By the standards of American political discourse, the recent first-ever televised debate between Britain’s candidates for Prime Minister was a polite and muted affair. Gordon Brown bumbled through with his trademark style of dreary pragmatism, while the favored David Cameron stumbled badly due to his insistence on looking good and speaking with all the policy detail of a marshmallow. Yet it was Nick Clegg – the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats – who stole the show, and he now has a credible shot to throw a bomb into Britain’s two-party rule; recent polls have each party at roughly 33%. Not since George Hamilton Gordon led the Peelites to victory in 1852 has anyone other than the Liberals (under Labour, Liberal, or Whig) or the Conservatives ( under the Tories) held power, and even then the Whig/Tory binary predates even the existence of the USA.
WE THREE KINGS?
The UK’s Liberal Democrats are what many American third-parties wish they could be. They claim the allegiance of some 20% of the UK electorate, yet the first-past-the-post system that the UK shares with us prevents them from gaining many parliamentary seats. Yet this is their big chance, for a hung parliament (in which no party garners and absolute majority) is quite possible, and would force either Labour or the Tories into the sort of coalitions to which Europeans are accustomed yet which are foreign to most Anglophones. So fed up are the Brits with the hypocrisy and failure of their duplicitous social contract (unbridled capitalism AND and an unlimited welfare state) that for the first time in ages Britain might be on the verge of a fundamental reorganization of government. As The Economist has said,
The New Labour model, which aimed at social justice paid for by the fruits of more or less free-market capitalism, ran out of puff roughly when the money did.
(Poll Screengrab Courtesy of The Guardian)
COULD IT HAPPEN HERE? SHOULD IT?
Here’s a modest idea: people’s ideas matter, and the structure of their representative government should adequately reflect the breadth of those ideas. One of the secrets to understanding the USA is to recognize that while we are incredibly diverse, our ideological diversity is heavily weighted at the poles of political thought. The USA is a country of structural polarity. We have the best and worst ideas, the best and least educated people, the most structural income inequality among OECD member states, the most languages spoken among OECD countries, etc… and yet we are served by two political parties? Two parties whose core motivations are to speak loudly and often about nothing at all? Two parties that believe the incredible delusion that their half of the American people are right behind them?
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are locked into our polarity for fear of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If only one end of the ideological spectrum tries to diversify political speech, the other side can easily gain power by consolidating its allegiance into a single party. Clinton became president in 1992 because Perot split conservatives, while Bush rode to a court-aided victory in 2000 because of Nader’s share of Florida votes. Both men, and the third-party idea they represent, have been unintelligently criticized ever since.
* But what does a representative sample of ‘Democrat-ness’ look like? A moderately-conservative Blue Dog? A moderate Social Democrat like Obama? A rabid and incoherent progressive like Dennis Kucinich?
* Who is the typical Republican? A David Brooks-style softie who loves free markets but could care less about people’s bedrooms? The country-club Romneyites? The snarky George Will constitutionalists? Consensus-seekers such as Olympia Snowe and Lindsey Graham? Pathetic bloviators such as John Boehner, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al? Social warriors such as Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback? Small-government libertarians Ron Paul and Bob Barr?
Realistic hope for a diversified American politics would require that the fringes of our society make a joint pact. A large bloc of progressives would have to contract in good faith with the Tea Party Right to throw a bomb into American politics by diffusing the power of Republicans and Democrats simultaneously. Both Libertarian America and Social Democracy America are underrepresented in our system, and they simply deserve an authentic voice without forced integration into our two traditional parties. Without such a deal-with-the-devil, no doubt abhorrent to both sides, the Prisoner’s Dilemma reigns, the free riders win, and we don’t stand a chance. We’ll be forever condemned to the vapid spoutings of John Boehner, Harry Reid, cable news, and other intellectual scars on our cultural souls. Yet watch Britain on May the 6th. Something exciting might just happen.