Two Parties, Few Choices

In the past, I can’t say I found Glenn Greenwald’s commentary on health care reform insightful, but when Jamelle says he shows “fundamental ignorance of how our politics and government operate” that he’s “self-righteous” and “peddling …bullshit”, count me out. The offending paragraph from Greenwald comes from The Atlantic, in an interview with Conor Friedersdorf:

…the two-party system does not work in terms of providing clear choices. No matter who wins, the same permanent factions that control Washington continue to reign. That’s true no matter which issues one considers most important. At some point, it’s going to be necessary to sacrifice some short-term political interests for longer-term considerations about how this suffocating, two-party monster can be subverted.

While Jamelle responds as if this is ludicrous, I think it’s more right than not when it comes to describing our politics. Where in the two party system do you find opposition to farm subsidies, endless war, police misconduct or indefinite detention? If you’re concerned about the drug war, the bloated defense budget, or unconditional support for Israeli actions, you can at least get scraps from the Democrats.

It’s quite clear that there are many issues where there is no meaningful choice between the two parties. On many others, we are left with only marginal differences. True, Greenwald errs by saying that there his point stands regardless of the issues you’re concerned about–he’s just wrong about most of the issues that Jamelle cites (healthcare, labor and environmental law). But that’s no reason to dismiss him out of hand. It’s a reason to qualify his point, and arguably a reason to support the Democrats. But if it’s a reason to support them, it’s a reason to do it through gritted teeth.

I’m not a third party worshipper–I’ve always held to the depressing thought that our political process does well at representing the mainstream of American political opinion, and that more parties would just mean marginally more representation for views that would still never influence legislation. That opinion is open for debate, however, and the claim that we need to look to third parties is ultimately a question of tactics and priorities. It might be wrong. To decide, we’d have to weigh the impact of the real differences between the parties against the many issues where there is no difference.  But let’s not pretend that the desire to restructure politics is out of bounds or absurd. So long as we accept that dogma, we’ll be left with the same conventional wisdom that renders crazy and evil ideas impervious to criticism.

So when someone says there’s no meaningful choice in our two party system, I find it far more notable how many issues they are right about than to criticize them for overgeneralizing.


2 responses to “Two Parties, Few Choices

  1. I think whether the two-party system works on a given issue depends a lot on whether you think that issue can be well-described by a left-right analysis.

    For example, I think if Democrats won decisive victories in several consecutive elections, you’d see both parties move to the left, and then I think you would see a difference open up on things like indefinite detention and police misconduct. The reason you don’t see a difference between the two parties now is that the position to change the status quo is further to the left of center than most Democrats.

    I think it’s much less likely that something like this would be the case for farm subsidies, that aren’t really a left-right issue.

    Where the two-party system really fails to achieve ‘democratic’ results is with respect to issues that are neither local, nor aligned along the dominant left-right axis.

  2. Pingback: Freedom of Choice? - Jamelle Bouie - United States of Jamerica - True/Slant