Think It Can’t Happen Here? Political Degradation Hits Home

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the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Think It Can’t Happen Here? Political Degradation Hits Home

Imagine that our next presidential election were to offer two candidates: George Bush and Patrick Buchanan, mainstream conservative against hard-right, immigrant-bashing challenger. We are often assured that it can't happen here: France faced the dilemma of Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen because it has electoral arrangements that give too much power to minority candidates. Comforting as such a story may be, it is misleading. American political discourse often demonizes minorities and offers too little debate about policy alternatives. Smugness about our current electoral arrangements and the values of mainstream parties contributes to the degradation of our politics.

Political science 101 teaches us that in the U.S. and British political systems, with winner-take-all (first past the post) electoral arrangements, successful politicians necessarily converge on the center. Minority parties are not guaranteed proportional representation, and the requirement of a mere plurality in an election deprives minorities of the opportunity to barter votes in a runoff.

Twentieth-century history seems to confirm this "law." Despite a traumatic depression, the U.S. electorate converged on a New Deal that regulated and supplemented capitalist markets but never sought to institute even democratic forms of socialism. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower assumed power in the 1950s, he accepted the New Deal as fait accompli. Barry Goldwater's push to sell TVA (Tennesse Valley Authority) and abolish Social Security made him anathema even to many mainstream Republicans.

A "vital center" promised to end poverty and boom-and-bust cycles not through confiscatory taxation or government ownership but through regulation, managed growth and a broad safety net. The boldest advocates of this posture promised an "end of ideology."

Such a picture appears quaint today. Working-class incomes have stagnated for a quarter of a century. Patrick Buchanan's 2000 campaign may seem a mere footnote, but electoral participation has plunged dramatically since 1960. Nonvoting is most concentrated among the poor, making it hard to argue that nonvoters are too complacent to vote. Overt race and immigrant bashing is seldom a staple of our campaigns, but talk radio is full of crudely racist invectives.

Taking a broad view of Western democracies, one might say that the vital center has collapsed into bland resignation. George Bush, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin have all argued that the modern world is inescapably one global market and that "global competition" requires shelving or backpedaling on domestic reforms that in varying degrees extended health care, minimum wages, labor rights and environmental protection to all.

Here in the United States, even before the center had embraced corporate globalism, a series of internal flaws buried behind layers of consensus had rendered it weak. New Deal-era protections such as Social Security and unemployment compensation early afforded white males had been grudgingly and selectively extended to women and African Americans. All too often, programs for the cultural underclass took the form of means-tested handouts rather than sanctioned rights and entitlements for all. Means-tested programs failed to empower cultural minorities and embittered many working-class whites. A liberalism already fractured by wounds over race and gender was a breeding ground for immigrant bashing once the side effects of global capitalism came down on the working class.

Le Pen's views are despicable, but he is not part of some vast "right-wing conspiracy." The European Right is symptomatic of the failures of mainstream liberal politics. The governments have too easily assumed that economic growth would assuage the worst inequalities and ease long standing national animosities. European social democracies have in varying degrees all failed to assure the working class economic equity and an effective voice in their home countries or within the nascent European Union. Consequently, right-wing politics takes different forms in various European nations. (Le Pen's agenda is more vicious than that of the recently assassinated Pim.)

Unfortunately, too much of the liberal community still hopes to confine Le Pen and his likes by excluding them from debate. Now is the time to rethink electoral arrangements that exclude minorities and political practices and ideals that are blind to the inevitable exclusions in even our most cherished "universal values."

The effort to assure a politics of civility through exclusion of those we fear is wrong and has failed in its own terms. I agree with the views recently expressed by British Labour peer David Lipsey in the Guardian: "We have a system that relies on apathy to continue to return candidates of two or three parties. The system entrenches the big parties, and makes it hard for new entrants... But it builds up over time a logjam of frustrated political ideas which can eventually burst."

Governments must often come to closure where full knowledge and consensus is impossible. But the prospect of acceptance is more likely and the cruelty implicit in choices less severe where defeated minorities are not treated as unworthy of a continuing political voice.

John Buell

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age". He may be reached at jbuell@acadia.net.

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