A "Two-Headed Party," and the Power of a Dime
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
October 30, 2007
In essays over the past two weeks, I've speculated about the reasons for
the dangerous timidity of our Democratic Party leaders, and came up with
quite a number
of possibilities. But, as many letter-writers reminded me, I
might have left out the main one:
It's not that Dem leaders are conned or frightened by the Republicans,
they say. No, the Dems act they way they do because they actually
believe much of what the Republicans believe, and/or are beholden to the
same corporate lobbie$ and media giant$ that get them elected and
The essence of the argument is this: There is actually only one party in
America -- with a Republican head and a Democratic head -- controlled by
the political/economic elite that really runs things. (Sometimes this
elite is termed "the oligarchy," or "the plutocrats," or, simply, "the
No wonder there is such frustration and anger in the Democratic and
Republican bases: The national elections, to many, are meaningless. It
doesn't matter which party is in the White House or which controls
Congress, this argument goes, since the outcomes will be more or less
the same, arranged by the same power forces that control the political
and economic realities.
Given this belief, it's no wonder so many citizens don't vote or are so
cynical about their elected officials and the possibility of real
change. America needs a seismic political shakeup, but how can major
change occur when the system is rigged in support of the ongoing status
So let's take some time to explore these arguments and see where they
lead us. No doubt, we will return to this issue as we get closer to the
presidential election of November 2008 -- especially if citizens have to
decide whether the "lesser of two evils" yet again should get their vote
-- but let's at least plant some seeds of thought now and see what
TAKING THE LONNNNGGGG VIEW
If one were to take a really long-range view of American politics, one
could ascribe a certain truth to the argument above. America for
centuries has been dominated by parties that hover around the center,
the parameters of which are set by the "powers that be" in American
Sometimes that center is more left-oriented (during FDR's administration
in the '30s and '40s, for example, or in the years following Nixon's
disgraceful, lawless presidency); sometimes it's more right-oriented
(during the term, say, of Reagan). Rarely have we seen such a lying,
rampaging, corrupt, take-no-prisoners element in charge, as we have
today with the CheneyBush extremists.
But Americans in general, and American corporations in particular,
desire stability and predictability. And for that reason, the action
invariably returns to the (shifting) center, even if there was a
temporary visitation to the outskirts of the party in charge.
Since it costs so much money to finance a viable run for state,
Congressional and national office, it follows that most candidates have
to get the required cash from somewhere other than their own bank
accounts. Who has that kind of money or can raise it fast? The usual
suspects: the wealthy, the organized interest groups, the corporations,
the lobbyists, et al. Which translates to: Candidates, beholden to these
supporters, tend to stay within the ideological/political parameters set
by their major donors.
In addition, elected officials and the major candidates generally come
from the same wealthy economic/ideological class as their large donors.
LEASHED (OR LEASED) CANDIDATES
The long and short of this situation is that American voters tend to
have a severely limited pallet of candidates with which to paint their
votes. These candidates more or less agree with one another but hype
relatively insignificant differences in order to make the choices seem
more dramatic and meaningful than they really are.
When a rare candidate comes along who catches fire with the public but
doesn't necessarily want to draw within the lines prescribed by the
elite who control things -- some even going so far as to cut themselves
off from the traditional financial-support teats (such as Paul
Wellstone, Dennis Kucinich) -- he or she is marginalized, rendered
ineffective, and effectively is "disappeared" from the political scene.
As Howard Dean's '04 campaign was the first to demonstrate, the rise of
the internet as a fundraising mechanism, going directly to individuals
for small-donation support, has started to alter the math (and thus
politics) of this equation. But, unfortunately, for most major campaigns
large donors are still required, given the humongous cost of running for
The obvious solution, of course, would be government-mandated,
public-financed campaigns where the legalized influence-peddling known
as campaign contributions would be rendered unimportant. But, in
addition to running headlong into the First Amendment by restricting the
"private speech" represented by political donations, public financing
(surprise!) does not seem to attract a great many elected officials.
Dems and Reps alike benefit from the status quo, both from their
incumbency, which attracts large donors, and from their proximity to the
powerful forces behind the curtain of electoral politics. (Many of the
most popular candidates also obtain a side-benefit: They often rake in
more money than they can reasonably spend on their campaigns, which
means they now have funds to dole out to their favorite officials and
candidates -- in other words, an effective means of building a
THE POWER OF A THIN DIME
There's the "long" view, as described above. But most of us live in the
here-and-now, where government policies have major repercussions in our
lives. Which leads us to the ten-cents thesis.
We've often heard the complaint that "There isn't but a dime's worth of
difference" between the two major parties. I don't argue that the
complaint is unjustified, but that in the politics of
capturing-the-center, and in the real world in which most of us live, a
dime can make a mighty big difference.
This "dime's worth of difference" argument achieved much currency during
Ralph Nader's Green Party run for the presidency in 2000. One could at
least understand the naive rationale behind that argument seven years
ago. But, as the CheneyBush Administration has demonstrated, that dime,
in the here-and-now, can buy an awful lot of misery and chaos and
repression and death.
That "inconsequential" dime meant a war of choice, one based on outright
lies and clever deceptions, that has led to the deaths and maimings of
hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, with no end in
sight, and a war on Iran just around the corner, one most leading
Democrats are choosing to ignore. (By the way, Bush has quietly lowered
the bar to justify an attack on Iran; the former probable casus belli,
-- coming close to having a nuclear weapon -- has now been replaced by
having "knowledge" of how to build a bomb. Anyone can obtain that
"knowledge" on the internet or by reading scientific papers. Short
version: the U.S. will attack.)
That "inconsequential" dime meant the shifting of the ideological makeup
of the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower appellate courts for the next
several decades, thanks to Bush's ability to nominate young HardRight
jurists (and the Democrats' shameful decision not to go to the mat to
defeat those appointments).
That "inconsequential" dime meant the twisting and shredding of the
Constitution, thus robbing American citizens of the protection of their
liberties as mandated by the Bill of Rights; in so doing, we've come
close to unrestricted dictatorial rule in the United States. We no
longer even enjoy the protections of the 800-year-old legal tradition of
habeas corpus, where a court has to rule whether an arrest is
justified. Under Bush, we've crossed the border into an incipient police
That "inconsequential" dime meant that reality and science were
denigrated in favor of decisions based on religious faith or pure,
partisan politics, often a combination of the two. Most obvious
consequence of such thinking: We've lost seven years of potential
government leadership on the global-warming issue, with devastating
consequences. (Most recent demonstration: the Bush Administration
censored more than half the testimony to Congress by Dr. Julie
Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on
public-health consequences of increased global warming).
FACED WITH A DECISION IN '08?
Well, I could go on and on listing how a thin dime was too high a price
to pay for those interested in good government, rational government,
reason-based diplomacy rather than ideologically-based wars of choice,
protection of our natural environment, etc. etc. Despite what you might
think of them as leaders, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that our
country would be in our current catastrophic mess if Gore or Kerry were
As I say, we all may be revisiting the "dime's worth of difference"
argument as we approach Election 2008 and have to decide whether there
is enough of a difference between the parties to warrant holding one's
nose and voting for the "lesser of two evils" yet again, or whether it's
time to say "a pox on both your parties" and sit out the election in
hope that a newer, better model for leadership will emerge to save our
And, let's face it: If a viable third-party movement was in the cards
for '08, we would have seen at least its outlines by now, and "name"
candidates (Gore? Hagel? Hightower?) would be vying to lead it. No, I'm
afraid that it's probably too late to create an electable populist
movement that might lure disenchanted anti-war liberals, progressives,
and angry, centrist Republicans appalled by the ideological hijacking of
their party by HardRight elements.
In any case, as history has demonstrated, it's always easier (not easy,
but easier) to take over an existing party rather than try to build a
new one from the ground up. It may not be too late for disaffected
Democrats in the next twelve months to make that kind of concentrated
effort within the party, but it's still somewhat late.
But whatever our goals might be, certainly it would be advisable to
start serious discussions about the electoral predicament we're in and
how best to get out of it. Fast.
Copyright 2007, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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