Why Does The US Lack A Major Center-Right Party?

by John Holbo on December 31, 2017

I’m reading Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public [amazon] by Kinder and Kalmoe. I’ll report back later when I have learned something interesting. For now, I’ll point to a NY Times Erik Levitz editorial from November that discusses the book.

Folks are ideologically incoherent and tribal. A lot of people will tell you they are ‘moderate’, then report very extreme beliefs. People are conservative because they are Republican and liberal because they are Democrats, rather than vice versa.

Second, sifting through that, there is majoritarian support for a lot of left-wing stuff.

The Democratic Party has failed to translate the popularity of progressive economics into electoral success for a variety of reasons. The most fundamental is the one we’ve already observed: Most voters cast their ballots on the basis of identity, not policy. And America’s rapidly changing demographics — and the right’s steadfast efforts to inflame and exploit anxieties about those changes — have made racial identity increasingly salient to white voters, particularly rural ones. This development, combined with the disproportionate influence that our political system awards to white rural voters, has given Republicans a structural advantage.

But what’s the explanation for why the Republican Party has failed, alternatively, to leverage that rural advantage, instead, to allow construction of a plausibly structurally dominant center-right political party? Why NOT that?

Why do we have the Trump-headed, extreme right-tilted thing we’ve got? That question is boringly obvious. Everyone who isn’t crazy asks themselves that ten times a day. But maybe we should flip it and ask: why NOT the other thing that might have been?

Why NOT center-right dominance due to that rural structural advantage, among other things? Why is there no strength there? (You could explain it in media terms. There are no major moderate right-wing media sources, only extreme right-wing ones. But that gets the causation more backwards than forwards, I expect.) If politics is tribal identity politics, why not more symmetry between the tribes? The Democrats take all that ideological incoherence and turn it into something fairly moderate relative to aggregate voter preference. The right, by contrast, is extreme and its moderates weak.

It’s easy to say it serves the interests of the 1% to “inflame and exploit anxieties.” The existing Republican party functions that way: to redistribute wealth upwards under cover of smoke from inflamed tribal anxiety. But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.

What about path-dependence as part of the answer? Round about 1964 various elements on the right that might have gone for a moderate option tilted far-right, tactically, and that has over time solidified into an unbreakable far-right strategy which now looks like some sort of ideological logic and obligation. I’m not saying it’s path-dependence but how big a factor do you think that is? It’s obvious Rockefeller Republicanism is not going to arise from the ashes in today’s Republican politics. It would be squashed instantly. But was it doomed to die already in 1964 for deep structural reasons?

{ 80 comments }

1

BruceJ 12.31.17 at 5:51 pm

But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.

A few thoughts spring to mind:

In the modern borderless world afforded to the 0.01%, chaos in one region doesn’t matter.

No matter how bleak and post-apocalyptic Kansas may get, the Koch’s will live in safety and luxury in their private estates. If it gets too bad, they’ll just move somewhere else. It’s worked well for the Russian mobsters oligarchs, albeit they do have to be careful to let Putin wet his beak.

Second, they think they can control what they’ve created. This is a dangerous conceit.

Thirdly, this is all part and parcel of the Southern Strategy, wth the GP absorbing the revanchist Southern Democrats, leavened by the addition of the revanchist, mostly southern Evangelicals in the 80’s (both sprang from the same Jim Crow swamps). They have become the base-who-must-be-obeyed.

And yes, it began in 1964 with Goldwater’s insurgency, which first bound the genteel racist conservativism of William F. Buckley with the openly white supremacist racism of Strom Thurmond. The die was cast by the time Nixon decided his path to victory lay through the Wallace voters.

2

Mike Huben 12.31.17 at 6:11 pm

“But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.”

There’s the nub of your problem, right there.

We’re not talking chaos: we’re talking plutocratic capture of government function for profit. Moderates would not permit that. The Koch brothers have been working for it for about 50 years now, mainstreaming the extremist libertarian ideas as tribal identity politics that have created the polarization we see today. By capturing the Republican primary process, they foist representatives on us that have no alternative but to support the ideological line.

They don’t care about the crabs in the bucket (us): they care about privatization of power and crony capitalism.

3

Frank Wilhoit 12.31.17 at 6:14 pm

Your title question as posed makes no sense, because we do have such a party, namely the Democratic Party. But your further questions, as to why we have such a monstrous thing as the Republican Party, have a clear and sufficient answer in the destruction of the educational system and the abandonment of education as an aspirational goal. We are only beginning to feel the effects of this. You cannot imagine what is in the pipeline; today’s children are the leaders of mid-century, and they are so comprehensively ignorant and so emotionally damaged as to make Donald Trump look like Albert Einstein.

4

Anarcissie 12.31.17 at 6:21 pm

I suppose it will be tediously obvious to say that from a Left point of view (my Left point of view) the US already has a major center-right party. As for the incoherence of the Republicans, I attribute that to the radical Protestant priesthood of all believers and the fact that the Democrats have oozed over so much ideological terrain that non-Democrats have been driven to the fringes.

5

soru 12.31.17 at 6:22 pm

Take a toy model of a two-party FPTP democracy, with rational self-interested voters and one political issue, how high to set the tax rate. That’s going to hit an equilibrium where 50%
+/- polling uncertainty of people would be better off with more spending, and the same sized-group would be better off with lower taxes. Any deviation from that and the parties will adjust their platform to remain competitive.

Now break that equilibrium so that 75% of people would individually be better off with more spending (or symmetrically, less, but to keep things simple say more). An appeal to rational self-interest now attracts fewer and fewer voters as you are well away from the center of the income bell curve. Consequently, non-rational arguments have to become the dominant strategy if the low-spending party is to remain competitive.

6

Aardvark Cheeselog 12.31.17 at 6:28 pm

> Republican and liberal because they are Democrats, rather than vice versa.

Or maybe this is just wrong. Or so incomplete that it obscures more than it illuminates, anyway.

7

John Holbo 12.31.17 at 6:35 pm

“Your title question as posed makes no sense, because we do have such a party, namely the Democratic Party.”

I get why you would say this in an absolute sense but I don’t think it’s true relative to the US electorate.

8

John Holbo 12.31.17 at 6:36 pm

“Republican and liberal because they are Democrats”

I admit that’s pretty strange sounding, Aardvark. But I don’t think this bears on what I wrote in the post.

9

John Holbo 12.31.17 at 6:42 pm

“No matter how bleak and post-apocalyptic Kansas may get, the Koch’s will live in safety and luxury in their private estates.”

Yes, but I think they could be surer of their safety, and live just as luxuriously, by rendering Kansas marginally less bleak and post-apocalyptic. (I grant their indifference to the question of what’s the matter with Kansas.)

10

Glen Tomkins 12.31.17 at 6:48 pm

“It’s easy to say it serves the interests of the 1% to “inflame and exploit anxieties.” The existing Republican party functions that way: to redistribute wealth upwards under cover of smoke from inflamed tribal anxiety. But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.”

I think you’ve already answered your own question with two observations a few paras up.

“…there is majoritarian support for a lot of left-wing stuff.”

and

“The Democrats take all that ideological incoherence and turn it into something fairly moderate relative to aggregate voter preference. The right, by contrast, is extreme and its moderates weak.”

Ideological incoherence may indeed risk chaos for the owners, as we are seeing with the Trump presidency. But it’s a risk they have to accept. If US politics became based on ideology, the owners would lose, certainly and inevitably, because there is majority support for public policy that favors the public, not them. They have to have chaos, however risky, or they are certainly doomed. They have to nurture extremism to make the R party an agent of chaos, because those damn boring Ds are so into moderation and order that they can’t even be relied on to stir up the odd bit of class warfare on behalf of the workers. The Ds in turn are moderate because they know that the majority favors their public policy. They don’t feel a need to be shrill or extreme, they just wait for the nation to grow sick and tired of the waste and stupidity of the chaos an R presidency brings as their path to power.

The ideological chaos is paralleled and reinforced by the fragmentation of US regional govt, which is how the rural voters get their disproportionate power. Division into states was the logical form of regional govt in 1789 anyway, which was handy because the most perfect Union that we were going to get at that date was one that these pre-existing states entered voluntarily. They entered as states, not as the people of the several states, states which retained most of the powers of govt, including how they arranged local govt within themselves. At first they allowed cities to grow naturally as political units to keep up with their economic and social growth. But then, at different points in different states, but generally some time in the early 19th century, it became obvious that cities were growing as the US flipped from predominantly rural towards the urban predominance it would reach by the century’s end. To stay in power, the rural political majority of the day stopped letting cities grow their political boundaries. They embarked on a program of divide and rule, whereby suburbs were to be created and fostered as centers of political opposition to the cites they were an economic and social part of.

The disproportionate influence rural voters have survives into a nation in which only 2% of us are now employed in farming, because the natural centers of regional govt, the cities, have been carefully Balkanized for over a century. The suburbs would never vote as progressive as the city centers under even a natural system of regional govt, but they are way more R than they would be without this Balkanization introducing a tribal loyalty dictating mindless opposition to whatever is good for the city center.

The result is to create artificial tribal loyalties that cut across public policy interests to prevent a rational sorting out of ideological loyalties. The single public policy most needed for small town America to survive would be a strong NHI, and an outright NHS would be even more in their interests. In general, nowhere is a strong social safety net more needed than out in the country, but damned if those people are going to let their most vital interests get in the way of pissing off the Ds.

11

William Berry 12.31.17 at 6:48 pm

@anarcissie: No, it is not “tediously obvious to say” that the U.S. already has a major center-left party. It is just plain tedious. And it is a cheap insult to the millions of ideologically intersectional and unionist (such as myself) Democrats who are waging an actual battle for social and economic justice rather than carrying on with a lot of pseudo-marxian, Internet philosophizing.

You need to re-examine your “left” POV. In practice, it amounts to no more than smug virtue-signaling.

12

Doug K 12.31.17 at 6:52 pm

as noted we do have a major center-right party, the Dems. They became that center-right party by moving hopefully rightwards in pursuit of conservative voters. The profoundly anti-conservative unorthodox policies of the radical right became mainstream as the Overton window slid over, aided assisted and abetted by media takeover (Fox and friends) and failures (NYT, NPR). Once Fox had clearly established that everyone was entitled to their own facts, today’s Republican party became inevitable. Facebook and the Russian exploits hurried it along but it was coming anyway.

13

Finn 12.31.17 at 6:57 pm

But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party.

Though it doesn’t offer much explanation why, this dynamic was once summarised in a funny way on A Tiny Revolution:

Almost all political conflict, especially in the US, boils down to a fight between the Sane Billionaires and the Insane Billionaires. It generally follows this template:

INSANE BILLIONAIRES: Let’s kill everyone and take their money!

SANE BILLIONAIRES: I like the way you think. I really do. But if we keep everyone alive, and working for us, we’ll make even more money, in the long term.

INSANE BILLIONAIRES: You communist!!!

14

William Berry 12.31.17 at 6:57 pm

“center-right”, I should have said. Unconscious correct correction!

15

bob mcmanus 12.31.17 at 7:07 pm

Because we didn’t get a Labour Party

Gompers, path dependence, unusual limits to new party formation

16

LFC 12.31.17 at 7:16 pm

@J Holbo

I might have mentioned this book before (though I have not read it, suspect it to be quite relevant to yr question):

https://www.amazon.com/Rule-Ruin-Moderation-Destruction-Development/dp/0199975515/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1514747459&sr=1-1&keywords=Kabaservice

Also, I’d suggest that you perhaps tend to overuse “path dependence” as a rough synonym for historical trajectory. As you no doubt know, it means something somewhat more specific, and if you are suggesting 1964 as some kind of ‘critical juncture’ more wd have to be said in support for that, istm.

A related but alternative hypothesis wd be that the ‘culture wars’ and the political battles precipitated in the period c. 1964 to c. 1974 (New Left, neocons, religious Right, etc.) produced a landscape not conducive to the survival of ‘Rockefeller Republicanism’. As late as the mid/late ’60s people like Case, Javits, Brooke (moderate Northeastern Repubs) were in the Senate. And compare, say, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky then to Mitch McConnell of Kentucky now. This shift is what the Kabaservice bk deals with, I gather.

17

Jim Harrison 12.31.17 at 7:32 pm

Maybe this is all a false mystery because the constituency for your proposed center-right party really is racist and authoritarian in sentiment. The Congressional Republicans aren’t just dog whistling to the great unwashed. They’re dog whistling to themselves. I used to think, i.e. last year, that many of the establishment Republicans were merely being cynical when they played to the extremists in the base, but it seems that they buy in personally to the ideology of white Christian supremacy even if they are repelled by the crassness of the Trumpian version.

18

bekabot 12.31.17 at 7:34 pm

I suppose it will be tediously obvious to say that from a Left point of view (my Left point of view) the US already has a major center-right party.

True, but incomplete.

The existing Republican party functions…to redistribute wealth upwards under cover of smoke from inflamed tribal anxiety. But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.

Not necessarily. The existing Republican Party functions to serve the interests of about one-tenth of one percent of the total population. What you want to ask yourself is whether that one-tenth of one percent would be better served by a plausibly-dominant-right-wing Republican Party if what they’re principally interested in is upward distribution of the wealth — in the short term and in a big way. If what they’re principally interested in is a massive upward distribution of the wealth in the short term and if they’re getting ready to drop America like a hot rock no matter what happens — if that’s a decision which has already been made — then their actions make perfect sense. In that case their plan is shove as much boodle into the sack as time will allow while the times will allow it, then scram. They won’t have to worry about the clearing-away of a mess they won’t have to live with themselves. (Or, what BruceJ said.)

19

Yan 12.31.17 at 8:17 pm

“‘Your title question as posed makes no sense, because we do have such a party, namely the Democratic Party.’ I get why you would say this in an absolute sense but I don’t think it’s true relative to the US electorate.”

I’m not sure this is self evidently true, and it may underestimate the electorate’s propensity for center leftish policy. The history of the 20th century seems relevant. As does recent polling that suggests the public is further left than the Dems admit or will allow them to be, as mentioned in this relevant article:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/12/just-when-you-thought-democrats-couldnt-get-any-more-oblivious

“the majority believe that the government ought to guarantee people healthcare coverage and that corporations should not receive a huge tax cut…millennials are actually more liberal than ever, with a greater number now preferring socialism to capitalism.”

The question is why the US lacks a center left party that would reflect the center left tendency of its majority. And the answer is that its center right Party, the Democratic Party, refuses to allow it.

All of this really demands the question shift registers entirely: why do we continue to analyze US politics as though it were a functioning democracy and not a literal oligarchy?

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/21/americas-oligarchy-not-democracy-or-republic-unive/

20

bob mcmanus 12.31.17 at 8:25 pm

The factions to form coalitions in America weren’t so different as anywhere else:

a) bourgeois:finance, industry, large farmers…and their dependents
b) petty bourgeois, urban intellectuals and technocrats, small business
c) labour, workers, unions
d) small farmers, rural populists

Women can’t seem to form an independent bloc so insignificant across parties, but a decisive component of urbans, unions, and blacks.

The path dependence is Southern white Democrats who weren’t going to join Lincoln’s Party. They really did make the Dem Party center right for a century. The unions, for instance had to get along, by periodically purging the far left. The unions, as usual, eventually became entrenched, corporatist,and centrist at best.

Blacks getting the vote was a big effing deal, 1948-1980. They were both urban and rural, relatively unionized, lower economic status, and so locked into being Democrats.
Republicans could not really bring blacks in, not cause racism, but because of their bourgeois business constituencies. So they had to go with the Southern bourgeois and rural populists, as the Southrons and populists had to go with Republicans.

Christian Democracy

“In practice, Christian democracy is often considered centre-right on cultural, social, and moral issues (and is thus a supporter of social conservatism), and it is considered centre-left “with respect to economic and labor issues, civil rights, and foreign policy” as well as the environment.”

Your job is to find the path-dependent factions in America available for this coalition. With a Labour (SD, CP) party available in many countries, the CDs can peel off enough to form majorities.

21

Cranky Observer 12.31.17 at 8:26 pm

= = = Yes, but I think they could be surer of their safety, and live just as luxuriously, by rendering Kansas marginally less bleak and post-apocalyptic. = = =

Now stir in the neoCalvinist (or perhaps mutated Calvinist, the real guy being far more thoughtful and subtle) belief that other people – particularly but not exclusively Those People – deserve and need large quantities of harsh punishment and you’re getting close.

22

Ben 12.31.17 at 8:41 pm

I think if you take Frank and Arnacissie’s point and tweak it by positing a sort of optimal spacing for party ideologies, you have the answer. The Democratic party may not be center right exactly, but it’s moderate enough to make life as a center-right politician extremely precarious: there’s always the risk that a prominent Democrat might agree with you.

Bill Clinton and others made a concerted effort, post-Reagan, to cherry-pick every plausibly-decent idea from the conservative side of the aisle. This was aimed at creating an era of sustained center-left dominance, and it worked: Democrats went on to win 6 of the next 7 Presidential elections*. But politically speaking moving to the center was an attack on the other side’s center, and that worked, too.

23

b9n10nt 12.31.17 at 9:00 pm

My hypothesis:

Political extremism is endemic to mass politics. Political factions attempt to sate an unquentchable appetite for an interpersonalidentity wherever organic, traditional, geographic communities have been replaced by abstract, modern, informational communities.

The tendency toward factional extremism within modern nations is suppressed by imperialism and national status (or simple political repression by elites, of course). As the US’s global status peaked and then waned after the 50’s, and as we become ever more urbanized and cosmopolitan, these suppressed tendencies have resurfaced.

24

Heliopause 12.31.17 at 9:08 pm

“Why NOT center-right dominance “

Because the “base” feels that their concerns have not been addressed by the center-right, keeping in mind that they believe the center-right has been in control of the GOP right up until 2016. They have different names for the center-right, of course, reflecting their different fundamental perceptions.

There really is no large constituency for the center-right, nor much of one for the center-left for that matter. Half the population doesn’t bother to vote and few of the ones that do are much enthused about the choices that have been presented to them. That discontent can manifest itself in a number of ways, as we saw in 2016.

Now, here’s the funny thing about Trump; his real world governing has been virtually indistinguishable from what any other GOP POTUS paired with a GOP Congress would have done. There’s a perception that he’s a unique new thing but that mostly comes down to personality issues and in practical terms he is not. The question is whether his true believers will stick with him as this becomes more evident to them. Maybe they’ll like vulgar bluster paired with standard Republican policy or maybe they won’t, who knows.

25

J-D 12.31.17 at 9:23 pm

But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party.

Nor to me; but it’s also not obvious to me that the super-wealthy would be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. If you’ve got some basis for thinking that they would be, you haven’t explained it.

26

John Holbo 12.31.17 at 9:26 pm

“Maybe this is all a false mystery because the constituency for your proposed center-right party really is racist and authoritarian in sentiment.”

I think that’s a pretty likely explanation, but I don’t think it makes it a false mystery, but an unresolved one, insofar as I’m not sure the likely explanation is actually right. To some degree it’s right.

27

Raven Onthill 12.31.17 at 10:08 pm

Me, back in 2010:

It appears that the Democratic Party has for a long time, existed as a coalition between liberal and conservative wings (or, if you like, progressive and corporatist wings.) Since Reagan, policy on major issues—war and peace, banking, and so on—has been dominated by the conservatives, while less pressing issues (science, environmental policy, and so on) and public relations have been dominated by the liberals. In the Congress, the Senate Democratic caucus has been dominated by the conservatives while multiple House Democratic caucuses exist, with the House Democrats predominantly but not entirely liberal. The public face of the Democratic Party has been liberal, since the public is to the left of the conservatives.

I say the conservative wing of the Democratic Party is the center-right party. I don’t see how the Party can hold together in this state for much long; if the US system wasn’t so organized that there can be only two major parties, the Democrats would have long since split into two parties. Maybe the Republicans will self-destruct, but they may take the country with them before the Democrats can respond.

28

Example Name Here 12.31.17 at 10:49 pm

I don’t keep a close watch on polling these days but doesn’t Trump have on the order of a 39% approval rating?

If the right half of the electorate will enthusiastically throw its support behind a right extremist then it seems evident that there’s no center right power base because right extremism is what the people want.

If the American people wanted center-right government, they’d turn off Fox news and vote Democratic.

29

J-D 01.01.18 at 12:13 am

Yan

The question is why the US lacks a center left party that would reflect the center left tendency of its majority. And the answer is that its center right Party, the Democratic Party, refuses to allow it.

In the 1850s, people who were dissatisfied with both the options offered to them by the two-party system then established in the US (the Democratic Party and the Whig Party) decided to establish a new party (the Republican Party) better suited to what they wanted; they were successful in attracting sufficient support to become one of the two major parties (displacing the Whig Party, which disintegrated).

The people who established the Republican Party were neither prevented nor deterred by the Democratic Party, or the Whig Party, or both of them, ‘not allowing’ it. So it is possible, or at least it was possible in the circumstances of the 1850s. If it’s impossible now, what’s changed to make it so?

30

Whirrlaway 01.01.18 at 12:19 am

Possibly a two-party political system is unstable in the long run: one party occupies the center, and the other goes radical. Possibly it could have gone the other way with the Democrats evolving into a radical left party in the ’30’s and 40’s. I see wikipedia lists 16 parties with some representation in British assemblies. Even Orwell’s world order needed 3 political centers.

Isn’t it one or many most places? How did we end up like this? Another evil residue of the Slavery Question?

31

Collin Street 01.01.18 at 1:07 am

I think an awful lot of this can be tied to the US’s unique ballot-access framework; because even getting on the ballot paper is a major hassle, starting a new organisation and getting it approved is harder than burrowing into one of the already-approved ones like a parasitic wasp, and this means that the people who are for the moment in control of one of the two pre-approved vehicles get long-term influence over politics that doesn’t map to anything in any other democracy.

[but ballot-access restrictions are needful because ballot papers have too many positions to be filled for each of them to be genuinely competitive; eliminating the judicial and subordinate-executive elections for state and local government — directly-elected state treasurers and what-have-you — would open the path to huge improvement, as well as reducing the number of veto points and making US politics more flexible and responsive. The US’s constitutional framework is severely flawed in multiple respects — this is just one — and, again, a new framework is basically needful.]

32

Karl Kolchak 01.01.18 at 2:15 am

“I get why you would say this in an absolute sense but I don’t think it’s true relative to the US electorate.”

I beg to differ. Most partisan Democrats I know are very much center-right on nearly every economic issue–which are the issues of real importance. Quite simply, they blabber on endlessly about social justice and climate change, but refuse to consider any action that would raise their own taxes or diminish their place among the top 20%. The only real difference between them and the Republicans is that they are usually monumental hypocrites.

The few true left wingers I know despise both parties equally because they understand that the identity politics pushed by the Democrats is a deliberate distraction that divides people so they do not unite against the wealthy–who “bought” the Democrats under Clinton in the same way that they “bought” the Republicans under Reagan. On most issues of real substance (wealth inequality, endless war and empire, Medicare for all, support for unions, etc.), they are no different that the Republicans.

33

Example Name Here 01.01.18 at 3:48 am

How did we end up like this? Another evil residue of the Slavery Question?

I think it’s the fallout of the Southern strategy. The southern strategy taught the 0.1% that southerners and rural people value xenophobic hatred more than prosperity, and that xenophobic hate can used to create a dominant voting bloc. Ever since the GOP took over the South, the 0.1% have used rural voters as a force to enact pro-rentier economic policies that favor the 0.1% at the expense of the rest of the planet.

Rural populations seem particularly vulnerable to this sort of elite manipulation; they provide the muscle (either electorally or violently) for similar elite self-dealing in many countries. Witness the demographics for Brexit, and the demographics behind the authoritarian parties in Hungary and Poland, for three instances.

There is most likely no ‘fix’ for the US as the people who benefit most from current power distortions have a veto over all avenues for reform.

34

Ronan(rf) 01.01.18 at 4:59 am

Because, as per Jonathan Haidt, racism is a sacred value.

35

wpjames 01.01.18 at 5:01 am

“Now, here’s the funny thing about Trump; his real world governing has been virtually indistinguishable from what any other GOP POTUS paired with a GOP Congress would have done. …The question is whether his true believers will stick with him as this becomes more evident to them.”

This is an excellent point, and the most strategically interesting in the long run. Trump’s appeal to many of his die-hard fans on the campaign trail was his promise to not govern as a traditional Republican. His views on free trade and foreign policy were opposed to the Republican establishment, and of course he drew the ire of Republican politicians and conservative pundits.

But now that’s he in power, and he has to deal with Congress, the courts, budgetary committees, his own State Department and the like, Trump by definition cannot remain Trump. Not only does he have to deal with institutional constraints on his will, but the things he genuinely cares about (immigration, something about trade) are quite small compared to the ideological commitments of Congressional Republicans. Trump does not have solid positions on half the things his legislative companions believe in (it is hard to imagine that Trump had a solid position, for instance, on Israel-Palestine relations a month ago), and so on many issues he’ll simply tag along on whatever the consensus is.

As for whether his hard-core base will notice this is up in the air. The pessimistic answer is that they won’t care about the inconsistency, because Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” is so programmatically vague as to be impossible to falsify. Trump may get to the end of his tenure, having not accomplished anything substantial, and his supporters will still say he made the country great again, simply by virtue of being elected in the first place.

36

J-D 01.01.18 at 5:17 am

Whirrlaway
Nothing lasts forever; therefore, one-party systems don’t last forever, two-party systems don’t last forever, and multi-party systems don’t last forever. However, I don’t know of any sound basis for the conclusion that two-party systems are less stable than one-party and multi-party systems. If you do, I’d appreciate it if you could tell us more.

37

Bruce Baugh 01.01.18 at 7:11 am

John, not to get overly melodramatic, but I think that understanding the Republican Party requires looking at the role of sadism as a policy priority. The Republicans are driven by people who really, really like seeing others suffer and love seeing violence inflicted on the Other, and supported by people willing to put up with that as the price of their various aims.

38

Jacob Steel 01.01.18 at 11:49 am

I think that the fundamental asymmetry between the American political parties comes from a fundamental asymmetry in the shape of the distribution of political opinions among the electorate.

Although it’s possibly not quite as true as it once was, I think that until a few years ago the American electorate had a strong rightwards skew in the technical mathematical sense of the word, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skewness – that is, if you were to plot the distribution of political opinions from left to right, I think that rather than a standard symmetrical bell curve, you’d have seen something with a big bulge and then a long, thick righwards tail, but dropping off much faster to the left of the bulge.

The natural splitting point between two political parties in a two-party system is the median political opinion. Meanwhile, the median within each party will be the quartiles of the whole distribution. In a distribution with rightwards skew, the left quartile will be much closer to the median than the right quartile. That is to say, the opinions of someone who is on the borderline between the two parties will probably be closer to the opinions of the average Democrat than those of the average Republican.

Another way of seeing the same thing is that until recently it used to be the case (I think it’s changed in the last few years) that Americans self-identified as (very, very roughly) 1/5 liberal, 2/5 moderate and 2/5 conservative. But there were roughly as many Democrats and Republicans, so the moderates were breaking heavily Democratic; to a first (bad) approximation you’d expect the more liberal party in those circumstances to be 2/5 liberal, 3/5 moderate and the more conservative party to be 1/5 moderate, 4/5 conservative. Again, this is saying that the dominant voice in the Democratic party was moderate and the dominant voice in the Republican party was conservative.

Yet another way of formulating the point is to say that until recently the mean American is much more conservative than the median American, and this has significant consequences for the shape of the parties.

(In the past few years, my impression is that the leftwards tail has been thickening, and all the above may no longer be as true as it once was, but we still have strong legacy effects).

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Cheryl Rofer 01.01.18 at 12:30 pm

A center-right party would have to offer policy ideas that benefit the 99%. What the Republicans offer is the old racial “feel good because someone is worse off than you.” Meanwhile, they are allowing the plutocrats to steal the store.

The racial pitch is easy, but once you’ve whipped up the base and they’re not getting the economics they need, they go to more and more extreme pitches, dragging the party to the right.

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Louis Proyect 01.01.18 at 1:21 pm

I think the answer is related to America’s declining economic status. From Eisenhower to Nixon (including Gerald Ford’s assumption of the presidency), there was a tacit understanding that the New Deal bargain with the working class would be maintained. Keep in mind that Nixon said, “I am now a Keynesian in economics” in 1971.

But by the mid-70s, the German and Japanese economies had begun to have an impact on American dominance. Auto workers stung by layoffs began to have rallies in which they took sledgehammers to Toyotas.

The bleeding continued into the 80s and as it did, both the Republicans and the Democrats shifted to the right by necessity. Their corporate funders understood that the party was over (pun intended). The Democrats became the party of the Democratic Leadership Council that gave us both Clinton and Obama, while the Republicans began flying the Koch brothers banner.

That is why I have to wonder why so many have illusions in the restoration of New Deal economics. There were those who placed such hopes in Obama even though his economic advisers were obviously much more into the Chicago School than Keynes.

Trump represents the culmination of this process. No matter how much vitriol is hurled at him from the pages of the Washington Post, you can expect that there will be no funding of liberal Republicans by the paper’s owner who knows which way the wind is blowing.

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steven t johnson 01.01.18 at 1:39 pm

Isn’t the OP odd not just because it’s not clear that the ‘center” is a thing, much less that center/right and center/left are distinct? Isn’t it just as likely that dominance by one party is the norm for this system, where the two parties are essentially Ins and Outs? The Outs will always be the weaker party by definition, but there will yet always be Outs because there’s never enough for everyone who counts to be an In.

The US system merely seems to be in play because of one office, the Presidency, but that’s an arena where the difficulty of mobilizing the population behind a right program is greatest. Historically, the people are leftist, and it takes a great deal of continuous work to keep them divided and inert, so that the ruling principles of both Ins and Outs are right wing, i.e., acceptable to the ruling class. Ruling class politics are either intramural rivalries, or disputes over technical means to the same ends, not compromise of goals.

When the people see an opening for engagement in real politics, about policy, they erupt in intense political debate. What form it takes doesn’t matter. Blues and Greens, homoousios and homoiousios, the real objection of the rulers and their employees is to the rabble trying to decide. Until they see an opening, politics and political principles are just a hobby for regular people. For owners, it’s money, and for their employees, it’s a job.

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T 01.01.18 at 1:43 pm

I’m afraid the snark about the Dems being the center right party is correct. Both parties have been proponents of neoliberal ideology, with the Dems version including some transfers to the losers and the Repub version little or none. The two leading Dem newspapers – the WP and NYTs – are neoliberal to the core. Three of the key beneficiaries of the rents generated by neoloberalism — finance, tech, pharma, and energy– have their claws deeply into both parties.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 01.01.18 at 1:47 pm

Why isn’t there a center-right party? I think that there are a few reasons.

First, the Democrats–whether or not themselves a center-right party–are hospitable to sane billionaires. That deprives a center-right party of a lot of income.

Second, the insane wealthy do not so much want more wealth, as they want more respect for their wealth: more forelock-tugging and fewer democratic norms. For all the bad things about this country, Tocqueville is right–it’s still “Bill Gates”, “Jamie Dimon.”

Third, I wouldn’t view the Republicans as a conservative party, hard or soft. Instead, they are a coalition of crazies: Godbags, racists, xenophobes, misogynists of both genders, violence worshippers, authoritarians, ressentimenters, taxophobes, etc. Each element of the coalition agrees to accept the other elements in exchange for being accepted. Strange bedfellows. A Jewish intellectual worshipper of violence (“neocon”, read Trilling on Babel) is no more likely to be a Godbag authoritarian misogynist than any reader of this thread. But s/he knows that only the coalition of crazies will support the true goal: halal McDonald’s in every souk, wrought by violence. Many of the Godbags, to give another example, are ok on race and economics. But without the racists and taxophobes, they won’t get rid of public education.

Against such a coalition, there is no room for a center-right party. Indeed, in a FPTP system, there is no room for a center-left party. All you can do is a party of not-crazies. And this is hard to pull off. Most of us are a little quirky on something or other. If our quirks don’t contradict the other quirks of the Republicans, they would be happy to add us to their alliance.

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Lee A. Arnold 01.01.18 at 2:16 pm

I think that underneath it all is our need for simplicity. The market system promises the simplicity of automatism.

Every voter right and left is searching for a system that works automatically without the interference of big business, big banking, big labor, big government. Take your pick. Big whatever. Getting in your face and screwing you! We all want some simple set of rules that we can trust and we can leave alone — and after which, the system will roll on automatically and provide for everyone. So we won’t have to think about it. Simplicity and automatism.

So far, since the 18th Century, this has been impossible. The market is automatic, “self-regulating”, but the results are not entirely as advertised.

Therefore, a center-right party must arrange an automatic market system that is ameliorated with additional, simple rules for caring for those who are always left out and left behind. This is the only way it could achieve “structural dominance”.

The mirror image, a center-left party, must arrange an automatic institutional system that provides for everyone while having simple rules for the use of the market for individualism and innovation.

Both of these arrangements are impossible to describe simply, or to carry out automatically. History is replete with examples.

In consequence, the right reverts to blame of the sick and poor for their plight, and to cynical power politics by the wealthy. The left retreats into intellectual arcana, now things like “market failure”, “social capital” and the like, and into blaming the wealthy.

Most voters don’t buy either wing very strongly, although for opposite reasons: the right gets too simplistic and harsh, the left too complicated and confusing to follow. So the whole system wobbles left and right depending upon chance and circumstance.

As to the present circumstance in Britain & U.S., there is no “plausibly structurally dominant center-right political party” because people like Hayek, Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan ran it off the rails. They promised lower taxes and smaller government, but in any livable future we will need greater taxes on the wealthy, and larger government. Despite the supposedly great intellectual abilities of Hayek and Friedman, they were not comprehensive and synthetic. None of those people never figured out how to draw the proper arrangement, but by bare-knuckle politics.

The Blair-Clinton leftist “third way” took up some of the centrist slack. (Which by the way helped to push the right a little further right, because politics is oppositional and follows the dramatic rules of theatrical dialogue.) But the third way doesn’t have a simple answer either. The left has no simple alternative to the market system, just a lot of dithering, complicated arrangements.

The only thing likely to change the arrangement is technological advance. As Polanyi took pains to demonstrate, the market system is not primarily capitalist, it is better described as industrial. Indeed capitalism had to be saved from the market system several times, and as recently as ten years ago.

Going forward, the outlook may be different. Industry is solving a big thing that market logic is based upon: material scarcity. No scarcity, no market logic.

While it does this, industry also disintermediates labor and capital. Looking forward, the divorce of incomes and investments from useful production may become more rapid, volatile, and obvious to an increasing number of people. It may become tiresome and psychologically annoying — this is Schumpeter’s most interesting thesis. As he argued, this favors a resurgence of the left in the not-so-distant future.

The market can only work by that which is scarce. We can already see a shift of focus of the market system toward the few remaining things which are scarce (real estate) or can be made scarce by monopoly ownership or by law (intellectual property and some intangibles). This is going to further undermine the right’s argument that its “simple” program is justified by results that are honest and fair. At the same time it will make the left’s explanations even more complicated.

In the meantime, the need for simplicity can raise pure evil. Polanyi would have predicted the resurgence of fascism as soon as the financial system crashed again ten years ago. Chapter 20 of The Great Transformation should be required reading. Fascism does not begin as a political movement, it is a spontaneous emotional “move” within individuals that is correlated to the failure of the market system.

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Marc 01.01.18 at 2:48 pm

I don’t think that you can separate out the answer to this question from two crucial factors: soaring income inequality and the effective abolition of limits on political spending by the Citizens United decision.

It’s now well documented that the political preferences of poor and middle class families have virtually no weight in decisions, while the political preferences of the very wealthy have high weight. That’s why eliminating the estate tax is a major policy priority, and more generous Social Security payments are not. This stems directly from the combination of gross inequality and unlimited spending.

In this light, the policy preferences of the two major parties reflect the two most popular families of thought among the affluent. Both on the left and on the right, they’ve focused on social policy (where the two parties are very different). More liberal billionaires have been less interested in direct political engagement than those on the right, which creates a policy asymmetry.

Because a small number of billionaires contribute a lot of money on the Republican side, the idiosyncratic policies we’re seeing there reflect what they want. Remember, in a “normal” presidential campaign, candidates fade away when they can’t raise money. In the last several cycles, especially 2012 and 2016, many candidates lingered far past the point where they were viable because they had sugar daddies. This really is the sort of path dependence that John was talking about, but far shorter term. The Bush II era party would have been much closer to being center-right in John’s lingo (remember “compassionate conservatism?), and the difference since then correlated pretty strongly with policy by eccentric and reactionary billionaire.

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bruce wilder 01.01.18 at 2:57 pm

Isn’t the Republican Party structurally dominant, as is?

47

Pacific Garbage Patch 01.01.18 at 3:12 pm

Both parties are drawn to an invisible center of gravity on the right because the US is home to the largest military machine ever assembled. The continued profitability of the military industrial complex demands the endless imperial adventures in Asia, and both parties work in their own ways to provide the conditions for the continuation of hostilities. You don’t need to go looking backwards over a century to find an explanation in slavery or Jim Crow, the military bases scattered over the globe are all the proof you need.
The “left wing” party never presents a real front against runaway militarism, at most they make some token gestures against particularly unpopular wars then look the other way while letting them continue. Events that threaten to split the party along these lines like the 1968 convention and the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation, are safely punted forward and election cycle or two so the military operations can continue more or less free of oversight.

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Soru 01.01.18 at 3:30 pm

@30: FPTP mean 2 viable parties per constituency. Open primaries means the names infrastructure and branding stay the same, because why bother establishing your own party machine when you can just win control of an existing one?

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Frank Wilhoit 01.01.18 at 3:52 pm

Yan @ 19: “…the Democratic Party, refuses to allow it….”

Parties can’t refuse to allow anything. There is nothing easier than outflanking a party. That is why incumbent parties spend all their time trying to avoid being outflanked.

Parties respond to actual, effective pressure. In this time and place, right constituencies possess the ability to exert pressure and left constituencies don’t. This is not primarily a matter of resources. There can be no such thing as liberal politics, because liberals cannot accept the conditions that give rise to politics.

In that light, allow me to paraphrase your closing remark: we are playing the wrong game; and what must be done with the game that is actually being played is not to win it, but to end it.

50

Ed 01.01.18 at 4:54 pm

” If what they’re principally interested in is a massive upward distribution of the wealth in the short term and if they’re getting ready to drop America like a hot rock no matter what happens — if that’s a decision which has already been made — then their actions make perfect sense. In that case their plan is shove as much boodle into the sack as time will allow while the times will allow it, then scram. “

Where are they going to go?

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bruce wilder 01.01.18 at 5:05 pm

Many commenters have made the obvious point that both Parties are structured to serve the policy interests of the plutocrats. This is the obvious reality that Levitz sidesteps in his op-ed — glaringly in the passage quoted.

Political parties that cannot deliver the goods to their voters are going to be in trouble with their voters, and both Parties are under strain due to the unpopularity of their policy programs and the “ideological” efforts required to blow smoke to cover the betrayal of the general or national interest that is job 1. The political system as a whole is arguably undergoing a legitimacy crisis, as voters incoherently try to get responsive government.

Trump wasn’t an ideologically radical move by frustrated voters; his election was a desperate gamble.

Behind the Orange curtain of his Presidency as reality teevee show cum Twitter storm, the Republican Party of Pence — the theocrats — are a radical faction; the military junta led by John Kelly may be termed radical; the Federalist Society judiciary being installed is radical. Still, that leaves a lot of ordinary, opportunistic grifters.

The Republican Party became an elite coalition of bad money grifters and aspiring theocrats nearly a full generation ago. Neither part of that coalition experiences much cognitive dissonance in the process of betraying voters.

Like Erik Levitz, a lot of voters identifying with the Democratic Party cannot quite fully grasp the reality that “their” Party operates to serve the plutocracy, too. The idea that the Dems serve the relatively sane billionaires who want a “moderate” politics strikes me as delusional, but still there is no reason that the rich cannot disagree among themselves or pursue (to them) inexpensive hobbies. There is no symmetry in the Parties’s respective strategies, but there is a symbiosis insofar as they each need the other as a dramatic foil. And they are both home to plenty of opportunistic grifters, though the sanctimonious perfume worn in the Democratic Party is a different scent.

I am among those who would say the Democratic Party is effectively a major center-right Party and fills the ideological mind-space available. It is particularly telling that the Democratic establishment would focus on peeling off white women Republican suburban voters in their attempt to restore electoral balance, while continuing to champion complacent embrace of the status quo combined with handwringing over a denatured agentless inequality. But, the dynamic is not simply one of displacement. By not credibly threatening to promise a popular policy program nor to effectively criticize and expose the corrupt purposes of Republicans, they contribute to an ecology where there is no niche for the counter program or rhetoric or deceptions of a Nixon or a Rockefeller Republican. Race, in particular, has become a truce line protecting both Parties from voter poaching, the suburban white women play being the exception that proves the rule.

In a two-party system, the Parties both morph gradually as they try to outflank the other with the voters. A push-pull effect complicates the effort, as any appeal to one demographic is likely to repulse a similarly sized demographic. Plutocratic domination introduces further handicaps. The Republicans have adopted straight forward voter suppression as a strategy well-suited to preventing democracy from threatening the oligarchy. The Dems have dismantled their own Party organization and purged their ranks to prevent any possibility of winning big in a way that might obligate them to enact programs the plutocrats would hate.

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bianca steele 01.01.18 at 5:07 pm

What is a “center right” party? Why do people write articles and books asking, essentially, “why do states with different histories, constitutions, laws, and centers of gravity not have ideologically identical political formations, and how can we fix this?”

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Whirrlaway 01.01.18 at 5:08 pm

@J-D

In evolution, it’s the “competitive exclusion principle” that states that two organisms (such as political parties) can’t share an ecological niche (such as committee chairmanships) … although starting equal, any perturbation that gives one a temporary advantage will lead to the extinction of the other. The dynamically stable 3-body situation in -1984- is that at any given moment the weaker two gang up on the strongest, prohibiting hegemony by any. In a competitive 2-body situation there’s no incentive to form a coalition and it is very difficult for a 3rd body to survive entering the field.

Speculation. If I were a doctoral candidate I would might follow up, but no jstor out here in the woods.

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Pavel A 01.01.18 at 5:31 pm

I’m sure this joke has been made before like a million times, but… the US does have a major center-right party. They’re called the Democrats.

“Democrats are capitalists” – Nancy Pelosi
“Single payer is a pony” – HRC (paraphrased)
“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin. – Chuck Schumer

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ph 01.01.18 at 5:37 pm

Via your NYT piece. (click ‘vigorous anti-trust enforcement’ para.1 for a chuckle and link.)

“The Democratic Party is in excellent shape going into the 2018 elections, except for the fact that most voters believe the party is “out of touch” and stands for nothing, while the progressive base, which has a hard-earned reputation for neglecting to vote in midterms, currently evinces less enthusiasm about turning out next year than do their conservative counterparts.” (New York Magazine 7/24/17)

Richard Vague’s Interview offers some interesting remarks on the middle-class. JH lives in Singapore, I believe, so I’m usually perplexed when he starts talking about a far-right Republican party in America.

Trump is about as far from ‘far-right’ as any president I can remember since Jimmy Carter, who’s actually in a category of his own. Ralph Nader said it best: the presidency is a corporation masquerading as an individual. Trump engaged in a hostile takeover of the GOP mostly to show he could. It’s all upside for him. The more attuned know that Trump ran for and won the GOP nomination ignoring the deficit, promising no more invasions, openly defending entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. So, by that metric at least, Trump is the voice of GOP reason. (ahem).

Hillary’s Victory Party. Wes Clark Jr. was there. Democrats will spend more money on the poor, as long as, nobody gets in the way of their own efforts to put as much distance between them and ‘ordinary voters’ as possible.

Losing to Trump, as David Axelrod notes, is no small task, but Democrats succeeded in that at least. I don’t see either party as far right. On social issues, there is a moderate-left and a moderate-right. On economics and FP, there are two moderate right parties. Whatever Bill Kristol and Jonah Goldberg are telling themselves about the great deficit revolt is pure nonsense. California looks to pay bills on the back of recreational marijuana sales, which will look attractive to subset of consumers, entrepreneurs, and governments as ‘the future.’ They could be right. Otherwise, America looks to chug right along. Toot-toot!

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Pavel A 01.01.18 at 5:46 pm

“It’s easy to say it serves the interests of the 1% to “inflame and exploit anxieties.” The existing Republican party functions that way: to redistribute wealth upwards under cover of smoke from inflamed tribal anxiety. But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party. Extremist chaos is kind of costly, not to mention risky.”

Why? Who or what has materially challenged the super wealthy while they continue to pillage? Bruce J mentioned the idea that the Kochs will continue to live safely while Kansas burns, and this is more or less the crux of the problem. Until Americans begin to attack the wealthy either physically or by expropriating their wealth, there will be absolutely no reason for the wealthy to even consider the idea of redistribution for the sake of social stability.

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bianca steele 01.01.18 at 5:58 pm

It would seem, actually, that we have in the US a lack of structural safeguards against certain kinds of conservative extremism. One explanation for this, has been constitutional restrictions on political representation for religion per se. If we let the religious do as they liked, they wouldn’t be attracted to extremism, and religious critics of society wouldn’t be attracted to radicalism. There are so many objections to this, from confessional diversity to lack of religious justification for the founding of the US itself and beyond, that the epicycles have multiplied beyond count. As best I can determine, the best center-left version now has true religion residing (somehow) on the left or center left. (Obviously the epicycles remain even in that case.)

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Whirrlaway 01.01.18 at 6:02 pm

Did I bury the lede? The point is that “centrist party” is a niche, and having been driven out of it, the party in the wilderness must evolve to find a new niche or perish. Become a new species which will per force be “non-centrist”. … NB, not that the party -chooses-, rather the species faces evolutionary pressure in favor of its non-centrist wing, which may lead to success (as Trump) or not. Please pardon me if I’m belaboring the obvious.

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J-D 01.01.18 at 7:16 pm

Soru

FPTP mean 2 viable parties per constituency.

This is a common pattern, but an assertion that it is universally true can readily be demonstrated to be false by an examination of experience with FPTP (which is not unique to the US).

Open primaries means the names infrastructure and branding stay the same, because why bother establishing your own party machine when you can just win control of an existing one?

Returning to my earlier example, the people who set up the Republican Party chose to establish their own party machine instead of trying to win control of an existing one; what has changed since then to prevent or deter people from making the same choice?

Remember, that was my question: what has changed since the 1850s? Your response offers no answer to that question.

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J-D 01.01.18 at 7:47 pm

Whirrlaway
That’s an interesting model, but without empirical support it’s not a justifiable conclusion. Empirically, in the US it has not been the case that any perturbation that temporarily advantages one party has led to the extinction of the other; on the contrary, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, over the course of their existence, have shown significant resilience in recovering from serious disadvantages. Empirically, I don’t know of any instance of a party system anywhere which has been characterised by three parties with none being able to establish a hegemony because whichever two are weaker at any point consistently gang up on the strongest.

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Stephen 01.01.18 at 7:54 pm

Bruce Baugh@37: “understanding the Republican Party requires looking at the role of sadism as a policy priority. The Republicans are driven by people who really, really like seeing others suffer and love seeing violence inflicted on the Other.”

Isn’t that a reasonable description of the would-be revolutionary, Kill the Rich faction of the leftwing? Except that for “like” and “love” you have for internal politics to read “would like, would love”; since in the US, unlike many less fortunate countries, they’ve never got within shouting distance of power. Seeing the Other suffer in other places, sure, right on.

62

Louis Proyect 01.01.18 at 8:39 pm

63

SusanC 01.01.18 at 9:13 pm

The term “centre” (or “centre-right”) is a bit problematic, because relative to what do we define this “centre”? The political position of the median voter is likely different across countries and historical periods, making “centre” not really have a stable referent.

I’m with the view expressed by a few posters above that the “centre right” niche postulated by John has in fact been occupied by the Democrats.

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mary s 01.01.18 at 10:24 pm

@32: “The few true left wingers I know despise both parties equally because they understand that the identity politics pushed by the Democrats is a deliberate distraction that divides people so they do not unite against the wealthy–who “bought” the Democrats under Clinton in the same way that they “bought” the Republicans under Reagan. On most issues of real substance (wealth inequality, endless war and empire, Medicare for all, support for unions, etc.), they are no different that the Republicans.”

Oy. If this is the definition of a true left winger, I guess I’m not a a true left winger — nor do I want to be.

Also, why would anyone think that the super-wealthy are any less blinkered and short-sighted than anyone else? Sure, the Republicans could have come up with a tax bill that served corporate interests in a “rational” and “measured” way. BUT I don’t think there’s any question that race has always been crucial to our political divide. Since the beginning, the “color line” has muted class divisions by tamping down and/or misdirecting white discontent about economic inequality. The divide has not always run between parties — take, for example, the Jim Crow era — but I think that whenever race (re)emerges as a central political issue, one party rallies around white (male) supremacy.

This is an over-simplification, I know — and I’m not pretending to be an expert. I’m just typing inside a box!

65

Dave Maier 01.01.18 at 10:30 pm

Hi John – I’m not sure why comment threads get closed so quickly around here, so I’ll have to put this comment here instead of where it really belongs. I just want to say that I got My Favorite Thing is Monsters out of the library and it’s fantastic! So thanks for the rec, although tbh I would have picked it up anyway. Happy New Year!

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Alan White 01.02.18 at 12:33 am

mary s @ 64–

I’m not competent to sort out cause and effect here, or to prioritize them either way, but your race comment strikes a chord with me.

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shah8 01.02.18 at 2:10 am

Eh, I think this one is easy, as an explanation relative to the past political history of the US, when there were such things as Rockefeller Republicans.

1) Great Migration and CR era made racist sentiment a stronger driver of electoral politics in much more of the country. The examination of the factors contributing to the Republicanization of the Midwest should be illustrative here.

2) The general increase in polarization increased demands for ideological solidarity, and the right was the bigger victims of this process. Without Republican Congresscritters with safe seats that are free enough to be high minded about much of anything but things like Contract with America–which play to the electoral process rather than any truly coherent policy guidelines.

3) Citizens United democratized politics for the next level rich people. Who are often like Tony Monaghan-with quite a bit more money, avarice, and vituperativness than any sort of sense, education, or much of any sort of experience. Yet they think they oughta run the place and make deals. So they spread their money around, back divide and conquer strategies with little idea of the long gamer, etc–in general, they do not view far right political climates as something that could be costly to them, and so they have no incentive to a more restrained, popular governance minded center right a la the German Christian Democratic Party.

There.

68

ph 01.02.18 at 3:05 am

69

bad Jim 01.02.18 at 6:18 am

It’s useless to discuss American politics without taking regional differences into account. It’s especially odious to discuss white voters without distinguishing Southerners. The former Confederacy is a big enough part of the country to swing a close election to a candidate willing to pander to its particular preferences.

Why don’t we have a Labor Party? Because of our history of slavery. Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation, which meant that its benefits had to be denied to blacks. LBJ had to destroy the Democratic party to enact the Great Society reforms, most of which endure today, yet remain under assault because roughly a third of the country resents and rejects any consideration available to those unlike them.

Sure, liberals are pussies and beholden to Wall Street and Hollywood and Silicon Valley, but any big picture is misleading to the extent that it ignores America’s continuing attachment to its original sin.

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Lee A. Arnold 01.02.18 at 12:20 pm

John Holbo: “But it’s not obvious to me that the super-wealthy wouldn’t be better off under a plausibly dominant, moderate right-wing Republican Party.”

Well, they might be better off. To explain the situation, we have to divide the causes by time span: roughly short-term, medium-term, long-term. And then realize that these overlap continuously.

In the long term, the self-regulating market system does not provide for everyone, but the right has no simple way to fix it, and the left has no simple alternative. This shapes the overall politics. (the idea that it must be simple: see #44 above)

In the medium term, the Thatcher-Reagan era has led the right into a dead-end, promising lower taxes and smaller government, when the reverse will be true. (true in the long-term — but note that this depends upon the unpredictable course of long-term technological change, and the policies that are necessitated or alleviated).

In the short term, everybody knows that tax policy is mostly reversible by the next set of politicians, so the game is naked short-term cynicism in pushing through tax policy for now, then buying the elections of the next set of politicians.

Since no one knows how to fix the system simply (see long-term above), and we need a simple fix because almost everybody has an attention span so short that they couldn’t think about it if they tried, the whole system always reverts to the mechanisms of short-term swindlers.

And the swindle just flipped again, did you notice? An interesting political thing just happened on tax policy. The establishment GOP just accomplished a hostile takeover of Trump, while publicly lauding him profusely for detailed direction that he did not give (except for inputs from Mnuchin and Cohen, according to reporting), and moreover giving Trump himself about $10 (?) million a year in tax cuts — on top of the $150 million a year the taxpayers are paying his private businesses while he golfs 1/4 of the whole year at Trump properties, plus God knows what other graft he is grifting.

The GOP must be hoping –hoping a mighty lot– that this extra $50 a week in paychecks won’t be visibly swallowed up by inflation (because it’s a massive fiscal stimulus at the top of the business cycle), swallowed up by higher interest rates on credit cards and adjustable mortgages (because central banks worldwide are going to be upping bond rates to control the inflation), swallowed up by higher healthcare premiums (because killing the Obamacare mandate may add around 10% to monthly U.S. healthcare premiums), and by higher prices at WalMart (because, in another policy arena, Trump wants to start levying tariffs on some imports — as if China even cares, after the U.S.’s abdication on global trade issues, leaving the globe wider open to Xi).

But, back to the hostile takeover of Trump — the establishment GOP just set him up for a huge fall, taking almost all the blame, and have positioned themselves to stick the knife in his back, all innocent-seeming and with nary a trace, if the Trump voters don’t start singing paycheck hallelujah by the midterm election — or if Mueller returns indictments on money laundering, fraud, receiving stolen property (the hacked emails), and/or obstruction of justice, thus making impeachment the big midterm issue.

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John Holbo 01.02.18 at 3:34 pm

I’ve deleted a few comments. If you want to say a fellow commenter is, flatly, pro-pedophilia, you should provide footnotes to that effect. Otherwise I will delete when it comes to my attention.

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Bob Zannelli 01.02.18 at 5:59 pm

The Center Right resides in the democratic party, as well as a very small center left faction. The republican party is a far right white peoples party whose core values are anti democracy, racism and religious extremism.

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Whirrlaway 01.02.18 at 7:41 pm

@J-D
It’s was a bracketed speculation, not a conclusion. Incomplete and confused as between organisms and species at least. Can I borrow your JSTOR access plz? Email it to mpzrd of the yahoo com. Thx.

Building a governing coalition across parties seems to be the usual thing in European democracies. I don’t know of any place where there are three stable parties; 16 seems a more typical number. … I further speculate that once you have several parties, it’s easier for a new party to emerge by fission or agglomeration.

I’m going to drag out my “driving on an icy road” analogy again. “The Center” is like the null hypothesis, where nothing much is happening, or that’s the ideal, just doing plain business, and stability is a powerful attractor, so we have got by (in part by trading positions on race). Personally, I think we’ve fishtailed beyond that point, and the national politics is doing something like sex selection, and the antlers will just keep getting bigger until the organism simply can’t support them.

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bruce wilder 01.02.18 at 8:06 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 44, 70

I suppose if you were Trump, you would not think you had been “taken over”; you would think you had provided political cover for various groups and political programs to move forward unimpeded “doing great things” (for which, of course, you yourself should be credited [but not blamed] even though you haven’t had an actual coherent thought since 1992). Tax cuts, judicial appointments, putting the military junta in charge of U.S. foreign policy, etc. Would he be wrong, if he told himself such a story? Various reactionary-conservative projects have been moving forward behind the stage curtain of the Trump White House & Tweet Show.

Politics is a theatre for competitive story-telling, where the narratives function to draw people into a common view and coordinated responses by means of what might as well be a form of mass hypnosis. If the trance takes hold, all kinds of “suggestions” can be funneled into the collective unconscious in its wake. Particular propositions or slogans can have emotional resonance, “anchor” emotions in the terminology of hypnotists, and a lot political rhetoric is about building up and then exploiting emotional associations. “Freedom!”

One big problem I have with Polanyi is that he did not distinguish adequately, imho, between the “idea” of “the self-regulating market economy” and the reality of the developing, evolving institutional economy. As an idea, a universal explanator, “the idea of the self-regulating market economy” was a centerpiece of an ideology and a system of liberal and reactionary-conservative propaganda pushing laissez-faire policy, a means to a political end in the political processes of competitive storytelling and mass hypnosis, one that was perennially renewed with variations from Turgot and Smith to Hayek and Friedman and beyond. And, quite separably, there’s the matter of the institutional machinery of the actual, concrete, emergent, evolving and somewhat mysterious capitalist-industrial (and now post-industrial) economy. There are our actual social and material relations and then there are the stories we tell about those relations as part of the process of building in common a political culture to clothe those relations. By not making that distinction — well, he does make the distinction, but he does not hold onto it reliably and consistently thru the course of his long argument — Polanyi loses the opportunity to explore the tensions inherent in the contradictions between reality and accepted or prevalent storytelling.

All of this is a preface to saying I think you are on to something, with your insight that politics and political storytelling demands a simple answer, and this demand for simple answers drives the dynamic competition to some large extent. We need slogans or principles, if you will, that can then be unpacked into more elaborate political programs and institutional architecture.

And, this need for cognitive economy that demands simple principles that can be unpacked combines with the chronic problem of how to trust leaders. How do you know who you can trust with power? How do you ensure that those with power keep their bargains? (And, consider that the problem is reflective: how do leaders riding the bucking bronco of democracy secure trust in the mercurial opinions of the mob?) Automaticity is a seductive promise to all concerned: followers do not have to make the effort to follow every detail; leaders can relax into careers as professionals tending to the maintenance of the system.

In a complex, hierarchical social system — think Google or Amazon — where an idea is being elaborated into a system over and over, deeper and deeper — the top managers and executives, if they are competent, are constantly testing the highly generalized policies they manipulate at a high level of abstraction, to see how they get operationalized in detail, to see what those ideas really mean on the ground in practical operation. The devil is in the details goes the cliche.

In our own time, as the actual concrete institutional political economy has become increasingly elaborate in its hierarchical construction and administration, we have held onto the idea of the market economy. The genius of neoliberalism has been to remake the idea of the self-regulating market economy as the centerpiece of a self-serving ideology for the class of people who manage in detail the actual hierarchical administration of the economy. On the one hand, tweaking obscure details of the rules can enrich a lot of people well-placed to further game the system; on the other hand, the tension between abstract generalities and detailed administrative schemes can be used as a political weapon against which there is no defense (“there is no alternative”)

Politicians want to change policy (conceived of on some highly abstract level) and find out they cannot, or find out that their polities will be punished by the opacity and unyielding nature of the administrative details. The experience of Greece in dealing with the Troika stands out. The unfolding catastrophe that Brexit promises to become stands out as another. In the case of Brexit, the sloganeering of “freedom” and “markets” is the cover story, but the business end of politics is the hyper-complex web of administrative details and processes against which there is no basis for negotiating.

As you say, the inability to match the abstract slogans to the reality of administrative details put actual political power into the hands of the swindlers who have mastered the details of administrative processes, which are scarcely even conceived of in the framework of “our market economy” ideology (beyond the use of “rent-seeking” as a pejorative).

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Z 01.02.18 at 10:01 pm

TL;DR Democracy as we’ve known it (Norwegian Blue) is dead, so there’s little point in asking what’s wrong with it or wondering if it’s resting.

Now the long version.

But was it doomed to die already in 1964 for deep structural reasons?

Yes, it was. Or at least this putative center-right, rural, sane right-wing party would have faced extraordinary odds.

I have written this on CT frequently enough that doing so once more would be rambling at this point, but starting precisely around the year you single out, the powerful unifying effect of universal primary and secondary education that gave the democratic impetus of the United States in the decades 1940-1960 was replaced by an equally powerful dissembling effect of a new, real and enduring separation between those who complete a higher education and those who don’t.

The party you imagine (economically liberal and socially conservative to invert the common trope, based in fly-over states and rural areas, appealing to the working and middle-class), if indeed sane and if indeed reflective of the interests of its putative constituency, would have to be explicitly redistributive – so explicitly against the interests of the 0,1% – but also explicitly against the interests of the top 0,2%/20% of highly educated professionals in dynamic urban areas. It would have to be explicitly egalitarian both in the economic dimension and the educative dimension. So it would have to confront one of the single most remarkable sociological trend of the country in full force now: the rise of the dual system of inequality (or would have had to confront it at its inception, then).

By contrast, both actually existing parties ride the tiger of inequality: the actually existing R party by ensuring that economic inequalities keep benefiting those at the top more and more and promising to those not at the top that they are at least better treated than Blacks while the actually existing D party by saying that economic inequalities are mostly A-OK as long as they benefit highly educated people.

Of course, in some sense this analysis might seem to just restate the question. After all, why aren’t the interests of the constituency formed of not-superwealthy, not-highly educated, not-living in a dynamic economic area democratically represented? This constituency exists and is seemingly up to grab (with a ready made slogan: We are the just-about 50%!). But underlying this puzzlement is the following syllogism (which is correct as far as I can tell): If 1) there is a constituency and 2) the democratic institutions allow the social representation of political opinions then 3) there should be a political movement representing the constituency. The thing is, we have no real theoretical reason to believe that 2) holds in the absence of a profound unifying social effect of the kind that prevailed in the 1950s (I so wish people would at least acknowledge this point), and many empirical reasons to believe that it doesn’t, starting with the observation that makes the title of this post.

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Jake Gibson 01.03.18 at 1:55 am

The old “Strict Father” morality ties a lot of things together.
It covers the authoritarianism.
It covers order over justice or even law.
It covers hierarchies, social and economic.
For whatever reason, mostly tribal, no Democrat or liberal can be a legitimate authority. But a vulgar clown like Trump can, though many might prefer Pence.
The only thing that the current crop of “conservatives” are trying to conserve is white conservative Christian Supremacy.
To be fair, I think most would not even recognize it as supremacism, just the “natural order” of things.

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Procopius 01.03.18 at 3:02 am

Lacks a major Center-Right party? I thought that’s what the Democrats were. We lack a Center-Left party, and definitely have not had a Left Party since the 1930s.

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J-D 01.03.18 at 8:33 am

Whirrlaway
I don’t know why you keep going on about JSTOR. I don’t rely on JSTOR as my source of information. The majority of what I know the history of parties and party systems in different countries I picked up from library books, and the majority of what didn’t come from library books I picked up from open-access online sources like Wikipedia. If I wanted now to check facts about the party system of any country, Wikipedia is where I would start. You could do the same.

Building a governing coalition across parties seems to be the usual thing in European democracies. I don’t know of any place where there are three stable parties; 16 seems a more typical number.

I can’t think of any example of a European democracy with as many as sixteen parties represented in its parliament. We had some discussion on Crooked Timber of the Dutch election last year; thirteen parties achieved representation in that election. On the other hand, I can think of at least one example (Malta) with only two parties with parliamentary representation. In some European democracies, single-party majority governments are vanishingly rare and multi-party coalition governments are the norm; in others, single-party majority governments are frequent and multi-party coalition governments unusual. JSTOR access is not needed to check these facts.

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J-D 01.03.18 at 8:55 am

Louis Proyect
You refer there to Lloyd Bentsen, as Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury, issuing a report in 1980. I know nothing of the report, which may indeed have been issued by Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1980; or it may have been issued by Lloyd Bentsen in 1980; but not both. Bentsen held the position in 1993 and 1994, under Clinton’s Presidency; under Carter it was held first by W Michael Blumenthal and then (including in 1980) by G William Miller.

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MisterMr 01.04.18 at 11:21 am

In my opinion, this argument gets the story backwards.

When I was a kid, we had in Italy the Christian Democrats, who could be described as ordoliberals. They were center right, their main political claim was to oppose the commies, but some of their economic policies would be considered far left today: for example they created the italian NHS.

They were considered center right because their opponent was the italian communist party, so compared to it they were actually righties.

But then, the Christian Democrats collapsed, and their place was taken by Berlusconi and others. The italian communists merged with other center left parties and their heir party, now in power, is far to the right of the old Christian Democrats, and is in fact comparable to american Democrats.

What happened is that the dominant economic theory changed from interventionist to small government, and this leads to only two choices: small redistribution (democrats) or the same amount of redistribution, but only for me and my friends (republibans)

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