which he makes by arguing against a cliche and in favor of the ruling partisan primary process.  Excerpt:
The major complaint—and the reason often cited for supporting third-party candidates—is that the Democratic and Republican parties are calcified machines where cigar-chomping pols cut backroom deals; they’re insider affairs that don’t leave room for the “center.” But at the presidential level, there’s a lot more democracy than in, say, many urban political machines. The party nominees are chosen through caucuses and primaries.
Conveniently, Adler does not note that caucuses and primaries are themselves controlled by the most rabid proponents of the duopoly parties, and that Independents and third party supporters are, in many if not most states, prohibited from participating in them.  Turnout in primary elections hovers around 30%, which means that the candidates of the major parties are typically chosen by 6-8% of registered voters.  It is simply absurd to counter here that Independents and third party supporters can participate in these elections if only they would register with the given party, since that completely misses the point.  Why would you vote in the primary election of a party you explicitly reject, except perhaps to sabotage it?

In his mendacity, Adler even goes so far as to play the race card: "It’s no coincidence that the third-party trumpet is always sounded by white men," he writes.  Tell that to Alan Keyes, Cornel West, Lenora Fulani, Omar Ali, and the leaders of the Tequila Party.  The fact that Adler appears not to have any knowledge of these individuals only further demonstrates his ignorance of the subject matter.

Finally, in his concluding argument, Adler tediously returns to the spoiler argument, but not before he takes a  parting shot at Republicans:
Third-party advocates wring their hands over both parties being beholden to interest groups. But Republicans are beholden to something much worse, because you cannot appease it: irrational, anti-factual ideologues. A centrist, technocratic third-party candidate will draw approximately zero of their votes, which means his votes will come out of the 53 percent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Of course, this argument is a red herring.  In 2008, there were more Americans who chose not to vote for either the Republican or Democratic party's candidate than there were who voted for Obama.  If any third party or Independent organization can succeed in organizing those who are have been disillusioned, the disaffected and disenfranchised by the Democrats and Republicans, they will win in a landslide.  But maybe there is hope for bipartisanship between the major parties.  If Republicans are irrational, anti-factual ideologues, it appears liberal Democrats such as Adler may have something in common with them after all.

1 comment:

Calmoderate said...

It is interesting that critics of Americans Elect can think supporting it is "foolish".

It strikes me that supporting either the Democratic or republican party is what's foolish. Their track record is one of epic failure. That is, unless one calls the situation we are in a success of some kind.

Oh well, let the defenders of the failed status quo blither mindlessly on. Negative publicity is better than none.

I suspect that many people will wake up in the next year or two and see that both parties have betrayed/failed them, not just the party they are comfortable in blaming/hating. The failures are truly bipartisan.