The two-party system dilemma and inside/outside politics
The US electoral system is based on winner-take-all voting districts. In the general election, whatever party wins the most votes, even if it's a plurality considerably below 50%, win the seat.
Historically, this has created a strong incentive toward a two-party system. In parliamentary systems with proportional representation, a party that wins only 20% of the vote in a statewide or nationwide election gets 20% of the seats in the parliament. The winner-take-all system creates a powerful incentive for candidates and voters to coalesce around parties that have a strong shot at winning 50%+1 of the votes in a given district.
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turksrecently interviewed Rocky Anderson, who is mounting a third-party Presidential campaign, one with a level of support such that it may be that none of us will hear of it again. Even in this short segment, they address a key element of the two-party dilemma:
Our two-party system is deeply entrenched. The current Democratic Party can trace its organization lineage back to Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. The Republican Party was founded in 1854. Their ideologies have obviously changed considerably over that time, to put it mildly. But the organizational durability of both parties is long.
Which means that the progressive movement that is today actively trying to break the corrupt hold of the 1% over the political system will need an inside-outside strategy to be effective. The Democratic Party needs to be democratized by party challenges to the more conservative Democrats, which certainly includes any Democratic officeholder who is not willing to make a serious, hardline fight to prevent cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Primary challenges to recalcitrant incumbents has been a key element in the success of Movement Conservatism in taking over the Republican Party, Movement Conservatism being essentially synonymous with the Christian Right and the Tea Party. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005):
The relationship between the brokers and the base is symbiotic. On issue after issue, party leaders have responded not to the center of congressional opinion (much less of American opinion) but to the interests and demands of their base, aggressively structuring agendas and alternatives to please the hard Right. Yet party leaders have done more than work with the party material they have— they have sought to tame or weed out politicians deemed feckless and to elect or elevate those deemed loyal. The base plays a crucial role in this process of recruitment and discipline. They certify and work for conservative candidates, they keep conservative issues and ideas in the spotlight, and they threaten the politically wayward with excommunication. And so, election by election, the pull of the base grows and the sway of the center declines. ...
The cross-party replacement of Democrats by Republicans in the South, moreover, is not the only cause of increased Republican conservatism. Almost as important ... is the replacement of Republicans by Republicans. When Republicans defeat or succeed other Republicans, they are generally much more ideologically extreme than their predecessors. This is considerably less true, it turns out, among Democrats.
Perhaps the biggest finding, however, is that Republican members of Congress generally head right once in office. Such "adaptation" (as [Sean] Theriault calls it) has been a major cause of the increasing ideological extremism of the Republican Party, nearly equaling the replacement of existing members of Congress in its aggregate effect. Again, the same is not true of the Democratic Party. The bulk of congressional adaptation, notes Theriault, "occurs within Republican Party members" as they march steadily rightward over their careers. [my emphasis in bold]
Meanwhile, elections roll around every year, and Presidential elections every four years. for today's progressive movement, an inside-outside strategy would mean primary challenges and campaigns for office at all levels within the Democratic Party, and at the same time having organizations and causes that bring pressure on Democratic incumbents without being directly or de facto dependent on the Democratic Party establishment.
Individuals who disapprove of President Obama's hostility to Social Security and Medicare, for instance, but who also know the Republicans would be worse for ordinary people on policies across the board, can contribute time and/or money to candidates or candidate-recruitment groups like Blue America who will take a more progressive line. Which certainly should include hardline support for Social Security and Medicare.
Having candidates like that in the field will not only get better Democrats elected. It will also bring real pressure on the President and other elected Democratic officials to get with the base's program.
Support for independent progressive organizations and causes like actively pro-choice women's rights groups, environmental activist groups, Occupy groups, pro-immigrant groups, even the ACLU and other civil-liberties groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, are all ways of bringing pressure for constructive change without people being obliged to vote for Democratic candidates they find disappointing, or worse.
Paul Krugman uses the new regulations on mercury as an example of how it does make a real, concrete difference in people's lives whether Democrats or Republicans control the national government. (The Meaning of Mercury 12/22/2011) Noting that the new regulations will save literally tens of thousands of lives and avoi8d other serious health problems, he writes:
The point that strikes me most, however, is that this shows that it matters who holds the White House. You can complain about Obama’s lack of a strong progressive agenda, which I sometimes do, or wonder what good it is to hold the White House when the other side blocks every attempt to do good through legislation. But mercury regulation would not have happened if John McCain were president.
Elections have consequences, and this is one delayed consequence of 2008 that will make a big difference.
This does not mean that supporters of Social Security and Medicare should stop criticizing Obama and other Democrats who are in the pockets of various lobbyists over the next year. On the contrary, progressive primary challenges to one-percenter Democrats in 2012 is one of the most constructive things that could happen! As Hacker and Pierson point out, that has been one of the main ways one-percenter Republicans brought the country to the point where Newt Gingrich and Ron "Papa Doc" Paul are major players in US politics.
But at the same time, that doesn't mean we have to pretend that it makes no difference whether a Democrat or a Republican sits in the White House or which Party controls Congress, statehouses and state legislatures. It does matter, a lot.