The Pox on Both Houses
One of the most suggestive recent political developments has been the mooting of a Unity Ticket for the 2008 elections in which a virtual Third Party is created to campaign for a Republican/Democrat hybrid slate. The Washington Post reports:
Although details of the group's aims are somewhat spotty, Unity '08 hopes to harness the power of the Internet to build a community of activists who will be tasked with choosing a "unity" ticket (made up of one Democrat and one Republican) during an online "convention" in June 2008. "That will be after the two parties are likely to have decided in their primaries who their nominees will be, so the Unity '08 convention delegates would then be able to consider who is best to run against them," according to a four-page question and answer document being circulated by the group. ...
The group insists it is not a stalking horse for any candidate and that it has not spoken about its plans with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- the perceived frontrunners for their respective party's nominations.
The underlying factors which may be driving this curious and possibly short-lived effort are:
- The possibility that President Bush's low popularity numbers do not necessarily translate to high popularity numbers for a Democrat candidate. Much of the dissatisfaction with President Bush comes from the Right of his positions: from those who feel betrayed by Dubai Ports World fiasco; disappointed by a lack of firmness against illegal immigration or are dissatisfied by an unwillingness to fully prosecute the War on Terror -- issues on which the Democrats may be equally if not more seriously faulted. As in basketball, turnovers and fumbles in politics are useless unless the other side can convert. It's of little use to "frame" Tom DeLay in the context of "Republicans as the party of corruption" when a William Jefferson exists to put both parties on the same side of the line. It's just as useless to criticize GWB's security policy when the other Party manifestly has no security policy of its own.
- The difficulty of swinging the Democratic Party behind a relatively centrist candidate like Hillary Clinton. The campaign to unseat Senator Lieberman and the halting efforts by the Democratic Party to articulate an alternative national security policy all suggest that if GWB is in trouble from his Right, the Democratic centrists are in trouble from their Left. Even should they get possession of the ball, there's no one they can trust to take it to the basket.
- The inexplicable weakness of the antiwar movement after five years indicates a position that is inherently weak, despite the mistakes of President Bush. One of the images that really struck me was of a half-filled function room in Sydney -- a city with a large left-wing contingent -- at which Cindy Sheehan was scheduled to speak. People may not be crazy about GWB but nobody is lining up to hear Cindy Sheehan. The Left has got to face it: the old magic isn't there. Michael Moore will never be the Joan Baez of the early 21st century. The Movement of 1968 has become the walker shuffle of 2008. The existence of the Euston Manifesto, composed of Leftists explicitly committed to fighting Islamic extremism, is another yet indication of why GWB's missteps do not necessarily mean that voters will beat a path to George Galloway's door. The Left has become intellectually shabbier than the Right; and its brightest lights know it.
In short, there's every chance that voters have become disillusioned with a political system that appears to have slipped out of their control and into the hands of foreign lobby groups, special interest organizations and shadowy characters. As the Unity Ticket article quoted in the Washington Post put it:
"We believe that, while the leaders of both major parties are well-intentioned people, they are trapped in a flawed system -- and that the two major parties are today simply neither relevant to the issues and challenges of the 21st century nor effective in addressing them," reads a four-page summary document for "Unity '08".
The two party system has traditionally been a way through which voters could control policy outcomes by performing arithmetic operations on the partisan composition of the Legislature and the Executive. It was a kind of symbolic calculus in which ballot tickets were notation for political promises. Voters selected tickets and thereby selected the desired political outcomes through them; the correspondence was never exact but as long as it was "good enough" the calculus worked. What may be happening is that the voters no longer believe the calculus works.
Any perceived breakdown in the political calculus creates an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to create an alternative set of tickets and thereby get things working again. Whether this will actually succeed in a governmental structure designed along majority/minority lines remains to be seen. A large part of the problem is that the world truly did change on September 11, 2001; not in the sense of what happened on that day but in the sense of what that day revealed about the changes that had already taken place. Yet the political vocabulary of the West has not yet evolved to articulate the problems of the new age nor to deal with them. But the process is beginning.