Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Proliferation of American Political Parties

With its two-party system, America has always been, more or less, the land of the either-or fallacy. Federal rights or states’ rights, socialism or capitalism, big vs. small government—there has always been a certain degree of polarization.

But once upon a time, there were right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, as well as a good many centrists from both parties who were near the top of the “bell curve” on any given issue. There were extended periods of time when people seemed to have a general understanding that, philosophically at least, the best position on almost any spectrum is somewhere near the middle.

In the past couple of decades, though, America seems to have drifted toward greater polarization than ever before. I leave it to sociologists to figure out why, but I have a hunch that at least part of the problem is information overload: with new science illuminating human understanding of everything from the birth of the universe to global climate change to the complexities of the human genome, many have opted out of thinking about all that by taking refuge in religion. Theirs is a reassuringly simple, authoritarian world, where everything that needs to be known is written in the Bible and “Christian” leaders tell their followers what to believe. No need to think or deal with the discomfort of being uncertain.

The Christian right has certainly been a major factor in the radicalization—and subsequent marginalization—of the Republican party. Meanwhile, lots of people were getting rich by manipulating public sentiment in favor of big business, unfettered to the greatest degree possible by government regulation and oversight. If you ignore the long-term effects of unbridled capitalism—degradations to the well-being of the poor and middle class, the economy, and the planet—you could make a case that “letting the market take care of things” seemed to be working—until about a year ago, when the house of cards came tumbling down.

Another interesting turn of events is the split that seems to be occurring in what’s left of the Republican Party between plain ol’ generic, vanilla-flavored “Republicans” and the die-hard “Conservatives”—the FOX News fanatics that until recently were considered more or less the foundation of the Republican “base.” But now we have a race for a Congressional seat in New York in which Sarah Palin, among others, has snubbed the mainstream Republican candidate in favor of the even more right-wing Conservative Party contender.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the spectrum, deep dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and Republican ways of doing things led to calls for decisive change. Enter Barack Obama, with his rallying cry, “Yes, we can!” His administration immediately set about implementing changes in many aspects of public life that have only been discussed—sometimes in whispers, for fear of incurring the wrath of the all-powerful right. Suddenly there are new attitudes toward foreign countries and “enemy combatants,” new banking regulations, new ways of looking at health care, and so much more.

So much change happening so fast is refreshing for progressives, who’ve long been weary of waiting and hoping for someone to do something about America’s major problems. But the pace of change is uncomfortable for many who, simply by virtue of the way their brains are wired, most likely have average or less-than-average tolerance for change. Hence, we see the emergence of a group called the Blue Dog Democrats, who are politically right of the progressive end of their party and tend to join with Republicans in crying, “Wait! Stop! Slow down!”

The overall result of these trends is a very interesting state of affairs. To borrow a phrase Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin.’” Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center have turned up the following results:
  1. Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 35% to 23%.

  2. Voters who identify as “independent” now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.

  3. The number of people identifying as Independents is increasing at a much steeper rate than ever before.

So let’s review what we seem to have now. Instead of just the two parties, there are politicians (and, increasingly, voters) who identify as one of the following: Conservative, mainstream Republican, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, and Progressive. Then there are a very large number of politically active Americans called “Independents” who may or may not fit anywhere along the traditional right-to-left political spectrum.

Of course, strategists on both sides of the traditional political aisle are scrambling to figure out just who these “independents” are and what they want. But meanwhile, everyone agrees that we are at a pivotal point in history, and the future of the country and the planet hinges on decisions being made in Washington.

This is obviously a brief commentary on a very large topic, and as you might expect, I’ll have further thoughts to share on the subject. I’ll also be very interested in comments from readers. Meanhwhile, I leave you with some relevant remarks from Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”


Six said...

I was right with you Jane up until the middle of the fourth paragraph... right about there you seem to fall back on your blind hatred for anything that might represent an opposing view. 'Unbridled capitalism' is very chic to say these days, but it is hardly accurate. I believe the actual problem, which is quite a bit more horrifying, is the collusion between those in government and corporations... the government picking the winners and keeping the competition to those who they gain political support from. What happened a year ago is a direct result of the governments involvment and attempt to manipulate and regulate the market for political movtives and not a matter of good economic policy... this is something I would very interested to you see you expand on in a future column - I am curious to see from a proclaimed progressive how this is an ill of free market.

As for measuring 'independents' - what does that really mean? I hear it said in the news and on the radio, but I hardely would imagine that the majority are some sort of blank slate than can be easily persuaded. I would guess that in addition to those complelely indifferent, that those 'independents would encompass everything from true-red communists all the way to the opposite end of self-governing anarchists. Many years ago I was given the 'Worlds Smallest Political Quiz' and it helped me to be able to articulate where I was on the spectrum... it didn't identify R or D, rather general political philosophy which would seem to me to identify fewer people as independent and show thier true tendencies.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Six!

If government “regulation” caused the financial melt-down, how do you explain 25% interest rates on consumer credit, predatory banking fees, subprime mortgages (and resulting epidemic of foreclosures), the exodus of American jobs overseas, and all the rest? Each is an example of the typical capitalist approach to making money: cut down all the trees now and worry later about the forest. Oversight by some collective entity that takes a longer view is absolutely essential; we call that “government.”

Also, I take issue with the expression “blind hatred.” I disagree with those with whom I disagree. That’s not the same as hating them. As for “blind,” if you didn’t see some validity in some of my remarks, you most likely wouldn’t keep reading.

As for independents, I definitely don’t think they’re some homogenous group of wishy-washy voters—a “blank slate.” In fact, I think some of the most original and interesting minds in America are likely among that group—especially in the catch-all category now calling itself “libertarians.” As the boundaries weaken between the two traditional parties, I think new sets of ideas will emerge and begin to be better recognized and defined. Right or wrong, good or bad, those ideas could prove to be very interesting!

Idna said...

OK, Jane, let's take your questions one at a time.

how do you explain 25% interest rates on consumer credit? It's called RISK. If you are in the business of lending money to people, you need to assess their likelihood of paying you back. (Remember, you are not in the charity business.)There is an old fashioned, (often overlooked by progressives) idea called personal responsibility. If a person signs up for a credit card, charges up a bunch of debt, then doesn't pay, who should end up eating the loss? The credit card company? The other responsible credit card users? Credit card companies write off MILLIONS of dollars each year because of dead-beat card users. I suppose you would say they should have better screening for who they loan money to. They do screen, and they still have people basically steal money from them when they default on their credit payments. Hence the high interest rates on people who are "risky"...who may end up stealing the money from the lender. (Remember, no one forcedthese people to sign up for the credit card.)

predatory banking fees? I suppose the above answer fits this one, too. But I'm not exactly sure what fees you are referring to.

subprime mortgages(and resulting epidemic of foreclosures)? This topic I am intimately familiar with as my spouse was in a related business that dealt with securitizing subprime mortgages. Those who buy the line that it was lender greed and government de-regulation don't know what they are talking about. It was exactly government involvement, forcing loans to be made to unqualified borrowers, and then Freddy & Fannie basically insuring that subprime loans were backed by the government, that led to people bundling these worthless loans with 'good' loans, and trading them as securities.

If the government regulation (pushed by the likes of ACORN, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd) had not existed, financial institutions would have been more free to assess risk, and not loan to unqualified borrowers. And if the assumption that the GST's backed these bad loans, so that there was not down side to buying the subprime from them, there would not have been the bundling of good & bad loans together.

the exodus of American jobs overseas Having one of the highest tax rates on businesses, penalizing companies for making dreaded 'profits' ... yeah, I'd export some of my jobs, too, if I ran a corporation.

and all the rest? ????????
typical capitalist approach Are you seriously advocating the end of capitalism?

Citizen Jane said...

No, Idna, I’m advocating capitalism balanced by good government—not "instead of" good government, as we had during the Bush administration.

As for credit card rates being established by realistic risk factors, where have you been for the past few years?


Idna said...

OK, I read the article. So what's your point.

It talks about how credit companies have been protecting themselves from risky borrowers. I again reiterate ... no one FORCED these people to sign up for a card.

The one quote in there by the Comsumer Action woman, "This is the only industry that re-prices something you have already paid for". - HUH? Already paid for? If you carry a balance on your card, you have NOT already paid for anything. You USED someone else's money to buy whatever you bought. And if you carry a balance, you are STILL using someone else's money.

Six said...

Jane - I really enjoy your columns, I also enjoy getting a little dramatic, but if George Bush came out today calling for an end to the war in Iraq and Universal Healthcare for all, I suspect you would find reason to criticize him for somehow undermining Obama.

You really don't get why our economy is where it is, do you? Well to highlight a few things -

Why are jobs exported overseas exactly a BAD thing? Why are we more entitled to a job than someone in India? The more thier economy grows, the more likely they are to import our goods and it is a long term net gain for us! The wealthier and more free a country is, the better the living standard, human rights and the more healthy trade relations we develop and the less likely we are to declare war on them. I realize I am in the extreme minority here...

As for the markets... we are more of a corporatist country than a capitalist one.

A not-so-brief reminder of how we got here:
In addition to the MBS issue, there is an even easier concept to grasp that traces to the Clinton mandate that everyone should be homeowners. This followed up with Bush further pushing the bad policy (with Greenspan being the legacy). When you put out an economic regulation with incentives that are not driven by good economic policy, but by political motivation you are no longer operating in a Free Market.

The criteria of who gets a Fannie/Freddie (GSE) loan is basically set by CONGRESS and influenced by presidential agendas/appointments - not banks. The banks said they cannot lend to meet the demographic mandates while remaining solvent - so Congress loosened the criteria of who qualifies for a Fannie/Freddie (GSE) loan to increase homeownership.
Example -
If as a bank, I have the option of
a.) lending my depositors money to you under strict terms, and documentation guidelines per the policy to lend depositors money and the rate will be say 8% or

b.) lend you money on a loan that can be sold to the government GSE where I do not have the risk of carrying the loan with far more flexible terms, less documentation and a rate of 6% and now because of the lower rate and more flexible terms, you qualify for MORE money on your loan!

Which loan do you think I should make - for your benefit and mine? That's not a free market, that's a government manipulated market. Further, if the government sees the so-called 'success' of the GSEs because MORE people are becoming homeowners, so then they FURTHER loosen the criteria of the GSE loans to say, not require ANY documentation, then MORE people qualify under the governments program - which means MORE homeownership!! Then supply/demand really takes over... more eligible buyers means more demand which means price goes up. Rinse/repeat over a decade or two and we have a MASSIVE housing bubble - not caused by the Free Market, rather caused by the attempt by politicians to manipulate the market for political reasons and not economic ones. Then of course you mix in the MBS craziness as Idna touched on that was due in large part because of the implied government guarantee of the GSE's and here we are.

Believe it or not, there were economists and even a couple of politicians that predicted this quite some time ago and called for an end to the GSE's... but they were quite literally called 'chicken littles' and openly mocked by many of people who are still in congress today...

Sue said...

Going back to Jane's original comments -- let;s look at her first contention: That America has always been the land of the "either-or fallacy" due to its two party system.

Yes, the country has a strong history of a two-party system. This might be because of the way elections are structured, particularly in states that require registration by party affiliation. In fact, if you go back to the Tammany Hall era, parties provided pre-marked ballots to people so that they would vote straight party, and there was limited -- if any -- opportunity to cross party lines. But you also need to consider that the present two parties are not the same ones that have been in existence from the beginning of the country, and in the coming and going of various parties, there have been numerous times when there were three parties. And the either-or dichotomies are what history preserved, not necessarily the total picture.

Second: there are still many left and right wing members of both principal parties (you see, Jane, we currently have more than two parties, too) as well as the centrists of both main parties who significantly outnumber the wing factions. It's just that the extremes get the publicity.

Third: Please don't equate all who espouse religious beliefs with extremists or crackpots. There are lots of intelligent, thinking people who are also religious -- and they are as varied in their political positions as they are in their religious beliefs. Again, it's the extremists who get the most publicity.

Fourth: The emergence of a large "independent" voter group. I suspect that has a lot to do with two factors in particular; the increasing number of college-educated voters who were exposed to new ideas and to different ways of thinking from those of their parents (thank the liberals who made accessibility to college possible for so many); and the decline of labor unions, who tend to encourage their members to block-vote.

And maybe, just maybe, these Independents want what voters have always tended to want: a chance to live in a country where they will be able to live in peace, be gainfully employed, and have the hope that life will be better for their children than it is for them or was for their parents. The thing is, all of us have our own ideas of how to achieve this. Some truly believe that strong government involvement in every aspect of society is the best way; others feel just as strongly that government should maintain a hands-off policy. Still others believe that government should regulate some things (such as utilities where competition is minimal) for the common good but should leave others to the free market to self regulate.

The value of a democracy/republic is that people and/or their elected officials work together to resolve these differences -- whether there are two parties or a dozen. That's happened in the past; it's happening today (if you look beyond the media distortion -- which means getting news from a wide variety of sources since they all play to their particular following [yes, even NPR is guilty]) and it will happen as long as there are interested and concerned citizens.

Finally, if you've looked at the death business lately, you'll notice that even cemeteries have changed. Cremations used to be extremely rare; now they replace burial for vast numbers of deceased. The most accurate quote would probably be "the more things change the more they remain the same." That certainly goes for the importance of the decisions being made in Washington; yes, they're important -- as they always have been and hopefully always will be -- but I doubt that the future of the nation or of the world depend on them. I doubt that today's decisions are any more pivotal than many that have been made in the past or will be made in the future.

Citizen Jane said...

Thanks to all for your interesting remarks. Some of you raise interesting points that we'll no doubt be discussing further.

Two points before we move on:

First, my opinions are based on my philosophy and beliefs, not my personal dislike or fondness for people I've never met in person. I despise what George Bush did to this country and the world, but that has little or nothing to do with my feelings about him as a person. In fact, I believe he was probably doing the best he knew how. My support for President Obama's policies have nothing to do with him as a person. I tend to like pretty much everyone--but that doesn't mean I think that just anyone would make a good president.

The theme of this blog is my working philosophy: I try very hard to distinguish between reason and emotion in terms of my own attitudes and decision making. I frankly wish more people would do the same.

Secondly, with respect to Sue's remarks, I must say that I am not opposed to religion. I know and respect people of many different faiths. I do, however, have a profound distrust for people who claim to speak for God--especially when, like James Dobson, they have the ear of presidents and weigh in mightily in national decision making. I think the wisest thing our founding fathers did was provide for the separation of church and state.

Sue said...

That "separation of church and state" is probably one of the most misunderstood and misquoted phrases in this country, Jane. The founding fathers did not intend or expect that religion and beliefs would be absent from government; to them, religious beliefs were so deeply embedded in their culture that they automatically assumed that religious values would play an important role in the decision-making processes of government. It's only in the last 50 years or so that the anti-religion forces have tried to change the separation of church and state concept from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" which was designed to allow all people the freedom to practice their various religions to "there should be no religious influence in any aspect of government." Separation of church and state should NOT mean that individuals' religious beliefs do not influence their decision making. I would hope that all elected leaders would bring their beliefs to the table when they are considering matters of importance to the country -- whether it's war, the death penalty, or health care issues. Elected officials' religious beliefs (or lack of them) are part of who they are and why they were elected as our representatives. And I want a whole person representing me. As with other decision-making criteria, I would hope that the majority position would rule.