Saturday, December 20, 2008

From Naderite to Institutional Fatalist

Back in 2000, I and many other people who supported Ralph Nader and the Green Party were fond of calling the two major parties Dempublicans and Republocrats and were wont to deride the contenders with the single epithet Bush/Gore. Our critics, then and since, have caricatured our position as claiming that "the two parties are the same." I say "caricature" because such was not exactly the argument of Naderites, or at least was not exactly my argument.

If I'm not simply rewriting my own intellectual past, I believe I distinguished between the basic policy differences of the parties, but believed that the parties are largely pro-corporate, pro-business and intend very little "structural" change in society. In other words, for example, the Democratic party is largely pro-choice and the Republican party is largely pro-life, but neither is going to make aggressive efforts to either help indigent women get abortions or establish a polity that ensures support for children whose parents lack the resources to support them.

I still believe that neither party offers the "structural change" that I would have wanted back in the 1990s (or would like now). But my reasoning has changed and has become a bit more (shall I say) cynical and fatalistic. My hopes in 2000, and perhaps the hopes of many Naderites, was that Mr. Nader would garner the 5% of the popular vote necessary to qualify for federal matching funds so that, in the future, the Green party might be a challenge to the two major parties and, potentially, lead to a reconfiguration of the party system along the lines of what happened in the 1850s, when the Whig party dissolved and the Republican party replaced it. Such a view was naive (and not without a healthy dose of self-righteousness), and the analogy was not particularly apt. Still, the view was not completely unreasonable.

I am now more inclined to see the very basic similarities between the two parties as the legacy of the institutional structures of the party system and our constitutional system. The two-party system, the "first past the post" district system of elections, and the structure of government provided by the constitution and precedents lead the two parties to adopt the stances that I in the 1990s and 2000 considered so emblematic of what was wrong with our polity. In other words, I now believe that if the impossible happened and the Green party had won the presidency in 2000, very little substantially would have changed.

(I might add, in all this talk about "change" and "structural change," it is possible, even likely, to fetishize change as always something good and to use too much as a crutch the notion of "structural change" as something desirable without defining what the structures are or what the change would look like. I'll also add that I've now come to the conclusion that the same institutions that prevent change I would like to see also prevent change I would not like to see. But that's a conversation for another post.)

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