Two-party politics and recent history
To a large extent, America’s current situation and its place in the world came about since the end of World War II hostilities in 1945. Since that time, America accomplished a great deal. It built up its modern infrastructure, expanded its higher education system and implemented policies ranging from civil rights and environmental protections to establishment of massive social programs such as social security, Medicaid and Medicare.
Although some of the bitter ideological debates that rage today began with the founding Fathers and never stopped, it is reasonable to look at 1945 to the present as a time frame in which to gauge the performance of the modern two-party system. Taking a view from the perspective of recent history helps to put the successes and failures in context. At the end of World War II, the situation included these considerations:
– America was the only major power whose military and industrial base was not destroyed like Japan and Germany and/or bankrupt like Italy, Germany, Japan, England, Russia and Eastern Europe. The economies of most of Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East were small or primitive 18th or 19th century operations. The economies, infrastructures and populations of Australia and Canada were, relative to the U.S., less developed and small.
– America had abundant timber, fresh water, oil, coal and other natural resources, relative to Japan, China, Germany, France and England.
– America had the most modern industrial infrastructure on the planet and built it up further, e.g., by building the interstate highways beginning in 1956, while modern infrastructure was limited or non-existent in most other countries.
– American innovation was unmatched and its manufacturing capacity was unmatched. Innovations such as the internet were based mainly on American technology. There were dozens of areas where American technology dominated until recently.
– America had some of the best, if not the best institutions of higher education in the world and continued to support those institutions.
– America continued to develop a strong, independent judiciary that generally enforced the rule of law. That facilitated development of a free and open society based on a stable legal framework in which commerce could be conducted with a reasonable degree of predictability relative to dictatorships or more corrupt countries.
– American had a free and open press that provided some degree of restraint on the tendency of unaccountable powers to become extreme or dictatorial.
– America had a large but manageable level of debt at the end of World War II. After the war, U.S. debt rapidly decreased to low levels relative to GDP.
– America had an average health care system at the end of World War II.
– America and Americans were generally reasonably well-liked around the world.
– America had the best form of government of any nation on Earth. China was saddled with Chairman Mao until he died in 1976. He set China’s economy back by decades in pursuit of his failed political ideas such as the Cultural Revolution and dismal “great leaps forward”, all of which kept China in the dark ages in some respects. The Russians had Joseph Stalin, his brutal dictatorship and the failed Communist economic model. The constitutions and forms of government in Germany and Japan were being rewritten.
– America was, and still is, a relatively honest and transparent place to do modern business and to conduct the affairs of government. By comparison, Russia, China, most of the Middle East and most of the rest of the world was, and still is, opaque and highly corrupt.
– America put into place the policies that mark key aspects of the modern American way of life and its economy, e.g., the Great Society legislation, environmental laws and laws that allowed the dollar to become the world’s reserve currency.
Within that time frame, America clearly started the race far ahead of its crippled rivals and competitors. Given that context, how well has the two-party system performed since then? Where are we now?
America’s current situation
America has experienced some real improvements that politics has some nontrivial degree of involvement in since 1945. There has been social progress, which includes establishment of civil rights laws. It also includes establishment of America’s social safety net and, until recently, an increased standard of living. Laws to protect the environment are now fairly-well established and generally accepted by the public. Advances in health care and many other technical areas were profound and often driven by American innovation and American businesses, although the degree of involvement by politics in that is unclear.
Balanced against the improvements are various offsets and costs the U.S. incurred along the way. That includes a national debt of $16.7 trillion. There is also an unknown amount of unfunded debt obligations that are not owed now but will be owed over time in the next 10-50 years. Recent estimates of the unfunded debt we will incur under current law is about $87 trillion, although estimates and time frames vary. Much of that stems from unfunded Medicare and social security obligations, which can be changed by congress to make the obligation larger or smaller going forward. In addition, the states collectively have a few trillion in unfunded pension liability obligations.
Other considerations include (i) U.S. public education is uneven and has, on balance and despite high levels of spending, deteriorated over the last 30 years or so, (ii) America’s infrastructure such as the quality and availability of roads, railroads, ports, air transport, etc., was once first (5th 10 years ago) but now ranks 25th and needs about $3.6 trillion by 2020 for delayed maintenance; the state of our infrastructure is a major drag on economic growth, (iii) America’s balance of trade is negative, currently about -$30-50 billion/month and about -$6.75 trillion since 2000, has been negative every year since 1975 but was generally positive most of time before that; this is a drag on GDP growth, (iv) incomes for the middle class and the poor have been stagnant for at least a decade; median inflation-adjusted family income fell about 6% from a peak in 2000 at $64,232, it has fallen roughly 6 percent; wages are stagnant for the middle and lower classes , and (v) despite spending far more than any other country on health care, about 47 million Americans (about 15%) did not have health care insurance in 2012; that compares to countries like Germany or France, which have built high-quality universal healthcare systems since 1945.
To be fair, it is acknowledged that some or maybe all of these characterizations are disputed, especially by conservative ideologues. That should be no surprise. Conservatives, just like liberals, dislike acknowledging realities that they believe undermine their ideology and these realities apparently are uncomfortable. The ideologues therefore spin other realities to suit their comfort zones and to placate their ideologue bases. The Reform Party of California (RPCA) has argued all of this many times and reiterates these assertions again.
Did the two-party system lead or did it follow?
There are other factors to consider before drawing any conclusions. One is consideration of what role, for better or worse, did America’s two-party political system play? Did the two parties lead or follow? This is not an irrelevant consideration. They both thump their chests and endlessly pontificate about their courageous leadership. How much of that was there in reality? Pandering to the base by tossing red meat and spin to the crowd does not count as leadership. It counts as service to political self-interest and/or blind ideology. Putting the pander aside, one can argue that at the national level neither of the parties had much of anything to do with some of the key changes that occurred since 1945, especially for some social issues.
For example, in 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education case. It overturned 58 years of legalized segregation in public education. The problem was obvious and long-standing. Congress could easily have passed laws with the same impact as the Brown decision, but they did not do so. Key reasons they did not was because many of the politicians from the South in congress at the time were afraid to support desegregation for fear of losing their office. Also, many or most conservatives politicians everywhere, including some who later rose to prominence, publicly supported segregation. Politicians in districts that supported segregation tended to support it. With that context, was Brown a matter of courageous political leadership or was it mostly a matter of courage- or reality-challenged politicians passing the buck to the judges in the federal courts? Those judges could not be voted out of office. By contrast, the politicians were highly vulnerable. What was that? Was it service to political self-interest, bravely serving the public interest, or something else?
Another example was the famous/infamous 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Once again, America was facing a social problem and congress did nothing about it. That arguably was for about the same reasons that congress did nothing about segregation in public education. For this issue neither the left nor the right acted. Once again, political self-interest was a major factor, maybe the deciding factor. Even today, people in congress who loathe and despise the Roe decision could do something but they don’t. For example, they could force the issue of amending the constitution to define a “person” to include the unborn. That would legally and permanently overrule Roe. The point is that in RPCA opinion, the leadership by the two parties since 1945 has been, with some exceptions, mostly weak due to concerns such as self-interest and other factors argued elsewhere.
The matters of trust and war
Other factors to consider include what has happened to the American public’s trust or faith in government since 1945. Since that time, trust in government has fallen to the point that governing at the national level is now difficult or, for some important issues, impossible. Public trust in congress is low, but maybe increasing somewhat at the moment. The rhetoric between members of the two parties in congress is full of venomous criticism for the opposing side. If one is neutral and simply listens objectively to what the two sides are saying about each other and their motives, there is every reason to lose all faith in both parties. There is no reason to mistrust government unless our elected political leaders are incapable of competently and responsibly overseeing government operations.
The ideological gridlock leaves us with governance through nonsense such as spending cuts via the sequester. That is something both sides say is an idiotic way to govern. It is no wonder that most of the public has lost most of their trust. In RPCA opinion the loss of trust is inexcusable and probably was mostly a consequence of two-party pursuit of ideological purity, power and other self-serving advantages. These things constitute major failures by both parties.
It is also worth mentioning war since 1945. Since that time, America’s experiences included the Vietnam War. There is evidence that the federal government intentionally deceived the American people to trick them into accepting a need for war. Most Americans now view the Vietnam War as a mistake.
We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Most Americans view the Iraq War as a mistake. America attacked that country despite not being attacked or seriously threatened. The ultimate outcome in Iraq cannot be yet predicted, but it does not look like America left a friendly ally in its wake, despite massive spending and thousands of lost American and other lives.
The ultimate outcome in the ongoing Afghanistan war is far from clear. Common sense strongly argues that at the least, once foreign troops are mostly or completely gone, the corrupt Afghan economy will collapse. In addition to being intractably and profoundly corrupt, about 97% of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from foreign aid and military spending. No economy can withstand the loss of anywhere near that kind of support. Pledges of aid from the U.S. and others sound a lot like self-serving window dressing and spin for domestic consumption.
When it comes to the conduct of war since 1945, it is easy to argue that leadership from the two-party system has both failed and betrayed the American public. Public skepticism about launching an attack on Syria over chemical weapons use reflects both the loss of trust and the failure of war as an effective means to advance American interests.
To balance the bad news and failures on the war front, there just isn’t nearly enough good news, e.g., the South Koreans still mostly like us and we look a bit better to the Philippines since they began having some regrets about nudging the U.S. military out of Subic Bay in 1992.
The fair and balanced report card
Given that background, how well have the two parties done since the end of the Second World War? Each party will likely give themselves a B+, A or A+, and to the extent they acknowledge any problems at all, they will give their opponent a D, D-, F or maybe even an F-, assuming there is such a thing as an F-. When it comes to shouldering their fair share of blame, neither party is worth spit. However, to be fair and balanced, the RPCA simply relates the likely self-reported report card grades for themselves and their opponents.
The RPCA gives the two parties a well deserved D. They earned it. Giving them a D+ or C- is grade inflation. The background described above is incomplete, but it is an honest attempt to be fair in acknowledging the good, bad and neutral. Being complete would require a 2,000 page book and even that probably wouldn’t fully do the job. The two parties started out with essentially everything and then financed a lot of what they did with debt, smoke and mirrors. Despite all the advantages at the start, they somehow miraculously got us to where we are now. Deficit spending goes a long, long way toward making failures look like successes.
The two parties intentionally fostered ideological division and that fostered loss of trust in government. The two parties continue to rely heavily on spin to keep the U.S. public distracted and deceived. The two parties continue to allow massive amounts of injury to America’s economy and financial position in fealty to special interest demands and their own self-interests. The two parties continue to demonstrate little leadership in the face of real problems. All of these things make it hard to assign a higher grade. Under the circumstances, assigning grade of D to both of the two parties for their performance since 1945 is reasonable and defensible.
Fortunately, we are not a dictatorship and we still have free speech. Either of those would have earned the two parties a grade of F, but under those unhappy circumstances that opinion would never have seen the light of day.
1. Despite its relative transparency, the Reform Party believes that there is generally much less transparency in U.S. governments than would effectively serve the public interest, especially at the federal level. There is a reason that both parties and most of their politicians generally dislike measures to increase transparency. Opacity allows business as usual to go on with little or no public or press oversight. Defenders of the status quo would probably mostly or completely disagree. That is just another difference in perceptions of reality (opinion) between the two-party status quo and the Reform Party.
2. Link to 2012 global corruption map: http://www.transparency.org/cpi2012/results.
3. According to one source, per capita personal income in 1945 was $1,223 in 1945 and $41,663 in 2011 (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0104547.html).
4. Link: http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/.
7. Link: http://www.ibtimes.com/us-17th-global-education-ranking-finland-south-korea-claim-top-spots-901538; http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jun/17/us-education-slipping-ranks-worldwide-report/; http://www.cfr.org/education/us-education-slipping-ranks-worldwide-earns-poor-grades-cfr-scorecard/p30939; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/schooling-ourselves-in-an-unequal-america/?_r=0.
8. Links: http://www.businessinsider.com/us-infrastructure-behind-developed-world-2013-1; http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GlobalCompetitivenessReport_2012-13.pdf; http://www.businessinsider.com/study-infrastructure-spending-needed-2013-1; http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/.
9. Links: http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/gands.pdf; http://www.cnbc.com/id/100941780; http://www.policymic.com/articles/15337/us-trade-deficit-how-our-negative-balance-of-trade-is-harming-the-recovery; http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/transactions/transnewsrelease.htm.
10. Links: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/a-closer-look-at-middle-class-decline/; http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/a-closer-look-at-middle-class-decline/; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/sunday-review/americas-productivity-climbs-but-wages-stagnate.html; http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/05/05/wages-job-growth/2134207/.
11. Links: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/insur201209.pdf; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/21/uninsured-americans-2012_n_2918705.html; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/26/21-graphs-that-show-americas-health-care-prices-are-ludicrous/; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/10/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries.html.
13. Links: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-its-role-and-limits/; http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-6-what-is-the-public-interest-and-how-is-it-best-served/.
16. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._Wade.
17. It is understood that trying to amend the U.S. constitution is a fool’s errand. It isn’t going to happen under present circumstances. However, chasing fool’s errands do not bother the current House of Representatives. That scrappy crew has now voted 40 times to repeal and/or defund Obamacare (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/gop-obamacare-vote_n_3695871.html). The chances of that happening are literally zero. However, the sustained attack on Obamacare does not end with all those empty votes the House has passed. The next phase of the attack that Obamacare haters are pressing is a total government shutdown (http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/08/16/211972651/gop-debate-is-obamacare-fight-worth-a-government-shutdown; http://www.startribune.com/politics/national/220729771.html). Given that kind of hate and intensity, there is no reason that abortion opponents could not engage in the same tactics, i.e., shut down the government or force votes on a constitutional amendment. Again, this is largely a matter of political self-interest dictating actions. Those House votes against Obamacare were nothing more than empty, self-serving posturing by the Republican Party for the 2014 mid-term elections. They are otherwise a complete waste of legislative time and taxpayer dollars. For whatever reason, there does not appear to be a similar political upside for the same tactics with abortion. None of this is to express any opinion on Obamacare or abortion. It is offered as a partial explanation of why things like this do or do not happen in congress and two-party politics in general.
18. President Johnson masterfully steered civil rights legislation through congress despite opposition from many conservatives. Johnson understood the political ramifications. He predicted that if civil rights laws were passed, it would be a factor behind the democratic party’s loss of the South for a generation or more (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1964#Political_repercussions; http://billmoyers.com/episode/how-do-conservatives-and-liberals-see-the-world/ – comments on this are at ~8:30-9:20 of the interview with Bill Moyers; Moyers was Johnson’s press secretary at the time). Regardless of whether one supports civil rights laws or not, what Johnson did was a rare example of real political leadership and courage.
19. Links: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-6-what-is-the-public-interest-and-how-is-it-best-served/; http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-politics-and-special-interest-money/.
20. Links: http://www.gallup.com/poll/163964/congress-approval-rating-remains-near-historical-lows.aspx; http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/congressional_performance.
25. Links: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/world/asia/afghanistan-is-pledged-16-billion-for-civilian-needs.html; http://www.cgdev.org/blog/defense-aid-afghan-government; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/world/asia/afghan-government-faces-cash-crunch-imf-says.html?pagewanted=all. The content in last link reveals some real self-delusion and/or naivety by “experts” who suggest that the hopelessly corrupt Afghan government can reduce tax evasion to help its cash flow problems. That is sheer nonsense. If the relatively clean U.S. government can’t lift a finger to crack down on annual tax evasion that is likely more than $400 billion/year (http://reformparty.org/the-tax-gap/), there is no way the Afghan government will do any better. Afghanistan is a kleptocracy, a/k/a/ rule by thieves.
27. But who knows. We may be on our way back to Subic Bay. In 2012 the Philippine government said that the United States Military could use the old base with prior approval (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Naval_Base_Subic_Bay#Closure). There’s nothing like some real fear (of China) to refocus the mind.