A "two-headed party," and the power of a dime
By Bernard Weiner
Online Journal Guest Writer

Nov 2, 2007, 01:40

In essays over the past two weeks, I've speculated about the reasons for the dangerous timidity of our Democratic Party leaders, and came up with quite a number of possibilities. But, as many letter-writers reminded me, I might have left out the main one.

It's not that Dem leaders are conned or frightened by the Republicans, they say. No, the Dems act the way they do because they actually believe much of what the Republicans believe, and/or are beholden to the same corporate lobbie$ and media giant$ that get them elected and re-elected.

The essence of the argument is this: There is actually only one party in America -- with a Republican head and a Democratic head -- controlled by the political/economic elite that really runs things. (Sometimes this elite is termed "the oligarchy," or "the plutocrats," or, simply, "the Establishment.")

No wonder there is such frustration and anger in the Democratic and Republican bases: The national elections, to many, are meaningless. It doesn't matter which party is in the White House or which controls Congress, this argument goes, since the outcomes will be more or less the same, arranged by the same power forces that control the political and economic realities.

Given this belief, it's no wonder so many citizens don't vote or are so cynical about their elected officials and the possibility of real change. America needs a seismic political shakeup, but how can major change occur when the system is rigged in support of the ongoing status quo?

So let's take some time to explore these arguments and see where they lead us. No doubt, we will return to this issue as we get closer to the presidential election of November 2008 -- especially if citizens have to decide whether the "lesser of two evils" yet again should get their vote -- but let's at least plant some seeds of thought now and see what grows.

Taking the lonnnngggg view

If one were to take a really long-range view of American politics, one could ascribe a certain truth to the above argument. America for centuries has been dominated by parties that hover around the center, the parameters of which are set by the "powers that be" in American life.

Sometimes that center is more left-oriented (during FDR's administration in the '30s and '40s, for example, or in the years following Nixon's disgraceful, lawless presidency); sometimes it's more right-oriented (during the term, say, of Reagan). Rarely have we seen such a lying, rampaging, corrupt, take-no-prisoners element in charge, as we have today with the CheneyBush extremists.

But Americans, in general, and American corporations, in particular, desire stability and predictability. And for that reason, the action invariably returns to the (shifting) center, even if there was a temporary visitation to the outskirts of the party in charge.

Since it costs so much money to finance a viable run for state, congressional and national office, it follows that most candidates have to get the required cash from somewhere other than their own bank accounts. Who has that kind of money or can raise it fast? The usual suspects: the wealthy, the organized interest groups, the corporations, the lobbyists, et al. Which translates to candidates, beholden to these supporters, tend to stay within the ideological/political parameters set by their major donors.

In addition, elected officials and the major candidates generally come from the same wealthy economic/ideological class as their large donors.

Leashed (or leased) candidates

The long and short of this situation is that American voters tend to have a severely limited pallet of candidates with which to paint their votes. These candidates more or less agree with one another but hype relatively insignificant differences in order to make the choices seem more dramatic and meaningful than they really are.

When a rare candidate comes along who catches fire with the public but doesn't necessarily want to draw within the lines prescribed by the elite who control things -- some even going so far as to cut themselves off from the traditional financial-support teats (such as Paul Wellstone, Dennis Kucinich) -- he or she is marginalized, rendered ineffective, and effectively is "disappeared" from the political scene.

As Howard Dean's '04 campaign was the first to demonstrate, the rise of the Internet as a fundraising mechanism, going directly to individuals for small-donation support, has started to alter the math (and thus politics) of this equation. But, unfortunately, for most major campaigns large donors are still required, given the humongous cost of running for national office.

The obvious solution, of course, would be government-mandated, public-financed campaigns where the legalized influence peddling, known as campaign contributions, would be rendered unimportant. But, in addition to running headlong into the First Amendment by restricting the "private speech" represented by political donations, public financing (surprise!) does not seem to attract a great many elected officials.

Dems and Reps alike benefit from the status quo, both from their incumbency, which attracts large donors, and from their proximity to the powerful forces behind the curtain of electoral politics. (Many of the most popular candidates also obtain a side-benefit: They often rake in more money than they can reasonably spend on their campaigns, which means they now have funds to dole out to their favorite officials and candidates -- in other words, an effective means of building a controllable power-base.)

The power of a thin dime

There's the "long" view, as above described. But most of us live in the here-and-now, where government policies have major repercussions in our lives. Which leads us to the 10 cents thesis.

We've often heard the complaint that "there isn't but a dime's worth of difference" between the two major parties. I don't argue that the complaint is unjustified, but that in the politics of capturing-the-center, and in the real world in which most of us live, a dime can make a mighty big difference.

This "dime's worth of difference" argument achieved much currency during Ralph Nader's Green Party run for the presidency in 2000. One could at least understand the naive rationale behind that argument seven years ago. But, as the CheneyBush administration has demonstrated, that dime, in the here-and-now, can buy an awful lot of misery and chaos and repression and death.

That "inconsequential" dime meant a war of choice, one based on outright lies and clever deceptions, that has led to the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, with no end in sight, and a war on Iran just around the corner, one most leading Democrats are choosing to ignore. (By the way, Bush has quietly lowered the bar to justify an attack on Iran; the former probable casus belli, -- coming close to having a nuclear weapon -- has now been replaced by having "knowledge" of how to build a bomb. Anyone can obtain that "knowledge" on the Internet or by reading scientific papers. Short version: the U.S. will attack.)

That "inconsequential" dime meant the shifting of the ideological makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower appellate courts for the next several decades, thanks to Bush's ability to nominate young HardRight jurists (and the Democrats' shameful decision not to go to the mat to defeat those appointments).

That "inconsequential" dime meant the twisting and shredding of the Constitution, thus robbing American citizens of the protection of their liberties as mandated by the Bill of Rights; in so doing, we've come close to unrestricted dictatorial rule in the United States. We no longer even enjoy the protections of the 800-year-old legal tradition of habeas corpus, where a court has to rule whether an arrest is justified. Under Bush, we've crossed the border into an incipient police state.

That "inconsequential" dime meant that reality and science were denigrated in favor of decisions based on religious faith or pure, partisan politics, often a combination of the two. Most obvious consequence of such thinking: We've lost seven years of potential government leadership on the global-warming issue, with devastating consequences. (Most recent demonstration: the Bush administration censored more than half the testimony to Congress by Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the public-health consequences of increased global warming.)

Faced with a decision in '08?

Well, I could go on and on listing how a thin dime was too high a price to pay for those interested in good government, rational government, reason-based diplomacy rather than ideologically-based wars of choice, protection of our natural environment, etc. etc. Despite what you might think of them as leaders, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that our country would be in our current catastrophic mess if Gore or Kerry were president.

As I say, we all may be revisiting the "dime's worth of difference" argument as we approach Election 2008 and have to decide whether there is enough of a difference between the parties to warrant holding one's nose and voting for the "lesser of two evils" yet again, or whether it's time to say "a pox on both your parties" and sit out the election in hope that a newer, better model for leadership will emerge to save our beloved Republic.

And, let's face it: If a viable third-party movement was in the cards for '08, we would have seen at least its outlines by now, and "name" candidates (Gore? Hagel? Hightower?) would be vying to lead it. No, I'm afraid that it's probably too late to create an electable populist movement that might lure disenchanted antiwar liberals, progressives, and angry, centrist Republicans appalled by the ideological hijacking of their party by HardRight elements.

In any case, as history has demonstrated, it's always easier (not easy, but easier) to take over an existing party rather than try to build a new one from the ground up. It may not be too late for disaffected Democrats in the next 12 months to make that kind of concentrated effort within the party, but it's still somewhat late.

But whatever our goals might be, certainly it would be advisable to start serious discussions about the electoral predicament we're in and how best to get out of it. Fast.

Copyright � 2007 Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, write

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