I remember many years ago in 1998, back when I was a political science student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, James Carville came to campus to speak to us. I eagerly waited until the question and answer segment of the program came up and I asked him what I thought would be an absolute bombshell of a question. More or less, I asked him “what’s the point in having political parties if they continuously argue about non-substantive issues and don’t have clear values?” Needless to say, the clever political strategist that Carville was hemmed and hawed about the stage with his Southern charm and the well-rehearsed sidebar, but didn’t really answer my question. Silly me.
As the November elections in the United States loom closer, something that strikes me is the lack of genuine dialogue on the issues that matter from either the Democratic or Republican parties. Sure, both parties are very competent at convincing potential voters that the other party is either wrong at best or insane at worst, but where is the vision for America that will propel the nation out of the doldrums and into the latter half of this century?
As an expatriate American currently residing in Australia, I have the privilege of being able to compare and contrast what’s going on in the US with the similar state of party politics here. Both the Labour and the Liberal parties seem to go around in circles with the same litany of issues as their American counterparts: illegal immigrants, small business owners, a diminishing middle class, a near-dominant China, and perpetual fear of economic slowdown.
You might immediately say, “Well that’s easy. Social issues are the principal difference between the main parties.” Are they? If that were true, the allegedly left-leaning Labor party in Australia and the Democratic party in America would have already taken the federal lead on giving homosexual partners the equivalent of marriage, would have fought harder against xenophobic views toward immigrants, and sought to make vast improvements to the state of education and child care in both countries. For the purposes of this intellectual exercise, imagine social issues as ‘window dressing’ so that we can get to the heart of the matter. Patriotic rhetoric will not aid in this quest for truth, either.
I won’t be the first or the last person to tackle this question, but what do political parties really mean anymore, and moreover, what’s the point of political parties? In both the United States and Australia, both pairs of major political parties take contributions from the same principal types of donors. Politically astute corporations and wealthy individuals hedge their bets and back every ‘horse’ in the race. Alas, individuals don’t have such a luxury as we get only one vote. Studies generally show that we have a strong tendency to be heavily influenced on our choice of our political party by our parents and relatives, although a few of us switch as we change our level of income, education, and lot in life.
What are the real differences between the Democrats and Republicans if they both take a similar tact in assertively supporting the extremely wealthy and big business over small business owners and workers? As a big donor, you have the ear of your Representative, Senator, or even President. If you give enough money or garner enough support, you earn a seat at the party’s table, an Ambassadorship, or a night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.
As an ‘average Joe American’ donor, your political seat is in the nosebleed section, high above one of the goalposts at the stadium next to the urinal block, or at best, a YouTube video, flyer, or a cleverly constructed infographic emailed to you because of your demographic profile… along with a heartfelt request for your lesser money. Possibly a t-shirt, but it probably won't be 'Made in the USA'. Most of us will never be so politically connected to be invited to attend a fundraising dinner at a crusading Hollywood celeb’s house, at a digital baron’s social club, or at the private ranch of a party power broker.
Australia’s not much different from the US in this regard, except that the Australian constitution is brilliant enough to have the foresight to make voting compulsory for all citizens over the age of 18. That's right Americans, over here you must vote or expect to be fined. Anyway, there are the same relative levels of prizes for the big donors, but nix that bit about the Lincoln Bedroom, unless rooms in Sydney's Kiribilli House are being pimped out without the Aussie public's knowledge.
For those of you who weren’t aware, about two years ago, the current Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, superseded her predecessor Kevin Rudd, also of the Labor Party, in a backroom, internal party preference vote. Many observers questioned the legitimacy of this strange, secret coup. Some might argue that the Australian parliamentary system allows for this eventuality, and that this was not somehow distasteful. But when Australians were given the opportunity to go the polls the next time, they returned a parliamentary tie between the parties, also known as a “hung parliament”, that forced both major parties to court the votes of independents that represent a range of special interests and views that were inconsistent with their own. In the end, Labor and Gillard came out on top, but the politics of the party have become increasingly centric and beholden to the interests of the independents ever since. Some argue that the Labor party is being torn apart from the inside by conflicting interests, as well.
Centrism is the fundamental flaw with party politics today. In both countries, the major parties serve their wealthier constituents and interests without question, because the need for campaign contributions and the support of the power elite overwhelms the parties’ need to satisfice the wider body of their constituents. In the US, the Democrats used to be the party that steadfastly supported workers and labor unionism before many of its other interests. In Australia, the Labor party ostensibly still has strong ties with the unions as well. Why is it that in both countries, labor unions are continuously finding themselves reduced and resolved to increasingly smaller stature and effectiveness, despite the ongoing federal-level presence of two governments that should logically do everything that they can to support unions?
Not to ignore the right of the spectrum, Republicans in the US used to be the party of smaller and more efficient government, and wide spectrum support for entrepreneurship. The Australian Liberal party has a similar, traditional core agenda. But how does creating private sector, pseudo-government services through outsourcing constitute smaller or more efficient government? If it sounds like a shell game, that's because it is: except that elite interests win all the nutty contracts.
Both conservative parties are facing increasingly hostile ultra-conservatism that holds them hostage to radical viewpoints that dilute their principal agendas. More than a decade ago in Australia, the Liberal party had to form a coalition with the National party, of principally rural interests, for their lengthy last go at rule under former PM John Howard. American Republicans are now similarly being forced to stomach the reactionary tastes of the Tea Party caucus, even though many strongly disagree with their views. And everyone knows that red-blooded Americans prefer coffee.
For most people, we proudly support our choice of political party until the choice becomes too confusing and murky. This is why some Americans don't bother to vote, and Australians take the "donkey vote" or join the Australian Sex Party (not kidding). I cringe whenever any of my friends begins to talk about the next election in the US. To them it is fairly obvious who I will vote for, but it pains me to do so because I am not substantively satisfied with the answers proposed by either of our parties. What point is there in having political parties in our postmodern world, when in terms of real vision and ingenuity, they are less substantively different than brands of soda pop? If parties have no vision, then there is no point. More so if they serve the same elite interests.
Political parties, especially in countries with two dominant, centric parties, need to be especially wary of not losing sight of having a clear message or real values. Because in the histories of both American and Australian politics, a major party can find themselves increasingly less relevant and replaced by a party with new vision before they even realize it. Have you ever heard of the Whigs? Probably not. But you might have heard of the Reform Party or the Greens...