Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: Our Fake Two-Party System

Stephen H. Unger

January 5, 2011

We recently saw a fine example of the operation of our two-party system. The Republicans (while still a minority in both houses of the lame duck congress) threatened to block continuation of both unemployment insurance for those whose coverage period expired (without which two million unemployed Americans would have no income), and the temporary tax cut for those with annual incomes under $200,000. In the past, approval of unemployment insurance extensions was routine. Now, the price demanded for allowing this extension and the middle-class tax cut was a 2-year extension of the tax cut for the super-rich and a substantial reduction in inheritance taxes, further benefiting the same group [Newscore]. The Democrats complained bitterly about being pressured to violate solemn campaign pledges, but soon yielded to this extortion. They also threw in another bonus by agreeing to cut (for 13 months), by almost a third, the payroll tax supporting social security, a prime Republican target.

After suffering what was obviously a bitter defeat, the president framed this as a victory illustrating the benefits of bipartisan cooperation, saying, "I want to ... thank Senator Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership ... for their willingness ... to do what was right for the country" [Press Secretary]. Indeed it was a great victory, but for whom? Note that a substantial majority of Americans opposed the tax cuts for the rich [Heflin]. This episode is just one example of how the interests of a very small, wealthy elite prevail in what is claimed to be a democratic society. Let's step back for a moment and consider how such a small group can dominate a huge population.

A Simple System

The classical way to achieve and maintain rule by a small elite is brute force. Opponents are subdued via violence, and opposition in any form is suppressed. In a more refined version, force is supplemented by a facade of legitimacy that includes elections. But these are manipulated as necessary via fraudulent vote counts etc., and opponents are denied the right of free expression. This method, used often in the course of human history, is still alive and well today in various parts of the world. It has, in many instances, been successful for short periods of time (a few decades). But it does not seem to lead to stable situations. People subjected to raw brutality are likely to be cowed for a while. But eventually resistance develops and spreads, the rulers weaken, and the system collapses. Then another group might try the same thing with similar results in the long run.

A Gentler, But More Effective Approach

Here is a sketch of a more subtle system for achieving the same end. It uses money and power in a more sophisticated way to sustain itself. There is little outright violence. By and large, people are free to express themselves without fear of arrest, altho, under certain circumstances, harsh police-state tactics are not ruled out.

There are elections that, for the most part, are genuine, with fraud a secondary factor. The key feature is an electoral system based on two political parties, the Soft Party and the Hard Party. The Soft Party plays the role of "people's advocate", mouthing rhetoric suggesting that it is really for ordinary people, as opposed to the wealthy people (WP). The Hard Party is designed to be more harsh than the Soft Party with respect to style and the measures it advocates. It is more openly supportive of the WP. However, both parties are largely financed by WP, tho not necessarily to the same extent by the same individuals. Their basic principles are the same: to maintain and enhance the power of the WP. Having two parties gives different WP opportunities to debate minor differences in tactics, and gives more of them chances to gain public attention. The Soft Party often starts with positions opposed to the interests of the WP, but almost always backs down in the face of strong, often angry, opposition from the Hard Party, which rarely retreats on any issue.

As stated above, there are few explicit constraints on free expression. But the means for reaching large numbers of people are firmly controlled by the WP. This control is exercised so as to block the wide dissemination of ideas basically opposed by the WP and it controls what issues are prominently discussed. It is not, however, airtight—occasional deviations are tolerated—and minor outlets for dissident opinions are permitted.

Election campaigns are very expensive, so that only WP, or people they approve of and finance, can be serious candidates for important offices.

The Hard Party is more threatening than the Soft Party, whose rhetoric is more benign with respect to the interests of the general population, and the Soft Party occasionally advocates measures a little more favorable to the majority. Since, in each election, the winner is virtually certain to be the candidate of either the Soft or Hard party, many who pay attention to politics and who sympathize with the interests of the majority feel compelled to opt for the Soft Party, since this might lead to a slightly better short-run outcome on the issues they are concerned about.

Roughly half the population, altho free to vote, does not exercise that right for any of several reasons. Some don't see enough distinction between the candidates to to justify even the little time it takes to cast a vote. Others are turned off by elections treated by the media as sporting events.

An interesting aspect is that many people victimized by the WP are deluded into thinking that they may at some time join that group, or even that they are now members on some junior level (perhaps as low level managers). A small number are in fact elevated. Some by virtue of unusual talent (for example an ability to hit a 95 mile an hour fast ball), or, perhaps, by inventing some new web-based business, or by displaying great ability in the managerial realm, making themselves exceptionally valuable to the WP. When enough people suffer from this delusion and are supplemented by enough others who are deceived by Hard Party rhetoric, or who are distracted by side issues (see below), or who are sufficiently disgusted with the deceptions of the Soft Party, we see the surprising spectacle of a majority of people voting for the Hard Party, which is against their own short-term (as well as long-term) interests.

Other clever tactics used by the WP to maintain their control involve dividing potential opposition. For example, private sector unions are pitted against public sector unions [Bagli]. Such matters as racism, sexism, religious issues, family values, and addictive drugs, play a useful role in this regard, but will not be discussed here.

Thus, we have a stable situation in which the WP, a very small minority, are able to maintain their dominance over a large population with minimal use of force and in a society that appears to be quite free and democratic.

I suggest that the above is a good general description of the system under which we live in the US. I don't think it was consciously put into place as a result of some conspiracy, but that it evolved over a period of time and is still being refined. Quite apart from any moral considerations, it is a remarkably ingenious and effective mechanism.

Is it Bullet Proof?

Efforts to defeat this system by violence would be foolish in that those who tried it would be widely, and properly, condemned as reckless disturbers of the peace, and would easily be put down by the WP, who are quite able in this realm.

Dissidents might try to take control of one of the political parties (probably the Soft Party). But, the undemocratic nature of the two major parties, their deeply entrenched bureaucracies, and the need for large sums of money even to get started in this direction, makes success very unlikely.

The best chance for beating this system might be to take advantage of the relatively free political system to organize new political parties to challenge the two major paries. This would be very difficult. Due to the financial aspect of elections, and control of the media by the WP, there is essentially no chance for early victory. Because of this, advocates of new parties are often accused by potential supporters of being irresponsible by diverting votes from the Soft Party, which would harm people a little less than would the Hard Party. Let's take a closer look at this argument.

A Necessary, but Up-Hill Fight

Starting a new political party, or trying to build up a small party into a serious political force, takes a lot of energy and persistence. Success can't come overnight. But it can be an exciting adventure, where measurable progress can be made. It is not nearly as frustrating as mud-wrestling with the experienced, well-funded bosses who rule the two major parties. But what about the charge that supporting a new party would weaken the Soft Party and result in the Hard Party gaining more power, to the detriment of most of the population?

Consider the current situation, where the Soft Party, after attaining power largely as a result of efforts by people angry at the terrible policies of the Hard Party, has adopted almost all those policies, and even added a few new outrages. Now, many, perhaps most, of those who worked hard to elect the Soft Party are not protesting because they don't want to weaken the party they had enthusiastically helped elect. Some have even changed their positions to endorse one or more of the policies they previously deplored. One consequence of this weakened opposition to bad policies is that public opinion is adversely affected by a lack of decent leadership.

In general, it may be better to have a bad policy proposed or implemented by the Hard Party rather than by the Soft Party, since it will be then be resisted much more widely and vigorously. So, if efforts to build a real opposition party make it more likely that the Hard Party will take office, this would, by no means, be a disaster. At present there is a good chance that the Hard Party will return to power in 2012. This would be not be a bad thing if, at the same time, a strong third party emerged with prospects for becoming a serious contender for power.

The success of the 2-party sham is based on persuading opponents of corporate rule that it is important to support the Soft Party in whatever election is coming up, because things will be somewhat worse if the Hard Party wins. This, on the surface, seems to be a valid utilitarian argument. But it is short-sighted. It means that, even if the Soft Party gets worse and worse from one election to another, it must still be supported as long as the Hard Party remains even a little bit more harmful than the Soft Party. The result of such a strategy is to allow, without resistance, a continual deterioration of the societal situation. It is essential to take a long-term view.

It takes time to overturn a deeply entrenched bad system. In struggles over important political issues, there are bound to be many lost battles before victory is achieved. From the time of the first serious, organized campaign, it took seventy years to achieve women's suffrage. It took over eight decades to end slavery after the birth of the US. The drift toward loss of liberty, unending wars, environmental degradation, growing economic inequality can't be stopped easily, but it will never be halted as long as we allow corporate interests to rule our country by means of a pseudo-democracy based on the two-party swindle.


Charles V. Bagli, "Cuomo Gains an Ally for a Looming Fight With the Public-Employee Unions", The New York Times, December 10, 2010

Jay Heflin, "Gallup poll finds majority favor ending tax cuts for the rich", thehill.com, 09/10/10

Newscore, "Obama signs $858B tax compromise, extending Bush cuts for two years", New York Post, December 17, 2010

Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President and the Vice President Before Signing the Middle-Class Tax Cuts Bill", White House Press Office, December 17, 2010

Comments can be emailed to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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