Can we save democracy from the two-party system?

A political establishment that equates the left and right as untouchable evils is not "moderate." It's a disaster

Published January 9, 2021 12:35PM (EST)

Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Nany Pelosi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Nany Pelosi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A nurse came to see me to do wound care on the day Congress was scheduled to make Joe Biden's election victory official. Seeing that I was watching the news — this was before rioting broke out at the Capitol — she asked if I thought Biden's victory meant socialism. Her political ignorance shocked me but should not have, so much has gone into its care and feeding. I am surrounded by it among staff and fellow residents (most of them very nice people, Trump notwithstanding) in my assisted living facility. 

People advise the left, sensibly, that it must pursue changing the public mindset with the same patience and cunning the right has used. But the task will be much harder for the left because the right, as much as it flatters itself as radical, was much closer to the mainstream from the start. That is why, compared to the left, the right has been treated with kid gloves. Among the givens it has always shared with the powers-that-be are an aversion to majority rule, a self-serving definition of liberty, a commitment to property rights and capitalism as a means of maintaining minority rule and amassing private fortunes, the use of racial discrimination as a divide-and-rule strategy, and patriotic appeals to get as many (white) people as possible to identify themselves uncritically with the nation.

The left has to counter all of these venerable anti-democratic practices. The feat of education this will require boggles my elderly, non-scholarly mind. (We might start with those Fox viewers and Trump voters, several million in number, who were receptive to Bernie Sanders' message.) We'll be much too busy to storm the Bastille or the Winter Palace. Yet liberals persist in calling left and right equal dangers and topping it off by treating the left as the only real threat — and all because they can ingratiate themselves with the powers-that-be by doing so, and because the left exposes their pretensions and thus threatens their standing and earning power.

A related point: The nurse's question about the "creeping socialist menace" that seemed finally to have pounced assumed that I shared her viewpoint, which right-wingers tend to do, as my wife has pointed out to me. If you let them know you don't, they are naturally at a loss. Who could think differently? Certainly not enough people to elect a president. This may explain why so many find it as inconceivable as Trump himself does that he could have lost a fair election. 

I've been hearing about that "creeping socialist menace," as well as the "creeping communist menace," as long as I can remember (much much longer, as a point of reference, than Iran's phantom nuclear weapons program), and so has everyone else. Only very recently, even on the left, have people begun to take seriously the possibility of creeping fascism.

The U.S. is said to have a two-party system, but many have observed that the parties are suspiciously similar, and refer to the system as a duopoly. They are closer to the truth, which is that we have a single right-wing party that rules, that sets the agenda and the limits of debate, whether officially in power or not, and a second, phantom party that goes through the motions of wielding power or of being in opposition. Unlike Margery Williams' velveteen rabbit, this phantom party resists becoming real.

Almost from the moment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, the phantom party began insisting it could do nothing to prevent President Trump from having his nominee replace her, and a judicial Operation Warp Speed rolled right over it.  Now the party can raise the alarm — only verbally, of course — about having six "conservative" justices on the Supreme Court, helping it sustain the illusion of being a real opposition party. And all it took was total passivity. 

The reason the U.S. is effectively a one-party state, and only nominally a two-party one, is obvious and known to all:  Democrats and Republicans serve the same masters. Whether the president is an African-American Democrat or a white nationalist Republican, he staffs his administration with representatives of the highest stratum. Power remains in essentially the same hands — CEOs from the biggest firms, bankers from the biggest banks, executives from the biggest names on Wall Street, orthodox economists, corporate lawyers, corporate lobbyists, ex-generals, etc. — people who can be trusted to serve the system that has served them. A large contingent simply moves back and forth between government and the corporate world.  

Rest assured that no advocates for peace, the environment, consumers, universal health care, racial justice, unions, Social Security, reproductive rights, economics outside "free market" prison bars, radical reform in criminal justice and immigration policies, antitrust enforcement, etc. will be considered. Such people are automatically disqualified because they represent "special interests," whereas a CEO, for example, is easily credited with the ability to see the big picture and rise above self-interest. A CEO is an embodiment of our national greatness.

But if we actually look — and Donald Trump's appointees made it so obvious — we see that those with the most at stake, the most "skin in the game," are the very people least capable of rising above self-interest, the ones with the most blinkered view and the stickiest fingers. That is how they demonstrate their reliability as protectors of privilege. The unofficial wealth requirement for Congress serves the same purpose.    

Another way politicians of both parties avoid addressing tangible public needs that run counter to their patrons' interests is by pandering to nationalist vanity, a classic strategy especially effective in a country that has chosen to remain at war for the past 75 years. (Some even say we chose this path from our founding.) Turning the public's head with flattery makes it a snap for legislators to authorize unlimited sums on demand for "national security," keeping government's clients in that most favored business well fed and happy. 

Barack Obama's presidency unleashed a racist backlash to which he did his best to turn a blind eye, intent as he was on selling the story that we had put our racist past behind us and entered a post-racial age. Not only were we the greatest military power on earth, we were the most socially advanced! Now, in his memoirs, 12 years too late, Obama has changed his story to preserve his credibility after a white nationalist presidency and an epidemic of police and vigilante killings of African-Americans.  

Obama specialized in over-the-top flattery of the national ego that presented itself as hard truth. He used the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize award in 2009 to boast about our many wars and violent interventions since 1941, saying they all promoted peace and security, as we had in saving Europe (single-handed) from the Nazis and Soviets. Clearly, America has been singled out to fight evil. On other occasions, Obama would talk about the kind of people we Americans are, and the kind we are not, using flattery to reassure us that whatever punitive action he had taken or was proposing was simply what our collective conscience demanded. The last thing he wanted was to be seen as a Black man with a grievance against America — not that he could ever have avoided that, given our nation's guilty conscience.    

The fantasy of American greatness was there for Donald Trump to exploit. With his MAGA and KAG (Keep America Great) rallies, Trump took pandering to near-fascist heights while leaving his campaign promises unfulfilled or taking actions directly contrary to them, and suffering no consequences at the ballot box. Commentators marveled at the size and blind loyalty of the base Trump was credited with creating — they even called it "the Trump base" — but that base was there waiting for him, the fruit of decades of bipartisan nationalist pandering and white racial grievance.  

As the election showed, that base grew during Trump's presidency — surprise! surprise! — and will continue to grow and fester in his absence unless the Democrats mend their miserable hawkish and neoliberal ways. Naturally, "Trumpism" will survive Trump because it was never his to begin with. The only way to improve this situation remains to improve the quality of life for the lower half or more of the population — not an impossible task, except politically.  

Unfortunately, government social programs do not get the same welcome in Congress as requests for "national security" funding. Those programs unavoidably limit the amount of money private companies can extract from the public and that politicians can extract from the companies for their services. In other words, they "squander precious taxpayer dollars" on not-so-precious taxpayers. The media also do their part to put social programs in a bad light. Look how they seized the opportunity Trump provided to misrepresent and denigrate populism, as Thomas Frank has noted.

If we simply revert to our pre-Trump course, however, as the phantom party seems bent on doing, we should be very concerned about what rough beast awaits us on the other side of Joe "soul of America" Biden. 

The media are anxious for us to believe that Trump was an aberration. Fareed Zakaria on CNN has even accorded him the honor of a comparison to Hitler, a distinction previously reserved for foreign enemies. The comparison is ludicrous, like comparing the ghostwritten "The Art of the Deal" to "Mein Kampf." The media always made Trump out to be more formidable than he was in their anxiety to preserve a flattering, non-racist image of America. (I bought into the buildup myself, to the extent of worrying that Trump would crush Biden in their debates.)  

Sorcerer Trump supposedly mesmerized his audiences a la Hitler, but Trump is a moron, as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to tell us. If ever an emperor needed courtiers to feign blindness to his nakedness, it was Donald Trump. His supporters disagree but respond to the basic fact that he speaks his (infantile) mind and does not patronize them, unlike other politicians and the liberal media.

Trump and his cronies were only the most brazen elite self-servers yet. They dared to parade before our eyes what our government is all about, giving us a lesson in practical civics. Selflessness did not get Barack Obama his estate on Martha's Vineyard, his Mar-a-Lago, or make the Clintons obscenely rich. Later presidents' homes certainly put FDR's Hyde Park in the shade and put one in mind of Saddam Hussein and his palaces. 

Long before the Supreme Court made it official, "Money talks" began to emerge as our dominant political ideology. Such a system does not require the players to be conscious of it. On the contrary, their amour propre requires them not to be. No conspiracy is called for. Politicians only have to know which side their bread is buttered on and that they and their families can get very rich through holding office. They are genuinely convinced — indeed, have persuaded themselves — that the policies that benefit them most are good for everyone. How else could they live with themselves? In this way we have devolved from a business culture into a pure money culture of quick payoffs.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and his predecessors, however grievous their faults may have been, were not all under the singular, sovereign, insidious sway of money. Roosevelt had a disdain for people who seemed in thrall to it. Snobbish? Yes, but how welcome it would be today when the power at the top is fully left-proof, more diverse in every other way but more uniform politically. FDR's noblesse oblige was open to progressives and leftists. Roger Daniels' biography quotes him as hoping the U.S. would become a better educated and (through the added blessing of economic security) more tolerant country. Amen to that.  

One of the reasons FDR's administration was able to accomplish so much was that it was full of leftists, who seized the opportunity to shape government policy. Leftists today understandably like to credit pressure from the streets for those achievements, but like-minded people who worked from the inside deserve credit, too. 

Trump-haters and Trump-lovers alike are well aware of the baleful influence of money in our politics, but the most vocal and visible of this large mixed company, thanks in part to the media, are the "deplorables," the neofascist conspiracy mongers and pied pipers who see it as the work of veritable devils — including, of course, that mother of all devils, the world Jewish conspiracy.     

Presto, guilt by association discredits a valid, widely shared perception. It helps that right and left are considered, for practical purposes, indistinguishable. A Bernie Sanders is as dangerous to the Republic, if not more so, than QAnon, and that is literally true. Moderate as he is in his proposals, Sanders is a greater threat to our untenable status quo than any right-wing conspiracy theorist. A politician who says some of the things we've been longing to hear out of Washington for years is anathema.

Regular Democrats recognize that Sanders and company are their true opposition and will go to extraordinary lengths to defeat them while forever seeking bipartisan consensus with Republicans. Between regular Democrats and the "NeverTrumpers," better understood as Republicans who deserted Trump but remain committed to Republican policies, true love has blossomed.  

Progressive Democrats won most of their races in the 2020 down-ballot elections. Regular Democrats lost most of theirs, and the embarrassed and aggrieved phantom party blamed the progressives for those losses, whining that, because of progressives, the Republicans were able to smear all Democrats as leftists and socialists, even communists. Never mind that Democrats want to retain the potency of those old scare words themselves because they share with Republicans an interest in keeping the public from pressing its claim to a better life. Decisions over what the public is permitted to have can only come from the top! Failing that, "America is not ready for [fill in the blank]."

Never mind that the policies progressives advocate seem popular with the public, to judge not only by surveys but ballot initiatives. A measure for a $15 minimum wage won in Republican Florida, the state where Cuban-Americans think about nothing but Fidel Castro from morning till night, day in and day out, year after year. (How do I know?  The media tell me so.) The same electorate approved, by almost a two-thirds majority, an earlier measure to restore voting rights to former felons (only to have a federal appeals court, at Republican instigation, make it conditional on their paying all court costs and fees).   

America is still not ready for Medicare for All? An entire generation, the "greatest generation," has come and gone since the idea was first proposed. Still, the public does not seem to have gotten the message of its unreadiness, despite the best efforts of both parties and their media allies, who depend on advertising from the same pharmaceutical companies and health insurers who bankroll the parties.  

As they did during the Democratic primary debates, politicians and the media continue to mislead us about our private health insurance and how we just love it, as Sanders puts it — even in the midst of a pandemic that has deprived millions of theirs. The champions of private health insurance mean employer-provided health insurance, over which the employer and the insurance company have control, not the insured. In other words, that is the way they think things ought to be, ordinary "folks" (as Obama used to refer to us children) owing such a blessing to their betters rather than having it be theirs by right — we know where that leads! — as they would under Medicare for All, in addition to the plan's other advantages.  

Regular Democrats and people in the mainstream media (aptly called "the lamestream media" by Trump or a ghostwriter) criticize Trump supporters for taking leave of reality. But how can people who devote so much time, effort and money to misrepresenting reality justly criticize those who have given up on it altogether? "A pox of your 'reality!'" is what they are saying. We have evolved a whole political vocabulary — call it AmericaSpeak — to distort reality and mislead and disarm the public. Key terms include "defense," "national security," "warrior," "big government," "government bureaucrats" (aka "Washington bureaucrats" or "faceless bureaucrats"), "the debt" (The Bailiffs Are Coming! The Bailiffs Are Coming! doubters call it "the debt hysteria"), "the free market," "free trade," "entitlements," "reform," "modernization," "right to work," "job creators," etc.    

If an American wants to reach reality, she has to hack her way through an overgrown forest like Prince Florimund in "Sleeping Beauty." It is no walk in the park. Reading the letters columns of "serious" publications reveals how brainwashed even some better educated Americans are. The brainwashers themselves have college degrees. Noam Chomsky has always said we Americans are the most highly indoctrinated people in the world. Why is it shocking that Trump supporters are fellow believers in American greatness, as they understand it, and fellow abhorrers of socialism?                 

The pundits of print and the airwaves insist, with barely concealed glee, that the public is so well trained it recoils in horror from the mere word "socialism." (Talk about dog whistles!) Granted, the MAGA people do, without, of course, having a clue what the word means (Trump bless their uneducated hearts!), but should we take direction from them? Democrats and Republicans respond in unison: Yes! For years our course has been set by the religious right, the right-to-lifers, the Cuban exiles, the gun lobby and the Israel lobby. Under Trump, white nationalists have joined them. The right is just too damn useful. No bloc on the left commands similar deference because the powers that be would never grant such power to one on the left, which to a man or woman they loathe. The left is just a damn nuisance. 

Refugees from left-wing Latin-American regimes the U.S. is keen to overthrow get a royal welcome because they enlarge the permanent right-wing constituency beloved of both parties. Refugees from right-wing Latin-American regimes get the same brutal treatment here as at home. Leaving Republicans and the phantom opposition to their own devices risks an ever-growing right-wing constituency and perhaps a unified right-wing paramilitary, brought into being by the ruling elite's desire for a secure bulwark against the left. Sound familiar? 

Bernie Sanders confessed publicly to being a socialist, breaking an ancient taboo and getting roundly criticized for it, even by some on the left, who called it "gratuitous." In our politics, the space for honesty is tightly circumscribed and policed. Biden had no trouble denying some uncomfortable facts about his record during the primary debates. Amy Coney Barrett took the Fifth Amendment, in effect, numerous times during her non-testimony before the Senate. ("Senator, I can't answer that question without revealing what really determines my judicial decisions.") Both have been handsomely rewarded, not for lying or withholding the truth, but for doing what they were supposed to do, protecting the public's right not to know. Barrett's performance followed well established precedent  for Supreme Court nominees. The public is treated like Southern white womanhood in the bad old days — reality must not sully our innocent ears!  

The crimes of Hitler and Stalin stand ever ready to point toward the moral that such are the wages of extremism of either kind, though we continue to push the envelope with regard to right-wing extremism. The extremes are connected only abstractly, by their rejection of the status quo. You can hear right-wing voices anytime on liberal mainstream as well as right-wing media, but you can hear left-wing voices almost exclusively on left-wing media. The point to remember is that the left is far more worrisome to the center than the right, but it is the right that is armed and dangerous.  

A related point, obvious but overlooked, is that only the left has the ability to shame our vaunted democracy — to injure its self-love, as it were — by calling out its failings, its pious falsehoods, its contradictions. The custodians of our democracy respond in kind, with attempts to discredit the left. The right is no threat at all in this respect, because the right simply does not believe in democracy. That's another reason "the lamestream media" has until now been happy to humor Donald Trump, to push him in our faces all the time. 

Take the cautionary figure of John Brown, the violent abolitionist and that most unusual and unwelcome of figures in our history, a left-wing vigilante. Our problem with him has always been less his violence, I would argue — when did we become so scrupulous about violence? — than the fact that he showed up the system, an offense hard to forgive. Brown believed that all people are created equal, as the Declaration of Independence says. The right, on the other hand, like slavery's proponents, believes whites are superior and sides with police and right-wing vigilantes in the lawless killings of African-Americans.  

Yet we can accommodate the right more easily than a John Brown. One is reminded that when, during the Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd, a protester or protest sympathizer killed a counter-protester, law enforcement hunted him down and executed him, extra-judicially. Shortly before that, a right-wing gunman, supposedly protecting private property from vandals, killed two people and wounded another. The police received him like a comrade-in-arms and made no arrest. Few eyebrows were raised. 

By the time John Brown embarked on his crusade, decades of political bargaining and abolitionist agitation had failed to halt the advance of slavery, let alone abolish that oh-so-lucrative institution. It took a civil war, which Brown sought to forestall, to do that. In the short course of his crusade, Brown took relatively few lives, but because he was a failure as well as a "zealot," as H.W. Brands calls him in a new book (Brown used to be called far worse names, so there's been some progress there; otherwise, he'd be called a terrorist today), those killings continue to weigh heavily against him. They never lose their power to shock. A liberal historian who believes in the system (Sean Wilentz) can still recoil from Brown's partisan canonization. His crimes still serve to overshadow the nameless killings on behalf of spreading slavery that sent him into Kansas in the first place.

The stigma attached to the left also reflects the fact that many Americans have always viewed communism as a greater threat than Nazism because it was anti-individualist, anti-religious and anti-capitalist — in other words, thoroughly un-American. Therefore communism has been more deeply and lastingly hated and feared, whereas we have an affinity with Nazism through racism and an admiration for Nazi military prowess. Nazi emblems remain almost as potent as the Confederate flag.

Race is not the only criterion of worth used by the right. It also believes in a natural aristocracy and that superior individuals deserve better treatment than run-of-the-mill humans. This is very flattering to those who imagine themselves superior — and who doesn't? Who wants to be merely equal? Money and position only worsen the tendency. Many shudder at the idea of being just one of "the people," which they associate with the left. Another term for communism or socialism, equally pejorative, is "collectivism." Much of the popularity of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Ayn Rand rests on their intoxicating implicit flattery of readers as fellow members of a natural elite. And people are competitive, sometimes even constructively. 

The left concedes this advantage to the right. It refuses on principle to rank people and insists on equal opportunity and equality before the law. It does not say, as might help its cause, "equal in the sight of God," but that is where the idea originates. Nietzsche was right about that: Socialism derives from Judeo-Christian morality. Its basic position is that of John Donne's devotion, "No man is an island." The difference between that and Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing [as society]" is the difference between left and right.   

Though the center has shifted well to the right, liberal counsel is still not to stray far from conventional wisdom and the status quo to avoid any possibility of doing or abetting Monstrous Evil. That is how liberals let themselves off the hook for the suffering and destruction they have presided over these past many years. As just one example, take U.S.-imposed sanctions. We have grown inured to them since the George H.W. Bush administration, yet they rival chemical and biological weapons in the way their effects spread and wreak havoc throughout a population. The colossal (dare I say Nazi-like?) bullying they exemplify fails to move us, either. "Soul," Joe?

To say that we have become hardened to sanctions may well be unfair, however, because how the public feels about any policy our leaders are committed to is of little account. The considerable public opposition to going to war with Iraq in 2003 was not reflected at all in Congress, which gave virtually unanimous support. Our whole Middle East policy, including our policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, which appeals mainly to evangelical Christians and other hard-line Zionists, exemplifies the disconnect. The point can't be stressed enough: To an infuriating degree, our leaders don't listen to us. They do treat us like children. When our wishes conflict with their pecuniary interests, they are simply an obstacle to be gotten around.     

The labels "liberal," "centrist" and "moderate" are meant to serve as talismans against Evil. They have nothing to do with moderation in policy; their only object is to reassure and to reinforce complacency. Here is a capsule description of the policies hiding behind those reassuring labels: helping the few profit off the many in every possible way while providing, as compensation for super-patriots, the vicarious pleasure of lording it over the rest of the world.  

This is what is touted as "small" or "limited" government, with "small" referring to the size of government's actual constituency, not to the size of government, which has to be large to keep everyone else in line. The Department of Homeland Security, the third largest government agency (after the Pentagon and Veterans' Affairs), is a Republican gift to "small government," as is the Drug Enforcement Administration. The term "big government," on the other hand, is meant to trigger the same response as "socialism," thus duping much of the public into support for government shedding its "wasteful," non-coercive public responsibilities.  

The pandemic has revealed how much at a loss our government is — not just the Trump administration — when faced with a public emergency. Finding ways to disregard the public is what government knows best. For years politicians have been directing public anger at career public servants like Dr. Anthony Fauci, so why is it shocking that some people take them seriously? The politicians who play this game are the real culprits. Were it not for "unelected," "faceless" "Washington bureaucrats" — had it all been left to our elected legislators and their appointees — we would have been even worse off in this pandemic. Rule of thumb: When the head of government declares government to be the problem, the problem is about to get much worse. A Cole Porter lyric has the perfect advice for us: "Use your mentality/ Wake up to reality." We've got government under our skin like a deadly parasite.   

Equating left and right as supreme dangers — sticking with the exploitative devil we know — has other problems as well. It rules out any change that does not come from on high and leaves the public no role but voting. It also ignores crucial distinctions, such as that the left does not view its enemies as inhuman or subhuman any more than it caters to personal or national vanity. Karl Marx famously praised the achievements of capitalists. The evil of capitalism lies not in a class or group (ethnic, religious or racial) of evil people, but in the power of money to subvert or displace any other values people hold. It is the most potent drug of all. No one is immune. Look at what the need to protect slavery did to the framers and the Constitution. That is what makes the power of money even worse than the poison of American exceptionalism that has been poured into our ears since childhood. Our country is in a bad way, quite apart from the pandemic, and the reasons are screamingly obvious.  

By Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

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