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Mid-term victories and the two models of American democracy

I’ll spare you the cookie-cutter analysis you’ve likely heard a thousand times by now. Yes, it’s obvious that Obama spent too much time wonking around with stimulus plans and health care at the expense of unemployment, and yes, it’s equally obvious that the Republicans would have very likely won the Senate had they not appointed two crazypeople in otherwise winnable races. Partisan deadlock will now rule the day in DC for the remainder of the President’s first term, and I’m personally skeptical as to whether this White House is unideological enough to pull a Clinton, and embrace the cause of triangulation in order to eke out at least a couple of victories before 2012.

But these are all petty, flash-in-the-pan matters. In a few weeks — let alone years — we’ll have long forgotten all the grandiose talking points, slogans, and “narratives” of this election season, which, like so many elections seasons past, was really about a lot less than the politicians and media enjoyed pretending. In my mind, the most interesting conclusions to draw from the 2010 mid-terms relate to the larger structure and culture of American democracy, and the fascinating — and, I would say, often troubling — way in which one of the world’s most unique systems of government continues to evolve in response to changing realities.

In particular, the 2010 primaries clearly highlighted the extent to which the American democratic system is currently caught between two very distinct visions of what style of government the country should have.

Vision one: the weak-party, state-driven, individualistic model

A “party system” can only survive so long as both nouns exist. Having people run around calling themselves “Democrats” or “Republicans” may reflect a sort of partisan culture, but unless there is a larger, hierarchical power structure controlling and regulating those partisans, there’s no real “system” to speak of.

Ideology aside, the well-worn stories of various Tea Party candidates (Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, etc) triumphing over the so-called “establishment” picks in numerous GOP primaries are interesting in what they reveal about the fundamental weakness of the entire American nomination regime. As Mitch McConnell is well aware, there exists no elite veto at any stage of the process. This is in contrast to say, party nominations in Canada, where a hierarchical party “leader” can un-nominate unsavory candidates, or most other party systems around the world, in which electing the nominee is a duty reserved for fee-paying “party members;” a small and exclusive club of fundraisers, canvassers, secretaries, and other professional partisans. In America, anyone can have a say simply by self-identifying as a member of one party or the other (or in some states, even both or neither), which makes the US party system far more volatile, and party labels fairly fluid things of questionable importance.

Obviously, the fact that primaries exist in the first place implies that there is some advantage to being a party-backed candidate over a non-party one, but the evidence isn’t always there. If angry partisans line up en masse to reject an establishment pick for their party’s nomination, they can be quite successful, but establishment politicians also have a high propensity to engage in a sort of “sore loser syndrome” in which they continue to run anyway. This year’s mid-term saw several strong candidacies of this type, notably Charlie Crist in Florida, Tom Tancredo in Colorado, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, all of whom aimed to pull a Joe Lieberman and win power as an independent, after being denied their desired partisan nomination. And none of them really suffered for it; given the choice, many Americans still seem to prefer to vote personality over party, in no small part because they know party is such a hollow, inconsequential thing. Since Congress lacks an organized disciplinary structure to force Democrats and Republicans to always vote this-or-that way, whether you’re a conservative or liberal, pro-pork or anti, it usually makes more sense to vote for an individual who has demonstrated his principled bona fides over some unknown paper candidate who happens to have the right letter beside his name.

The absurdly high rates at which incumbent congressmen get re-elected may seem somewhat grotesque and corrupt, but it also reflects one of the proud traditions of the American democratic system; namely the long-term maintenance of an intimate bond between highly individualistic politicians and the communities they unapologetically serve, even at the expense of party or ideology. The 2010 mid-terms provided ample evidence that this tradition continues to survive, despite facing an unprecedented challenge from a very strong alternative model.

Vision two: the strong-party, nationally-focused, parliamentary model

Historically, independent candidates have been elected to Congress for a vast variety of reasons, but these days, it’s usually because they failed some prior test of ideological purity. Though the US party system may be weak as ever, in terms of controlling who gets nominations or determining who wins elections, the system is also getting a lot more closed, and dramatically less tolerant. As the self-identifying party faithful adhere more closely to very particular ideological standards of who does and does not deserve their stamp of approval, America’s party culture is definitely becoming more powerful and disciplined. Strength without structure — at least for now.

As a general principle, no one seems to be contesting the idea that a starkly bipolar divide between liberals and conservatives is the best way for the US Congressional system to be organized. Indeed, considering that many of the high-profile incumbent victims of this season’s electoral house cleaning were “blue dog” Democrats or moderate Republicans, the Congress is now more elegantly polarized than ever, with very few purple legislators left to bridge the gap between solid red and solid blue.

Listening to Sarah Palin on FOX the other night, she defended her support of Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party candidate for Delaware’s Senate seat, on the basis that in her Republican caucus she’d prefer to have a reliable conservative vote 100% of the time, rather than some wishy-washy moderate who might only vote the “right” way 50% or less. This is the logic of a European-style parliamentary government, and seems to be a line of thinking increasingly popular in right-wing circles. In a parliamentary system, the majority party only holds power so long as it can get every piece of its agenda through the legislature, or, in parliamentary jargon, maintain “the confidence of the house.” This, in turn, necessitates a highly-disciplined and united majority party. A legislative defeat, or worse yet, a victory for the opposition, represents a “crisis of confidence,” begetting humiliation and disgrace. Rigidly party-line votes are essential in such a political culture , and internal caucus dissent must be aggressively suppressed.

By completely shunning the idea that individual legislators should vote freely according to their own beliefs or conscience, as opposed to some top-down declaration of what the party as a whole “believes,”  parliamentary rule is a style of governance that’s predictable to the point of being blandly disinteresting (since the majority always gets its way) and deeply frustrating from the perspective of constituents back home, who cannot count on their elected representative to act as a creature of their own community. This, I think, was very much the lesson of the Christine O’Donnell thing. Her victory represented the triumph of a sort of “national conservatism” over a more local flavor, represented by her Republican primary opponent, the former governor Mike Castle. From the Palin perspective, Castle represented localism and unpredictability, while O’Donnell represented nationalism and reliability. Shunning the idea that different states have a right to practice different ideological styles, this new vision of American politics seems to favor simplistic, homogeneous national narratives that can be applied blindly across the country, in any race in any region.

Watching the victory speeches last night, it was remarkable how so few of these future Congresspeople (or even governors) paid lip service to local issues or local concerns. Everything was framed as a victory for the national conservative movement, or the national progressive movement. And what’s good for the movement will automatically be good for Delaware, or Montana, or Kentucky, or wherever. That may very well be true, but the idea that every state will be bettered by the national solutions of a national party marks a distinctly de-federalizing cultural shift for American politics.

The inflated relevance of Nancy Pelosi in this election was also decidedly parliamentary, with Madame Speaker serving as a sort of surrogate prime minister in the Congressional House of Commons. As is common practice in political systems where the PM is chosen through the legislature, in this election American voters were encouraged at an unprecedented level to view a vote for their local congressman as a means to either keep or remove Ms. Pelosi from power. “She’s on the ballot in every state,” as some wags revealingly put it.  Republican House leader John Boehner similarly dropped any pretense of humility, and openly presented himself to the nation as their prime minister-in-waiting, a scenario which President Obama — who, if anyone cares, is still the country’s actual head of state — tried in vain to portray as an outcome even more frightening than another mandate for the Pelosi administration.

When all politics are framed in national terms, it’s the natural consequence to view all local political actions as having national repercussions, and for all movements to have national leaders. If Americans decide this is the direction they want their politics to go, it thus seems fairly inevitable that the American Congressional system will continue to evolve in an ever-more parliamentary direction — which is to say, predictable, polarized, disciplined, and hierarchical. And since parties tend to mimic the political systems they are designed to service, the national Republican and Democratic machines will likely follow the trend, perhaps by getting more comfortable with the once-taboo ideas such as a single national “party leader” with sweeping powers, or “purity tests” to determine which self-identifying candidates deserve RNC or DNC funding.

There are always a lot of battles raging for the soul of the American nation, and at present, it’s the ideological one that seems to be capturing the majority of attention. Under-analyzed, however, is the related battle to control the very structure of American democracy. In the years leading up to 2012 and beyond, it may very well prove to be one of the defining debates of the decade.