As societies become more diverse and divided, two parties are struggling to represent contending interests in rambunctious democracies.
This week, Hillary Clinton was anointed as the Democratic Party presidential candidate in the regal style of Roman emperors. She did make history. She is the first woman to be a presidential candidate in the United States. The United Kingdom is on to its second female prime minister. Angela Merkel is the matriarch of Germany. Even India with its infamous female infanticide and scandalous sexual violence has had Indira Gandhi as prime minister and Sonia Gandhi as de facto prime minister. So, the supposedly emancipated land of bra-burning feminists is a little late to the party.
After the Republicans held their convention with “the mannequin-like little Trumps” exuding “pomposity, preening and privilege,” it was the turn of the Democrats to put up a jolly good show. Sure enough, A-list celebrities turned up at the convention. So did bigwigs, including President Barack Obama. As celebrities and bigwigs extolled Clinton’s virtues in hyperbolic paeans, the audience waved placards, clapped endlessly and erupted in paroxysms of delight. Yet not all is well in Hillaryland.
An uncannily timely leak of private emails provided many Democrats irrefutable evidence that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the lovely chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), had not exactly been honest or straightforward in her role. The emails proved that she had been plotting to sink the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. This is an argument that Veena Trehan had forcefully made when she stated that the DNC had “been strongly biased against the Sanders campaign.” Then, Trehan had aptly noted that Wasserman Schultz was Clinton’s 2008 campaign co-chair and was indulging in too many disconcerting shady dealings for her old boss.
Naturally, supporters of Sanders were not in a terribly good mood when the Democratic convention kicked off. Wasserman Schultz had to resign before she could swan around in the spotlight. Even Sanders was booed by his own supporters when he belatedly turned cheerleader for Clinton. The BBC insinuated that the Bernie revolution was beyond his control. The Beeb had a point. Despite Obama’s soaring eloquence and Bill Clinton’s seductive charm, the Democrats still suffer angst, dissent and strife.
Before Democrats get too depressed, they could look at Republicans for some restorative schadenfreude. In the words of John Oliver, an English comedian whose not-so-posh accent is still gold standard in the US, “the Republican Party doesn’t seem to currently exist.” Like the Elizabethan fool in motley, Oliver makes an important point. As populations have increased and societies have become more diverse, two-party systems are beginning to crack.
Political parties are part and parcel of modern democracies. Yet it is important to remember that democracy itself is a rather newfangled thing. Unlike good old Queen Elizabeth II, democracy cannot hark back to traditions from time immemorial. The queen has the advantage of being the big boss of the Church of England and commands allegiance, temporal and spiritual, in theory if not in practice.
Neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron command the same public respect. They are mere politicians who climbed their way up the greasy pole. To do so, they captained their parties. Since democracy implies rule of the people, citizens come together to make collective decisions. The like-minded coalesce around certain principles to form parties. Over time, parties acquire characteristics of other institutions. They develop their own dogma, clergy and laity. People tend to vote like their parents. Even if they do not agree with everything their family or party stands for, they still identify with it.
Some countries have more parties than others. More often than not, electoral systems are a reason for this phenomenon. If a country chooses proportional representation, then it is likely to have a larger number of parties. In this system, parties get the same number of seats in the legislature as the percentage of their votes. So, a party gets 30% of the seats if it gets 30% of the votes. In countries that choose some form of proportional representation such as Germany and Israel, the number of parties tends to be high.
Some other countries have just two main parties such as the US and the UK. Such countries have a winner-takes-all system. The candidate who gets the most votes is supposed to represent everyone. In the US, this means that a congressman could be elected with 50.01% of the votes cast. In 2014, just 36.4% of eligible voters cast their ballots, making the midterm election turnout the lowest in 70 years. This means the 50.01% majority congressman would have won office with barely 18.2% of the total votes. In the UK, winning a bit more than a third of the vote is usually enough to ride to power.
This system has worked decently for the US and brilliantly for the UK.
The latter has been a longstanding democracy with a culture of basic freedoms and healthy debate. Its parties have been broad churches, much like the Church of England. Warmonger Tony Blair and prudent Gordon Brown could both coexist in the same cabinet even while jostling ferociously behind the scenes. Cavalier David Cameron relied on Roundhead Theresa May to take care of domestic matters.
In the US, two parties have dominated from the early days of the republic. From the Federalists versus Antifederalists to Democrats versus Republicans, it has been a long journey but a third party has failed to emerge. Even during the Gilded Age, the Populists failed to break the monopoly of the Democrats and Republicans. George Wallace campaigned as a third-party candidate in 1968, only to hand the presidency to Richard Nixon and then return to the Democratic Party with his tail between his legs. Both parties have proved dynamic institutions that have not only absorbed multiple interest groups, but also morphed over time.
Once, Democrats were the party of slavery while Republicans were led by Abraham Lincoln. Now, Democrats are the party of Obama, the first black president, while Republicans are the party of Ronald Reagan, a leader who flirted with segregationists. This switch occurred because of Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democratic president, who ended decades of segregation by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Consequently, Strom Thurmond, an extremely energetic senator from South Carolina, a Bible-reading redoubtable foe of integration and the father of an illegitimate black daughter, stormed out of the Democratic Party.
Thurmond changed the political landscape of the country. From now on, Lincoln’s Republicans became the party of segregationists. It is little surprise that Reagan began his 1980 campaign by appealing to them. In a classic case of dog-whistle politics, the Gipper launched his campaign at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair in front of 10,000 raucous white supporters with a ringing endorsement of “states’ rights,” which frankly was code for the right of the Deep South to persist with segregation. More damningly, Neshoba County was where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. The symbolism was not lost on his supporters.
Reagan was only reading from the script that Thurmond had penned in 1964. As The New York Times duly recorded in Thurmond’s 2003 obituary, the man fond of fondling women in the US Senate elevators accused the Democratic Party of “leading the evolution of our country to a socialistic dictatorship,” for forsaking “the people to become the party of minority groups, power-hungry union leaders, political bosses and big businessmen looking for government contracts and favors,” for invading “the private lives of the people” and for supporting “judicial tyranny.”
The likes of the Gipper and Slick Willie had broad appeal. The former was supported by anti-communists, white working class, segregationists and many other groups. Slick Willie managed to win over African Americans, white working class and bigwigs in Goldman Sachs. The US of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton was dominated by two parties that were broad coalitions.
Since then, three trends have changed not only the US and the UK, but also most other countries.
First, societies are more divided and diverse. In the last edition of The World This Week, this author analyzed increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility in the US. While the statistics are extreme for the land of Uncle Sam, even Swedish equality is fading as the rich get richer.
Furthermore, societies have become more diverse in their beliefs, ethnicities and interests. In the US, the Lululemon-wearing, yoga-practicing and aragula-eating descendants of the Puritans differ in their sensibilities and aspirations from the overall clad, devoutly Catholic, tamales-loving mestizos who have come north to mow lawns, repair cars and do the work that Americans shirk. Then, there are Indian doctors, Korean entrepreneurs and Chinese engineers who have widely divergent interests. It is inconceivable that just two parties will be able to represent everyone in the US.
Second, established parties have gradually lost credibility. Their elites have turned narrow, technocratic and sclerotic. They are no longer truly representative. A Gallup poll found that a record 43% of Americans are now political independents who do not identify with any party. More importantly, the old coalitions have fractured. Robert Rubin and Robert Reich no longer sit in the pews of the same church. Reich has been vocal about inequality and probably has some qualms about the $225,000 speaking fees that Hillary Clinton regularly collected from big banks like Goldman Sachs where Rubin was once big boss.
Both Republicans and Democrats are uneasy about George W. Bush’s Iraq War. They remember that both the Bushes and the Clintons were gung-ho about going into Iraq, a misadventure that has turned out to be spectacularly expensive. Both families also supported taxpayer-funded bank bailouts that allowed bankers to claim bonuses while people were losing their homes. Neither the rather shrill Tea Party nor the deeply outraged Occupy Wall Street was too pleased. Most Americans did not join either movement but were disgusted by this spectacle of capitalism on the upside and socialism on the downside, which both parties colluded to create.
Understandably, not many trust either Republicans or Democrats anymore. Consequently, party membership is plummeting.
Finally, personality cults are on the rise. In the UK, this is less of a factor given deep parliamentary traditions. Even so, Boris Johnson proved to be the deciding factor in the vote on Brexit. In the US, politicians are the faux royalty of a television and social media obsessed land. This has been a long-term phenomenon. John F. Kennedy became a patron saint of the Democrats despite few substantive achievements in his short-lived presidency. Ronald Reagan is a great Republican god despite egregiously lying about his pathetic military record in World War II. A republic that got rid of George III now genuflects to celebrities and treats them like royalty. Unsurprisingly, myths trump truths in this culture of make-believe.
In the current presidential campaign, truth has been the biggest casualty. As our Englishman in motley brilliantly explained in February, Donald Trump has been lying incessantly through his teeth. Yet this self-proclaimed billionaire, real estate tycoon and reality television star is incongruously drawing support from an angry white working class, which is strangely forgiving of all his transgressions.
It is true that globalization, low-wage immigrant labor and free trade espoused by both the Clintons and the Bushes have hurt American workers. They have seen Silicon Valley and Wall Street reap rich harvests over the last three decades even as the Rust Belt has experienced catastrophic decline. Yet instead of organizing together and throwing up homegrown leaders, the white working class is turning to a bullying braggart for salvation. Alarmingly, the Republican Party has turned into his family fiefdom.
It is transparent that the two-party system is facing a profound crisis.
In the UK, parties are experiencing strife and new outfits are on the rise. Conservatives have much too recently experienced bitter civil war over Brexit. The party of Blair and Brown is rudderless as its hapless leader squabbles with feckless rebels. With the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Labour has lost Scotland. As unions continue to decline, the party is losing out to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The SNP and UKIP have hit Labour with a double whammy from which is unlikely to recover. Even the Conservatives are what they were in the halcyon days of Margaret Thatcher. Till 2015, they ruled in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A diverse and divided UK seems to be heading toward a more multi-party system with the Conservatives as primus inter pares.
In the US, parties themselves are becoming irrelevant. Elections are exponentially expensive popularity contests in which candidates are stars and campaigns are Hollywoodesque productions. In this land of “the cult of success” where you are constantly tutored on “how to “sell yourself, it is fitting that the top job will soon belong to the salesman-in-chief who is unencumbered by fusty notions of party, probity or principle.
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
Deconstructing Reporting of DNC Email Scandal
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Have Democrats Sabotaged Opportunity to Court Millennials?
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The Hidden Histories of Homosexuality in Asia
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers