Third in a series on moving toward a multiparty democracy
I had intended this post to examine how more political parties might break the doom loop of our toxic political partisanship. But I realize I need first to look at how the question of identity has come to dominate our politics.
As Lee Drutman explains in his Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, political conflict tends to break down into two dominant questions:
- government as interventionist and egalitarian, actively rebalancing inequities by redistribution through social programs and taxation, and
- a market-oriented perspective, where government protects property rights but mostly gets out of the way with little regulation, low taxes, and few transfers.
Because these are ultimately questions of money and material resources, compromise in the who-gets-what question is often possible. Drutman gives the example:
If I think the top marginal tax rate should be 45% and start at $1,000,000 and you think it should be 25% and start at $500,000, we can meet in the middle. Let’s say the top rate is 35%, starting at $750,000, and call it a fair compromise. (p. 132)
2. Who are we? These are questions of national identity, culture, values, and social group hierarchy. Today, the identity conflict is between cosmopolitan and traditionalist values. These are much less amenable to compromise. Drutman writes:
Those who hold cosmopolitan values favor individual self-expression and personal liberation over duty and religious observance. Cosmopolitans are more open to outsiders, more likely to want to leave the past in the past, and more eager for a transformative future. They are less rooted in any particular place and more open to new experiences, and they embrace more universalist beliefs. Under these values, diversity is a strength to be celebrated, and immigrants contribute more than they take away. Cosmopolitans tend to congregate in big cities and are generally younger.
Those who hold traditionalist values are generally nostalgic about the past and pessimistic about the future. Traditionalists value duty and responsibility over self-expression. They tend to stay in one place and are less interested in new experiences. They are rooted in their community and religion, and tend to live in rural areas. They value preserving their existing community and values, which makes them skeptical toward outsiders with different values. They often view immigrants as threats. (p. 133)
These are, of course, stereotypes. And that’s just the problem. They accurately describe hardly anyone. But wedged into the two parties, stereotypes are what we’re left with. Historically, these differences (think abortion) tend to be bitter with little room for compromise.
In the party realignment that occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s (see my previous posts in this series here and here, as well as this one from several years ago), national identity has come to dominate the political discussion, while questions of who gets what are less prominent.
[Although the Democratic Party has had a stronger emphasis on economic redistribution (for instance, the infrastructure bills passed during the last two years during the Democratic control of the presidency, House and Senate), the Democrats, too, have a strong “donor class” that has prevented real economic distribution. The result has been increasing economic inequality over the last forty years facilitated by both Democrats and Republicans.]
What has happened, however, is that the question of identity has come to dominate our politics, overwhelming the question of who gets what. The “cosmopolitans” and the “traditionalists” see each other as utter strangers, even enemies. Compromise is rare enough to be noteworthy.
In addition to the toxic partisanship that develops when identity becomes the primary issue, the real diversity of interest among people is lost. Most people are not well represented by either “cosmopolitans” (Democrats) or “traditionalists” (Republicans). Where does the traditionalist populist from the rust belt who has been decimated by the growing economic inequality of the last forty years find someone to represent him? Where does the deeply pro-choice, middle-class entrepreneur committed to low regulation and low taxes find someone to represent her? Where does the Catholic activist committed to the seamless garment of anti-abortion, anti-capital-punishment, and international pacifism find someone to represent them? Where do I, David Hilfiker, who favors deep taxation of the wealthy with powerful redistribution to the poor and middle-class find someone to represent me? The answers are the same: the two-party system gives none of us anyone to represent us. Our votes don’t count because there is no one to vote for.
Two-party hyperpartisanship punishes us all. Each of us is left voting for the candidates who offend us the least, rather than voting for those who actually represent what we want.
Next: Multiparty democracy elsewhere