Conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats are poised to lose in the 2010 elections; that they may even lose control of Congress. I would venture, though, that this nightmare won’t come to pass; that Republican vileness and craziness will ultimately assure Democratic victories. But I could be wrong: If Obama persists in promoting “bipartisanship” in the face of Republican intransigence, the conventional wisdom could prove correct.
Lesser evils are still lesser and are therefore to be preferred. On the other hand, they are also evils, and are therefore to be despised. The Democrats have given us much to despise: perpetual war, subservience to Wall Street, milquetoast (and ultimately retrograde) reforms, abject servility before noxious pressure groups, immobility in the face of ecological catastrophe, and on and on. How much does it then matter that the Republicans are even worse? That question admits of no clear answer. But it is clear that this indeterminacy is a consequence of a disabling structural problem.
If “democracy” means what the word implies — rule by the demos, the people — all liberal democracies are undemocratic; at best, they respect the form, but not the substance, of genuine popular rule. But each “democracy” is undemocratic in its own way. The party system is mainly to blame. This has been evident early in the nineteenth century, when it became clear that, with political parties mediating public participation in political life, the propertied classes had nothing to fear from extending the franchise to the masses. The party system made democracy safe for capitalism.
However, in most countries, the party system allows for the electoral expression of views voters actually hold — once the ideological superstructure has had a go at shaping opinion. In recent decades, mass media have been especially effective in securing the status quo, but we should not discount the impact of the educational system and, in benighted quarters (which is to say, almost everywhere), of religion. The story is familiar throughout the world: citizens vote; then the results are compromised away as ruling alliances form.
In this respect, America is indeed “exceptional.” Our parties have all but duopolized the electoral system, making ballot access for “third” parties prohibitively difficult. The result is that everyone to the left of, say, Eisenhower Republicans is effectively disenfranchised — except sometimes briefly and impotently in primary contests. Thus the compromises and betrayals that take place after elections elsewhere happen here before elections take place. The results are similar; little, if anything, changes. But the American way impoverishes the political culture even more profoundly than in liberal democracies, where there is something to vote for.
Of course, when the right candidate appears, muddleheaded progressives can convince themselves that they there is something to vote for. That happened in 2008. Obama was the establishment candidate from the get go. But he became a Rorschach candidate in whom voters saw what they wanted to see. Those who feel betrayed are therefore wrong. Disappointment is another matter. Even I, who never expected much, never thought it would come to this.
The tragedy is that, thanks to American exceptionalism, there is no constructive way to express this disappointment electorally — because to vote against a Democrat one must vote for a Republican or at least vote (or not vote) in a way that makes it easier for a Republican to win.
In a more democratic political system, it would be salutary for the lesser evil to lose now and again. But with our media and party system, the lesson that will be drawn if the Democrats lose is that Obama’s “agenda” was too much for the country. Of course, the opposite is true. Back when he had political capital to spare, Obama was timid when “audacity” was required. Thus he let an historical opportunity pass.
But Obama is the president we have; and the only real choice we will have in November is to vote for a Democrat or a Republican. The obvious conclusion is that the system must be changed. But there is no hint of that in the offing. Ironically, Obamamania made that always dim prospect even more improbable. Now at least that problem has passed. However the deeper problem remains: our institutions still compel us to choose between the very bad and the even worse.
This is why we really have no choice but to help the Lesser Evil prevail. Democrats deserve to lose, and Obama with them. But with so much at stake, we have no choice but to let them walk. Reluctantly therefore, and with a view ultimately to changing the institutional framework that makes such awful choices necessary, we must see to it that they win.