Gore Vidal has probably been misquoted more times than anyone since Jesus. Nevertheless, and no matter how he said it exactly, it was Vidal’s opinion that the United States has only one political party, and that that party has two right wings. One wing may be less right than the other, but still both swing and flap from the same side. Thus the Vidal quote (or misquote) – “We have a one-party system with two right wings.”
Actually, we have a no-party system in the United States running from an obsolete single-wing formation.
The elected portion of the federal government consists of 435 Members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators and a President and Vice-President. Of these 537 office holders none are actually chosen by state and local party organizations that have anything at all resembling a disciplined, central connection to a similarly organized and disciplined national political party. You may think they do – because across the country they call themselves Democrats and Republicans while a compliant media agrees - but they don’t and they know it.
In this 111th Congress all 435 seats in the House are filled by candidates who were elected as either Democrats or Republicans. Nowhere in America did a single Congressional district think to send an Independent or minor party candidate to Congress. Parties must mean a lot then, right? Well, actually not. You see, not one of these Congressmen – male and female alike - got to be candidates as the appointed choice of a national political party. Most of these Congressional hopefuls were not put up by their parties for election, but rather they were elected by primary voters who in many places did not even have to be registered party members to vote in those primaries. Neither party officials nor actual party members chose them.
As a result, many Members of Congress from the same party hold differing views on the same issues. Nationwide, neither Democrats nor Republicans running for Congress supported the national party line because no such party line existed. Congressional candidates answer to no national party leadership until after they are elected and seated in the House. And for many, who are by then Members of Congress, it’s too late to impose meaningful party discipline. As sitting Members they owe nothing to any national party organization, especially their election.
In the House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans are far more likely to be loyal to self-appointed cliques; semi-official caucuses or even undisclosed, hidden personal alliances than they are to be willingly subservient to any national party or Congressional leader. In effect, in the House of Representatives, the national parties serve at the pleasure of their membership, not the other way around.
It’s far worse in the Senate. In that body sits 100 senators each with a personal and permanent, statewide constituency, a local organization of the sort that used to be known as “machines.” Each senator has been at some point an individual primary election winner and – rather than represent their affiliated political party in their state – they often become that party simply by virtue of their position as a senator. With a six-year term, serving longer than even a President, to whom then do these US senators owe political allegiance? To themselves.
And our quadrennial Presidential candidates are all the winners of long and bitter campaigns capped by vicious primary battles. These mainly independent, individual personalities enter the race for President for personal reasons not necessarily having any ideological or party application. Most plan and raise funds for their election race years in advance. They are certainly not the handpicked representatives of any national party organization. Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower have the Democrats and Republicans picked their Presidential candidates in the storied smoke filled backrooms. Party bigwigs do not choose our Presidential candidates. They are determined by a series of state primaries, separate elections decided on separate issues, with some so personal as to be completely non-political.
So it has been for more than half a century that when the Presidential candidates finally emerge from the pack of those seeking the nomination, both of our major political parties become mirrors for that particular candidate rather than having that winner represent the already well-established views of that party. It’s the party that changes from election to election to fit the candidate. The definition of the party awaits the winner. Which is the chicken and which the egg? In some years the parties’ choices are radically different and the results are as unlikely as going to a steakhouse and ending up eating a veggie plate.
In the end, we get an elected federal government made up of Democrats and Republicans who for the most part disagree with each other as often as they disagree with the other party. And frequently, in Congress, we have small groups of Representatives and Senators from different parties who actually have more in common with each other than they do with any sense of what is supposed to be their own national party. It can be these blocks of cross-party votes that often control key legislation – all of it outside the so-called, accepted two-party party system. And usually, as Gore Vidal envisioned, both wings wave decidedly to the right in a single-wing formation.
On top of all this we inevitably have a President and Vice-President who are just as much in disagreement with many of the members of their own party in Congress as those members may be with themselves. We find ourselves with a government of Alfonse & Gaston, Laurel & Hardy, Martin & Lewis, all searching for the Marx Brothers.
While we like to think it is so, our two major political parties do not run our federal government. That government is in the hands of people with at best a loose affiliation to whatever they call their national political party. In the starkest of realities this accounts for why the current huge Democratic Party majority in the House and a super-majority of Democrats in the Senate means very little in terms of getting anything done. A Democrat in the White House apparently makes no difference at all. Our no-party system seems ideally designed to produce no-government.
It doesn’t have to be this way and it isn’t elsewhere. Here’s how the British do it. To be a candidate for Parliament in Britain you must be chosen by the official party organization in a Parliamentary district. After such a selection has been made, the national party organization has a binding veto. They must approve each and every candidate selection. When a British political party issues a platform, a statement of its beliefs and programs, a promise of what it will do if it forms a government, all its Parliamentary candidates support all of it without exception. If they don’t, they never get to run for election.
Unlike our Democrats and Republicans, there are no moderates or radicals in the same British parties. There are no conservatives and liberals within the same party. No blue-dogs, yellow-dogs or “mavericks” in England. Of course independents can and do run for Parliament in Britain, but never as a candidate of the established political parties. When a Parliamentary leader wants to rally his members there are no questions that all of them will vote the party line. Because there really is a party line and everyone knows full well what it is. If they disobey they risk severe punishment even expulsion from the party and from Parliament. Imagine that in our Congress. How could a Joe Lieberman earn a living?
We, in the United States, have no real party line, no actual party ideology, because we have no real national political parties. The overriding political ideology at work here seems to be little more than – “In The Grand Scheme Of The Universe, We Get What We Deserve.” What we get is a Congress – in fact an entire federal government – that too often just doesn’t work.
You don’t have to be Gore Vidal to know that in a single-wing formation, a bird with two right wings can’t fly.