Out with the Old Politics, in with the New Party

Article excerpt

A merican politics is a mess. It doesn't promote the general welfare. It's a sewer of corruption and privilege. In most elections, it's not even interesting enough to motivate most citizens to vote.

What's fundamentally wrong with American politics is not just who is in it but how it is organized--or better, disorganized-by our present political party system. Parties are what you need to make a democracy sing and shout. Strong, competitive and inclusively representative parties, linking politicians to one another and to voters and citizen organizations, are what you need for coherence and accountability in government. Parties organize debate, formulate alternatives and educate and mobilize ordinary citizens, who are short on time and money, to make meaningful decisions about what they want done. In a world in which politics is materially conditioned and most people don't have a lot of material, such parties spread the blessings of liberty by spreading the benefits of political organization. But, as everybody knows, we don't really have the right kind of parties in the United States. What we do have are two business-dominated parties that are understandably little interested in broad and informed citizen mobilization and that are too weak, diffuse and disconnected from their voting base to articulate or compete on, much less deliver, coherent policy programs of general benefit. They are old, very old, the oldest parties in the world--formed well before most Americans were allowed to vote, before trade unions were legal, before light bulbs--and they've never quite gotten themselves into the twentieth century. As organizations, they have exceptionally weak linkages between leaders and (a vanishingly small number of) members, and little cohesion among the leaders themselves. At present, the parties are overrun by capital-intensive campaigners accountable to no one but themselves and their personal networks of funders (in Ross Perot's case, all rolled into one). Ideologically, they are exceptionally uncomfortable even talking about, much less addressing, the needs of (dare we say it) the working class--defined here simply as the 80 percent of the work force that are production and nonsupervisory employees.

These political dinosaurs, nearly everyone agrees, are getting increasingly hazardous to our public health. That people agree is evident from public opinion polls, which show that a majority of the public is disgusted with both parties. Or from Ross Perot's all-expenses-paid high-tech talk-show Bonaparte-from-Texas independent (not "third party") campaign for President, which is scattering majorparty operatives like barn rats before an Uzi. This reaction is quite rational--the country is really very screwed up, and our parties, at least as presently organized, are unlikely to be much help in doing what needs to be done to straighten it out.

Over the past generation, the American economy dissolved into a world economy, the majority of adult women entered the paid labor force, environmental destruction became global, we came to an almost infinitely greater appreciation of the importance and difficulty of achieving racial and gender justice, living standards stagnated and income inequality soared, and the cold war suddenly ended. The result is a whole new set of problems and choices, which the passing of a few more laws (something even our decrepit parties can do) can't possibly address.

What's needed is a rethinking of basic institutions like the family, firm and state. What's collective security? What's an environmentally sustainable economy? What's fair trade with impoverished nations? What's real consumer protection? What say should employees have in the corporation? How should work be reorganized to accommodate family life, "traditional" and not? What, after four centuries of oppression, is this country's obligation to black Americans? How will we achieve a genuinely multicultural democracy? …