There is a fundamental incoherence to the platforms of America’s primary political parties. As put by Slavoj Zizek in his book, “Living in the End Times”: 


“Today, the meaning of 'liberalism' moves between two opposed poles: economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, etc.) and political liberalism (with an accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, etc.). In the US, Republicans are more liberal in the first sense and Democrats in the second… Traditionally, each basic form of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other: liberal multiculturalist advocates of tolerance as a rule resist economic liberalism and try to protect the vulnerable from unencumbered market forces, while market liberals as a rule advocate conservative family values, and so on. We thus get the double paradox of the traditionalist Rightist supporting the market economy while ferociously rejecting the culture and mores that economy engenders, and his counterpoint, the multiculturalist Leftist, resisting the market (though less and less so, it is true…) while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders.” (Living in the End Times, p. 37)


I can't say it better myself. The Republican Party celebrates laissez-faire capitalism in the economic sphere, but rails against the breakdown of ‘traditional’ mid-century social mores that capitalism run amok inevitably results in. If you give corporations the power to do whatever they want, they will squeeze their workers as much as they can and export production when it’s cost-effective, reducing the job and family stability that helped create the post-war utopia that they dream of. Capitalist corporations are always seeking to create new needs for individuals to encourage more consumption, and they will pander to the base desires of the population in order to sell their products. Family-values conservatives bemoan the oversexed nature of the media, but how could it be any different in a capitalist society? We’re wired for sex: we like it. Thus, sex sells, and always will. And capitalism tries to, and usually succeeds at, selling us everything that sells.


The Democratic Party, on the other hand, celebrates the individualistic, universalist, multicultural society that is produced by modern capitalism while, at least theoretically, attempting to slow the concentration of power in corporations created by capitalism. One could question whether there really is any resistance to capitalism in the Democratic platform; it could be argued that the regulation of industry and the alleviation of the most visible adverse effects of capitalism actually acts in service of the capitalist machine, by making the capitalist system temporarily more livable for the masses while giving corporations more time to consolidate real power, but at least in media discourse, Democrats are portrayed as attempting to slow the machine’s crawl towards world domination. 


When these two parties are seen to represent the ideological spectrum, real change becomes more difficult, because the range of acceptable political positions in society is diminished. But there are other alternatives.


The libertarian ideology has grown in influence, mostly within conservative circles, and it, at least, has a coherent worldview: that’s one reason it’s so attractive, especially to students. If glorifies capitalist economies and the individualistic society that results therefrom.  


If libertarianism represents one side of an idealogical spectrum, what stands against it? The answer is best thought of as communitarianism, which rests on a body of political theory that has been influential in some respects, but has had never had mainstream popular champions. 


While libertarianism seeks to promote an individualistic point of view, communitarianism seeks to promote functioning communities. Unlike communism or, to a lesser extent, socialism, communitarianism doesn’t seek to create large-scale industrial societies; as is discussed elsewhere, these do not function. 


The question thus becomes (a) whether small-scale communities functioning within a larger nation-state is a feasible goal, and (b) what policies should the nation adopt to encourage small-scale communities.  

But thinking of libertarianism and communitarianism as two ends of a spectrum doesn’t quite work either. For example, it’s the Atavist’s assertion that, if given the knowledge needed to make the decision, individuals will choose to live in tribally and abide by their tribe’s rules if tribal living is a viable option.  And that is, essentially, the Atavist’s goal: to make modern tribal living a viable option. The question of what wider economic systems can viably work between different tribal structures is a broader question, but it doesn’t seem inconceivable that something resembling a modified capitalist structure could work well (though it would have to solve the problem of requiring perpetual growth- it would have to be a steady-state capitalism, and maybe that’s an oxymoron?). 


In a way, it’s the very idea that political ideas exist in a ‘spectrum’ that limits political debate. Creationism and evolution aren’t two sides of a spectrum, they’re two different answers to a question: how did life come into being? True, it’s possible to compile a theory that incorporates aspects of both- perhaps God created the world and its constituent parts, setting the table for evolution, so to speak, but didn’t guide evolution itself.  A spectrum can be thought into existence between any two points, but that creates the fiction that the spectrum created between those points represents all available responses to the question that they respond to. 


The common axes that are used to define political belief in America are the extent to which a person believes in economic freedom and the extent to which they believe in personal freedom. But this implies that there can be a clear delineation of the effects of various policy choices as to whether they affect personal freedom or whether they affect the economy’s freedom, which is a fiction. And the concept of freedom itself is a sticky, sticky fiction. 

Consider ‘The World’s Smallest Political Quiz,’ which promises to identify your political identity in ten questions, neatly divided into ‘Personal Issues’ and ‘Economic Issues.’  One of the ten responses requested is to the statement: “Military service should be voluntary. There should be no draft.” While this question obviously implicates personal freedom from being forced to serve in the military, it also implicates broader questions. A military draft would keep the entire country more invested in the country’s international policies. We might be less likely to support a foreign war if  we might have to actually fight it ourselves, or if our children could be conscripted. And the insular nature of a professional army creates different power structures that lobby the government for more power. So, the question of a military draft implicates more than just personal freedoms. 


On the other side, one of the ‘economic’ prompts is “End government barriers to economic free trade.” While this is obviously a macro-economic issue, it also affects personal freedoms. If corporations have the power to seek the lowest costing labor anywhere in the world, that negatively affects a personal freedom: the freedom from worry about losing your job. It also incentivizes companies to produce their goods in countries with the lowest possible environmental regulations, which impacts personal freedoms to choose what level of environmental regulations they prefer to protect the environment.


What these spectrums do is to canonize a limited range of debate. The entire realm of possible answers to the question: ‘how should we organize our societies’ is reduced to two questions: ‘should people be allowed to do whatever they want?’ and ‘should corporations be allowed to do whatever they want?’. It builds in all sorts of assumptions that currently have sway: for example, that limited liability corporations are a natural outgrowth of an economic theory, and not the result of certain power structures lobbying the government in order to naturalize the concept of a limited liability corporation.  If you stuck within the ideas of governance promoted by the two major parties, you'd never know that you could even consider that question.

The Incoherence of American Politics

by Jackson Lay

July 5, 2014

They're not all this cute. To be fair, though, no donkey is this cute.