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« On Becoming a Team Fan | Main | Verdict on Churchill »

September 03, 2009

Solution or Problem?

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

People who are not happy with the current course of politics seem to almost instinctively turn to the idea of a new political party that won't be so in thrall to established special interests. This, of course, just boots the problem to the next level, because of course the American political system, with its winner-take-all structure of elections (and other structural design elements) is very inhospitable to third parties.

But I've begun to wonder if this isn't the wrong way to think about developing a form of politics that is more truly responsive to the electorate and less easily captured by limited groups of rent-seekers. To speak more bluntly, isn't it possible that political parties, at least in the form they exist in the U.S., are actually more the problem than the solution? That they exist chiefly to, ahem, sell out? To distract their own members with a 'clean' ideological image while actually running no-tell-motels where eager-to-be-corrupted politicians and the special interests who love them (temporarily, anyway) hook up?

This line of thinking was reinforced by some remarks on the public discussion of health care reform of journalist Matt Taibbi on his Taibblog:

I’ve been getting phone calls from some folks in DC with some ugly stories about how the Democrats have systematically sandbagged the progressive opposition, with the White House pulling strings and levering the funding for various nonprofit groups in order to prevent them from airing ads attacking the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. I suspect in the end this is going to be the main story of the health care reform effort, how the Democrats (and some progressive groups) sold out their constituents in exchange for financial contributions from the relevant industries.

Please bear in mind, I'm NOT making a point here about healthcare reform, or about Matt Taibbi's politics which you, of course, may find distasteful, etc. What I'm getting at is structural: what does it mean that the supposedly left-of-center Democratic Party would be covertly working on behalf on entrenched business interests at what would appear to be the expense of the members of their own party? If you want an example from across the aisle, why would the Republicans be so eager to violate their oft-professed devotion to free markets in order to rescue the nation's largest banks, already the recipients of so many decades of corporatist non-level-playing-field government support?

Do political parties exist chiefly to provide some kind of faux-ideological camoulflage for rent-seekers? Should people who would like to see some different energy in politics should be thinking along very different lines than starting a third party, or supporting any party at all?

What do you guys think?



posted by Friedrich at September 3, 2009


"Do political parties exist chiefly to provide some kind of faux-ideological camoulflage for rent-seekers?"

Yes. As far as what would change it, it might be enough for the electorate to realize this is the reality of our system: it's not right vs left, but us vs them. The political food fight is just a distraction from the real problem.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 3, 2009 1:17 PM

Some people have been promoting radical structural reform as the only way out of the problems of current politics for a while:

Posted by: Matt on September 3, 2009 1:39 PM

And political system will connive in its own destruction. At least not while it has even a modicum of confidence in itself. And loss of confidence of that level only occurs in pre-revolutionary conditions.

Which means no non-revolutionary political reform, like a third party, is going to make any difference at all. Public choice theory talks about regulatory capture: the organizations being regulated inevitably come to control the agencies supposedly regulating them. And why wouldn't they? They have an overwhelming incentive to do so.

But the same thing applies to any policy prescription: regulation/deregulation. Tax increase/decrease. Budget cuts/expenditures. Etc. The interests affected by the change, no matter what ideological "direction" that change moves in, will have every reason to put intense sustained effort into corralling that change, making it work for them. Keeping control.

"Meet the new boss, same as..."

Given the degree to which modern organizations--not just businesses, but NGOs, bureaucracies, even celebrity publicity machines--have "hacked" the democratic and legal systems to their benefit, and given the degree of sophistication of these hacks, nothing short of revolution is going to eliminate the power of these groups and orgs.

I despise revolutions, and despise those who hope for things to get worse so that the revolution can happen. Instead, we need to understand that no political system will connive in its own destruction.

So any reform that requires that connivance is doomed to failure.

Depressing? Not really. I agree with the sentiment expressed by R Townshend in a comment to an earlier post, suitably twisted to suit my purposes here: I like what the global economy and modern capitalism and technology and the System of the World give me. I'd rather be alive today than at any other period in history. at the margins. Vote with your dollars. Buy local like Chris White. Hope for some minor changes. But that's about it, baby. That's all you're going to get.

And that's okay. Considering the alternatives.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 3, 2009 2:45 PM

"Do political parties exist chiefly to provide some kind of faux-ideological camoulflage for rent-seekers?"

Often seems to work out that way, doesn't it?

I'm just buying local, eating Primal, taking morning walks, enjoying blogging and Facebook, and hoping the whole house of cards holds up till at least a few days after I kick off ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 3, 2009 4:00 PM

Thank you, FvB, for a post that might well get agreement from all quarters.

"Do political parties exist chiefly to provide some kind of faux-ideological camoulflage for rent-seekers?"

Yes ... at least, that's become the dominant mode of the two major parties.

The avenue for altering this situation that appears to me the most plausible (if still improbable) to actually get adopted is Instant Runoff Voting. If people did not feel their ballot must be for one of the two major parties in order to "count" they would be more likely to form and vote for them. Furthermore, even if one of the major party candidates is ultimately elected, there will have clearer sense of the electorate's divisions and views. Perhaps this will increase voter interest and attention to how cash and power are flowing.

Posted by: Chris White on September 3, 2009 4:36 PM

Since I mentioned it here, I want to report that the non-profit leftie client hired me for their web maintenance job. They didn't talk politics much during the interview, which I thought was very decent of them.

The director of the institute gave me his book to read, and I have been reading it.

I don't see much difference between the parties, in answer to this post. Nor do I want to take it upon myself to fix this. I gave up, so long ago that I can't remember when, thinking that what I did on a macro level really mattered. Since I have so many interests in life, I try to ignore anything that I can't really influence.

This does not mean that I don't believe in service to my community. In fact, as I'm getting older I'm restructuring my life precisely to give worthwhile service to my community. I'm interviewing for my first nursing job next week, and I'm volunteering for the Rescue Squad in my hometown.

At this point in my life, I can afford to do some things I couldn't do in the past. And, I do have a self interest in this as well. Joining the Catholic Church and being involved in the Rescue Squad is connecting me to the sane part of my community. And that is a very good thing.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 3, 2009 10:20 PM

The answer is out there. It's not a new party.

Part of my religious faith is that God has created the world in such a way that if we work hard enough we can solve our problems.

Solving this one will require some fairly hard analytical work, as well as the hard work of informing the people and influencing their votes.

At bottom, this is a struggle for votes: the corruptocrats vs. the people battling for control of votes.

Posted by: Jeff on September 3, 2009 11:40 PM

I agree that recent months have made it quite clear that as far as economic issues are concerned, the Democrats and Republicans are pretty much one, corporate party.

However, I see no hope for any change of substance.

Even the people most vocal about change today, the right wingers, will be co-opted by corporate interests, although they might not become aware of it.

Posted by: marik on September 3, 2009 11:45 PM

I don't have anything to add in the way of answering the question, as I agree with the consensus that there are basically two "parties," the parasites (pols, lobbying beneficiaries, recipients of government checks) and the hosts (net tax payers).

I do believe (based on history and the unsustainability of trends in the US) that the present regime will eventually go down in flames--by what precise path no one knows--and the one that takes its place will be like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union at worst, or Ecuador or Mexico or Brazil at best. In any event, the middle class is toast.

Anyone read "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World"? Particularly apropo today, except I fear anyone trying to mind their own business in the US could be in for a nasty education in politics over the next twenty years. I see only two solutions at the micro level:

1) Become a low-tech farmer (historically referred to as...what was it? Oh yes, peasant) far from the megalopoli, living by the 3rd World credo that you're safest if you don't have much to take. Ask any Mennonite.

2) Get one's capital out of the dollar (and out of US political jurisdiction) and reside in a country where the cost of living is very low and the populace is gentle and accustomed to poverty and the government tends to be content with leaving the small fry alone while it conducts its corruption and low-level thievery. Ecuador comes to mind.

But, again, in any case people without capital are f'd.

Posted by: James O. on September 3, 2009 11:57 PM

A New Yorker cartoon from many years ago shows two Englishmen in the jungle, sunk so deeply in a pond that only their heads are visible above it.

One chap addresses the other:

"I say, Sturdley, I don't care if it's quicksand. I've half a mind to struggle."

Posted by: Rick Darby on September 4, 2009 8:56 AM


I applaud your volunteer spirit.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 5, 2009 4:18 AM

Mike: yeah, I kind of agree. I've pretty much given up hope for this country. I tend to prefer the company of liberals to conservatives because I find arts less distasteful than sports, but that's probably my strongest real political affiliation when you come down to it...when it comes to political discussions, I lie a lot. :)

Posted by: SFG on September 5, 2009 11:52 AM

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