The Paradox of Party Polarization

Political parties are both weak and strong in the United States. What does that portend for our democracy?

Published on: March 27, 2018
Didi Kuo is a research scholar at the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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  • QET

    First, in the US (and also in other nations but to a lesser extent because we have, and for a century have only had, just 2 effective political parties), the foremost and I would say sole goal of the party as party is to gain and then remain in power, meaning majority status. A party is a world unto itself, and what it does, it does for itself. A party remains in power only so long as it does one or both of the following: (i) allocate taxpayer funds to clients, and (ii) provide through legislation economic advantage to clients. Every so-called social issue is deeply subordinated in any party’s value-system to the exercise of these economic powers. Social issues that the party advocates, typically with all heat and no light, are just so many veils of ignorance behind which it carries on its actual mission. That is why the courts have become the arbiters of our social politics.

    Anyone who remembers Frank Zappa will remember how he blew the whistle on the PMRC-instigated Congressional “hearings” on rock music lyrics and the requirement that “parent advisory” labels be added thereto. Led by our Climate Alarmist-in-Chief’s wife, the PMRC was an Elysium of bipartisanship that succeeded in drawing the media Eye of Sauron away from the concurrent real Congressional business of passing anti-piracy legislation at the behest of the record industry.

    Second, you have to look at how an in-power party uses its power. Here you will see the wonderful spectacle of the GOP, at the national level, having just passed a massive spending bill like they were a bunch of drunken Democrats. And the Democrats, the unshakable, unchallengable party in power in the state where I live, threw tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to lure a Fortune 500 company’s HQ here a couple of years ago and is at present offering billions in tax breaks to lure Amazon’s HQ2 here. All while cutting the state education budget!!!! The Democrats! Yet still each new generation of children here is catechized that it is the Republicans who are loyal only to rich corporations and Democrats who want to increase funding to social services like education. But the fact is that the Democrats saw the light in the early 1980s, as they looked around at a depressed and dilapidated state burdened with high taxes and realized the only way to transform it back into the shining city upon the hill that it now again is was to adopt business-friendly economic policy. It did, and now the state is one of the most income and wealth-unequal states in the country that is wildly prosperous and unaffordable to all but the wealthiest, and thereby is enabled to send a Congressional delegation to Washington each year that duly mounts the podium to accuse the Republicans of not caring about working people but only wealthy corporate interests!

    That is how parties operate. Partisan and party may be linguistic cognates, but their operational meanings have diverged to the point now where they no longer have the same referent.

    • Jeffrey Morris

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  • mnemos

    In general I like the article. My only objection is in the very last paragraph. “Trump’s candidacy was premised on dismantling (representative institutions)” I don’t like Trump, but the point of his candidacy was that he was opposing institutions which are no longer representative institutions. Among those institutions I would include the political parties. He is basically a third party president who got there by rolling the Republicans.

    • QET

      A great observation. And if Trump were a career politician (which he could not be and still be Trump, of course), he would use his prestige to establish a true third party that might actually have a fighting chance of breaking the duopoly (which is mostly effectively a monopoly) of the two parties. The Tea Party just couldn’t muster the political strength to overcome the formidable barriers to entry (nor can the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, etc).

  • Stephen

    I think the word you are looking for is legitamacy.

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