Yesterday on Twitter, I ventured the hypothesis that the U.S. form of government is, most fundamentally, not a constitutional republic, but a variant on the party-state form — the difference being that there are two parties instead of just one. This can be difficult to see, because the predominant analysis of the great party-state forms of the 20th century, namely fascism and communism, has focused on the misleading concept of “totalitarianism.” Interpreting the party-state phenomenon through liberal democratic norms, the “totalitarian” analysis decides that since something like civil society or the private sphere no longer has the desired autonomy, we can only conclude that the state, as the only other available center of power, is over-dominant. This is a profound misreading of the situation, however, as Foucault points out in Birth of Biopolitics. The problem in party-states is not that the formal state structures are too strong, but that they’re too weak to restrain the party-movement that instrumentalizes them. In China, for instance, formal state structures “exist,” but the Communist Party essentially ignores them — indeed, the Party is not even recognized as a legal organization.
In the U.S., the party-state operates by pretending that it’s not a party-state. Constitutional norms and the division of power are given continual lip-service, as when Obama castigates “Congress” rather than the Republicans, and the Founders’ desire to prevent factions is presented as an operative norm of contemporary politics. Nevertheless, the constitutional division of powers is less important to the functioning of the government than the party structure. Indeed, both parties instrumentalize American constitutional quirks whenever the opportunity presents itself. More broadly, both parties seek to cover up their own corruption or incompetence by pointing toward the other party’s illegitimate “partisanship” — and the much-vaunted “bipartisanship” mainly serves as a mechanism to allow them to congratulate themselves for subverting the will of the American people.
More important than the rhetorical and political strategies, however, is the sense that the party duopoly is above the law — both in the sense of instrumentalizing it to maintain its hold on power and in the sense of evading legal sanction. Read the rest of this entry »