The banana republic-ization of America (long)

Warning: this post is long – almost 1400 words – and fairly rambling, so I may edit it later (suggestions welcome!). I’ve placed most of it after the jump. Also, sorry if it’s dreadfully boring.

One of the defining elements of Venezuelan and Peruvian politics in the last 20 years or so has been the collapse of political parties, moving two-partyish political systems to what’s been dubbed “no-party” systems. I’m oversimplifying things a bit, but the process went something like this:

  1. Hyperinflation or another economic crisis deeply discredited a ruling party or coalition. In Venezuela this was the broad coalition that had a seemingly permanent lock on Venezuela after the Punto Fijo Pact; in Peru things more or less fell apart after Alan Garcia’s ruling APRA party became politically radioactive.
  2. People like Hugo Chavez, Alberto Fujimori, and Alejandro Toledo started running for President, but away from parties. Rather than align themselves with an existing party, these politicians positioned themselves as outsiders. They’d sometimes form new parties, but the parties were just their own personal, disposable campaign vehicles rather than genuine, lasting, ideologically-driven mass movements (not entirely unlike the US Reform Party and Ross Perot).
  3. Desperate for radical change amid widespread economic misery, the public elects the new candidates. In Peru and Venezuela, though, political institutions are such that the new President often behaves more like an elected dictator than someone who’s bound to work with other branches of government to get stuff done.
  4. The results have not been particularly encouraging if you care about the stability of democracy. When you’re lucky, you end up with a technocrat like Toledo who provides reasonably competent leadership for a few years but then has no underlying political force to show for it when his term is up. Good governance shouldn’t expire with the President’s term. And when you’re not so lucky…you get guys like this playing outsized roles in your politics.

While I don’t think it’s certain to happen, there are certain troubling trends in US politics that make me wonder if we’re moving in this direction. Specifically, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the Republican party fragment in the next 10 years and reactionary politicians forming their own “parties” en masse rather than running under the banner of the GOP.

Why do I think this bizarre-sounding scenario is a real possibility?

I started thinking about this during a discussion about Congressional term limits. In the US, term limits are one of those weird things that not-very-informed observers of all ideological stripes (but especially cranky, pox-on-both-your-houses types) like to champion. They think all career politicians are corrupt fakes and that longer tenures only exacerbate the corruption, so the solution for safeguarding the public interest must be to cut political careers off at the knees. Unfortunately, term limits are a cure that tends to be far worse than the disease.

There are tons of problems with term limits, but the biggest, I think, is that they’re like taking out the brakes. When you know there’s no longer going to be any punishment at the polls for the results of your legislation, there’s no incentive to keep policy particularly sane. And so if you’re a conservative and thus a big fan of policies that most Americans find unpopular and insane, chances are you’re going to also think term limits are a dandy idea.

Anyway, enough about term limits for now. I’ll be returning to them in a few paragraphs.

One of the defining puzzles of American politics is how we can have a two-party system that now has one of the parties situated on the extreme right. The conservative takeover of the GOP that started in the late 1970s  is complete, but movement conservatism is largely an unpopular governing philosophy outside the Deep South, so how the hell do Republicans outside the Deep South keep getting elected?   This ground has been well covered at other blogs, but here’s my quick take:

  1. Republicans lie a lot about their positions. Subterfuge is a defining trait of your typical conservative politician. George W. Bush campaigning as a bland moderate businessman in 2000 is the best example, but there are too many others to count. And they happily take advantage of the fact that…
  2. Americans are stupid. Or at least uninformed. Members of European polities understand that when they vote for someone in a given political party, they can pretty easily predict how that person is going to vote on any issue of significance. For a variety of reasons, we don’t have that here. Instead our politics is much more driven by absurdities like force of personality, not to mention…
  3. Slick marketing. My view of the contemporary GOP’s political strategy is that it’s realized that at the polls, a football team will always have an edge over a group of dorky politicians. Which is why it makes a deliberate effort to run people like this guy or this guy or even this guy –oops, this one. This helps a bit around the margins, even though most elections are driven by…
  4. The fundamentals. Different from my first three here in that this is exogenous to the GOP itself. Obviously, though, it’s good to be in the opposition rather than stuck holding the bag during bad economic times.

In the short term, all these things make for a competitive political party. In the long term, once the economy recovers and the American people get a little smarter (and less white), they’re only going to delay an inevitable catastrophe for conservatives. And in a lot of ways, the Republican Party, once vital to the insurgent conservative movement, is starting to outlive its usefulness for achieving conservative policy ends. For one thing, the need to keep winning elections means that a ruling GOP can never actually enact most of the legislation that the conservative movement demands; the most they can do is kick the can down the road and delay things until power flips once again.

Assuming conservatives really do plan to dismantle the welfare state and so forth, however, rather than just disingenuously whine about doing so, this path is not sustainable. For the last 16 years at least, Republican politicians have been walking a tightrope between the insane conservative true believers and the wishy-washy masses who don’t know exactly what they want, but they do know they like having jobs and having increasing wages and not having to eat cat food when they retire.  Something eventually has to give. Kevin Drum thinks it’s going to be the conservative movement. After suffering through a few elections with a tiny minority, the theory goes, the GOP will be forced to moderate itself and marginalize the crazies once more.

I think there’s reason to believe otherwise. Specifically, what might end up imploding is not conservative dominance over the Republican Party, but the Republican Party itself. As a progressive, that sounds pretty awesome. But if Venezuela and Peru have any predictive value for the US, this may not be more than a false dawn for progressives.

The reason I’ve brought up term limits in this post was that I realized that all the things movement conservatives love about term limits are also features of a no-party system. The stricter the term limit, the faster the electoral turnover, and the more politicians become unaccountable ciphers who can emerge out of nowhere and conceal their true positions from the public. Politics becomes more personal, political discourse becomes less ideologically tinged, and marketing becomes more important.  As an added bonus,  no-party systems would seem to offer even more shelter from the fundamentals than strict term limits do. When the economy tanks, there’s no longer a party left with an electoral meltdown on its hands. There’s just a new random guy running for office as yet another outsider, and his beliefs are just as murky as the last guy.

The upshot of all these similarities is that movement conservatives don’t have to enact term limits to field an organization that fits their political needs to a T. All they have to do is ditch the organization they currently have called a “party” and turn it into, essentially, a large network of little splinter cells.

We’re already seeing one source of internal pressure coming from the Tea Partiers. In a follow-up post, I’ll try to sketch out how a GOP collapse might play out, what American politics will look like afterward, and how this is going to affect progressive causes (spoiler: probably not for the better).

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