Democracy, as practiced in ancient Athens, consisted of direct citizen participation in government through collective membership in a single, sovereign assembly, which united all three functions of government: executive, legislative and judicial. A similar combination of powers was tried in the revolutionary France of the 1790s, where a committee of the assembly, the Twelve, carried out executive functions. Of course, the French legislature was an elected one, given the size of France and more or less organized factions soon developed in it. Nor did it fare particularly well, since, beset by foreign invasion and domestic resistance, it issued in the Terror that sent thousands of French citizens to the guillotine.
The Roman Republic, a longer-lived experiment, recognized the reality of class division by providing for separate, though coordinate, legislative bodies, the aristocratic Senate and the popular Plebeian Assembly. Executive functions were assigned to two consuls, one from each constituency. In practice, the Senate predominated, but the Plebeian Assembly was an at least marginal check on it. Rome’s imperial success ultimately did the Republic in, a fate that in somewhat different form appears likely to be that of the United States as well. This would not have surprised our Founding Fathers, who did not expect permanence from any political institutions, including the one they set up.
The alternative model for a democratic polity was the party system, which developed out of the factional groupings in Britain’s Parliament and which hearkened back in part to the Greek model through an executive based on the system of ministerial responsibility, in which the majority party of the House of Commons also formed the executive, with the supreme judicial function resting in the unelected House of Lords. In the United States, the judiciary evolved as a separate branch, tied to established law by the rule of precedent, but in practice often going its own way — i.e., responding to powerful political interests and, very occasionally, to populist pressure. The U.S. also put in place a presidential system, formally separating the executive and legislative functions although requiring them to cooperate in the passage of statutes.
Modern party systems come in two versions. In the first, characteristic of mature polities, the system is dominated by two large parties which alternate in power. In the second, multiparty systems make it a rare occurrence for any single party to gain a legislative majority, requiring coalition governments formed through political bargaining and power-sharing.
The tendency of two-party systems is toward ideological convergence, their official rhetoric notwithstanding. This has been the case in the United States, where only major issues or crises — the question of slavery, or the response to the Great Depression — seriously divides the parties. There was a substantial convergence between the Conservative and Liberal parties in Great Britain during the 19th century, as there is today between Conservatives and Labour. Rhetorically, the parties appeal to what they define as broad national interests, although they also cultivate regional and class constituencies. Thus, until, the 1960s, the Democratic Party assumed the role of protecting the Jim Crow regime in the South, whose racist remnants have since then been sponsored by Republicans.
The interests that two party-systems represent most faithfully, however, are those of established elites. As those elites concentrate wealth and power, their care and feeding become the almost exclusive preoccupation of the parties. Eugene Debs, the perennial Socialist candidate for president, observed a hundred years ago that Democrats and Republicans were merely different wings of a single party that serviced a radically inegalitarian capitalism.
His observation was true when he made it. It is equally true today, at a moment of systemic crisis. The concentration of wealth and hence of power, has rarely, if ever, been as great as it is today, not only in the United States but around the world. In the U.S., 62 Americans have as much wealth as 150 million of their fellow citizens combined. The top 1 percent of the population have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This is politically, socially, economically and morally dysfunctional and, to the very large extent that it represents the conscious theft of the fruits of labor, backed by unjust laws and the police powers resting on a vast penal system and force administered directly in the streets, it is wicked.
A popular rebellion against this situation has been building for some time. Its manifestations have been various, from the short-lived Occupy movement of 2011 to the recent Brexit vote in Britain and the ongoing strikes and demonstrations in France against a nominally “Socialist” government that has aligned itself with austerity policies and is trying to pass a bill eroding worker rights and protections by parliamentary maneuver. The rebellion has encompassed both the left and the right wings of the electoral spectrum, as seen in the mass support both for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in our own presidential campaign. This year, as it seemed for awhile, the plutocratic “center” would not hold.
As it happens, though, it appears that it will do just fine.
Donald Trump, the clown Mussolini, has hijacked what remained of the post-George W. Bush Republican Party, resuscitated through the joint efforts of Barack Obama and John Roberts. Poised a year ago to return the Bush dynasty or some surrogate to the White House, the Republicans were flummoxed by the revolt of their base, tutored over the past forty-some years to vote reliably against its own interest. The Democrats, serenely confident in their own corporate-vetted candidate, Hillary Clinton, meanwhile looked to yawn their way through a perfunctory primary process on the way to reinstating their own dynasty, its rejection in 2008 by their voters in favor of a jug-eared junior senator with a name that rhymed with the world’s most wanted terrorist notwithstanding. From deep in the political wilderness, a rumpled, 74-year-old backbencher, previously unaffiliated with the Party, put together an insurgent candidacy that very nearly sent Hillary home to her knitting.
Had Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination — it was oh so near but at the same time oh so far, with Hillary’s superdelegates always in reserve to negate the popular vote — the Wall Street Party of Demopublicans would have been left without a single reliable candidate to run the political show. No doubt it would have muddled through — Sanders was a middling reformer at best by European social democratic standards and Trump, for all his theatrics, was a businessman — but to have a race between a largely self-funded candidate who lived off free media and a self-proclaimed socialist who disdained all corporate financing competing for the presidency would have been a most palpable hit at the bought-and-paid for kleptocracy enshrined by the Supreme Court in its notorious Citizens United decision.
Sorry: not to be. It’s Trump versus Clinton. The 2016 presidential election will be between two of the most disliked, distrusted and plain-out despised candidates ever presented to a voting public: a race to the bottom in every sense of the word.
Apart from a few has-beens ostentatiously trying to burnish their resumes for history, Republicans have trooped in behind Trump. The betting is that, in office, the clueless casino magnate will have to rely on seasoned and reliable professionals to pursue any sort of an agenda, let alone fend off impeachment or military revolt. And then there are the politicians who put Hitler into power in 1933, with every confidence they could control the guy’s wild streak. No, Trump isn’t a Hitler, not even a Mussolini. But those who think he’ll docilely take orders from his Dick Cheney don’t know the first thing about him.
Karl Rove, writing in The Wall Street Journal, thinks the Democrats have bigger problems than the Republicans. He may have a point. Republicans have sunk about as far as a political party can go over the past 15 years, even as a sham operation. But Democrats are the ones who have been losing market share for the past several decades. The Republicans have essentially been a minority party since the New Deal, with no more than a quarter to a third of the electorate identifying itself with them. The Democrats were for most of this period a consistent 20 points above them in terms of voter affiliation. That advantage has now been virtually erased. Only 29 percent of polled voters now regard themselves as Democrats, while self-described Republicans are within a poller’s margin of error at 26 percent. The rest of the country — 42 percent — describes itself as independent, i.e., alienated. In a two-party system, nearly half the electorate is thus saying, a plague on both your houses. This is a formula for a multiparty system, or maybe just a breakdown of the system entirely.
The Republicans will have a wake at their convention in Cleveland, but the Democrats will have a brawl in Philadelphia. Another candidate with Clinton’s profile might be simply a disappointment, as John Kerry was the disappointment of Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004. But Hillary Clinton has always been a remarkably polarizing figure and with the baggage of her husband’s administration behind her — and maybe out in front too, since Bill seems to be Donald Trump’s secret weapon in this campaign — the paddy wagons are already being prepared for protesters in and out of the Convention Center. More and more Republicans and top Wall Street executives, on the other hand, say they are perfectly prepared to accept and even vote for her. With friends like that, the Democrats will hardly lack for enemies in the fall — and the party for reasons to split.
Ben Franklin hedged his bets when he described the product of the constitutional convention of 1787 as “a republic, if you can keep it.” The Founding Fathers knew a thing or two about rough-and-tumble politics. But Trump and Clinton? No electorate ever deserved that. None before, in America, has yet seen it.