Compromise in a Two-Party System, or, How to Lose Elections

What’s the Matter with Kansas?, by Thomas Frank, is a book that I’ve known the gist of probably since it came out: more and more people in this country have been voting into power politicians with a track record of policies against these voters’ own interests; why is this? And, as I understood from the interviews, etc., at the time of the book’s release, the author’s assertion is that, sometime in the 80s, a large faction of social conservatives started voting based on social, rather than economic, issues. OK, that makes sense, as far as it goes. But, leading up to the 2010 election, I decided I should read the book for myself, so I could understand and judge the arguments myself. So far—i’m 2/3rds done—I’m impressed with the research in the book. And he makes a very detailed examination of the people voting along social-values lines, how they do and don’t fit with traditional conservative voters, and how not-particularly-socially-conservative politicians have co-opted these voters. This last part is something I hadn’t really been aware of, prior to reading this book: he gives numerous examples of politicians not merely failing to pass their constituents’ social “reforms” into law, but not even trying.

A large part of the author’s thesis is that, basically, conservative politicians are now making a career out of drumming up social outrage to drown out economic outrage, getting elected on social issues, making half-hearted attempts at progress on those social issues, blaming “elitists” for “preventing progress”, and then passing legislation that worsens the economic situation of their constituents, thus increasing the outrage, which they cleverly re-direct at social issues that they continue to fail to address…lather, rinse, repeat.

Frustratingly, so far, the book hasn’t given me much of an explanation for why people are voting like this. I’m really hoping the last few chapters bring it all together. Right now, it feels like the claim is a particular version of “people are dumb”—which may well be true, but why did they suddenly get dumber a couple decades ago? Why, after two centuries of mostly voting their economic self-interest—or, at least, what they thought was their economic self-interest—do we now have vast chunks of the country sacrificing their own economic well-being in favor of a social agenda? And why, given that the conservatives have been pulling this bait-and-switch for 3 decades now, are more and more, rather than fewer and fewer, falling for it?

Now, I have an idea, myself: corporations. Specifically, we’ve had 5-6 decades of corporate-funded right-wing propaganda; and it is “opposed” by deliberately-neutral pronouncements from academia; and a lack of effective propaganda on the left, since labor unions got complacent and frequently corrupt in the 70s. So, you have the wishy-washy, carefully-non-absolutist pronouncements of [social] science, vs. the one-true-way-ism of much politics. But, for the last couple decades, instead of a couple competing true ways, we’ve really just had the one.

And Thomas Frank actually gives some support to this POV in the chapter titled “Happy Captives”. But he traces it to a slightly different catalyst: Clinton’s “New Democrats”. To quote Frank:

While the Wichita Cons worked hard to build their movement, they would not have succeeded so extravagantly had it not been for the simultaneous suicide of the rival movement, the one that traditionally spoke for working-class people. I am referring, of course, to the Clinton administration’s famous policy of “traingulation”, its grand effort to minimize the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues. … Clinton’s New Democrats, it was thought, had brought the dawn of an era in which all parties agreed on the sanctity of the free market. … It simply pulled the rug out from under any possible organizing effort on the left. While the Cons were busily polarizing the electorate, the Dems were meekly seeking the center.

Which jibes with my own feelings, though I hadn’t connected that to the loss of liberal voices in national politics. At least since the 2000 election, I’ve been wondering where the liberal voices have gone. But when was the last time you heard a national politician say “if there’s a conflict between corporations and workers, the corporation is wrong”? We don’t seem to have anybody championing liberal/progressive/leftist/whatever ideas. This isn’t about who’s right or wrong—too radical is just as wacky as too reactionary—but about a marketplace of ideas.

The reason this baffles me is that it is clear the Democrats are losing mindshare. And I looked at the 2000—and then 2002, and especially 2004—elections and I said to myself: “The GOP is gaining voters by moving steadily more right-ward in their ideology; the Dems have tried being less and less leftist, and it’s not gaining them votes; therefore, why not move further left? They’ve got nothing to lose, and what’s good for the goose might well work for the gander.”

Now, sure, some of this is my personal ideology: I think that our country has moved way too far to the right, and, more importantly, further to the right politically than the populace itself. [This based on looking at surveys of people’s attitudes, once the questions are stripped of loaded phrasing.] But mostly this is simply bemoaning the lack of variety. Two parties is a couple political ideologies short of a vibrant intellectual marketplace—it’s too easy for good solutions to problems to get completely missed. With the two parties collapsing into one, however, I wouldn’t be happy even if that one ideology were closer to my own.

And the fact that the ideology in question trusts corporations to be good citizens without actually obligating them to at least the same minimal standards that people are held to, just worries me all the more.

But, setting aside my ideological alignment, just looking at it from the POV of a political party of whatever ideology: on the face of it, becoming more like your only real opposition seems like a poor plan. That’s without any results to answer the question. A decade or two of actually trying the strategy, and not gaining ground, and surely trying something else is a better plan?

If A says “A & B are nothing alike!” and B says “hey, we’re really not that different from A”, anybody who *wants* B to be different gives up in disgust. Anybody who prefers B’s ideology probably gives up, too—because if B can’t see how they’re different than A, that must mean you’re not really championing a different ideology after all, so what’s the point? Meanwhile, folks who like A’s ideology aren’t particularly likely to be swayed by B’s claims, so they continue voting for A. Net result: trying to be like your opponent, in an adversarial, two-party system, loses your old voters and doesn’t gain you new ones. You lose.

And then, finally, Obama actually tried it in 2008. He ran the most-liberal campaign (in terms of the ideology he was professing) since at least Clinton’s ’92 campaign, and got record voter turnout. And he then spent 2 years seeking compromise with the folks he claimed were champions of non-functional ideas while campaigning. It’s Clinton’s triangulation all over again— only with accelerated consequences, due to the accelerated media/communications/news environment.

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