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. On both counts, the major U.S. parties qualify. The legal hurdles to developing a viable third party are considerable, and meanwhile, the formal state apparatus subsidizes and coordinates party activities (such as primary elections). Even in areas where one party has an insurmountable advantage, the official elections are almost always formally between a Democrat and a Republican, although the decisive vote is carried out in the context of a party primary. (This is the case in most Chicago elections, for instance.) The rules of legislative bodies are written with the assumption of an alternation of power between the two parties, and any independents must “caucus” with one of the parties to have any input.
The really disturbing thing is that the party duopoly renders both parties above the law. We can see this in the IRS scandal that is currently unfolding: although there are very good reasons to suspect Tea Party organizations of being less than completely upright when it comes to taxes, the formal state apparatus is likely to back down and sanction the agents who carried out those investigations, because the appearance of neutrality vis-à-vis the two parties is more important than the rule of law. Similarly, one cannot prosecute Bush-era war crimes, because that would be an illegitimately “partisan” move. Given that Clinton and Obama have both committed similar atrocities, one might have some sympathy with the inevitable Republican whining that would accompany a Bush prosecution — it genuinely wouldn’t be “fair.” But it’s when one asks why we don’t just prosecute Bush and Obama that we realize that the two parties are truly above the law — a bipartisan agreement on foreign policy trumps even the most sacred norms of international law.
This is not a recent development in U.S. history. I do not have the expertise to pinpoint a decisive “turning point,” but a two-party system developed early on, and even such important issues as the admittance of the Western states into the Union were carried out with an eye toward maintaining a balance between the two dominant factions. While that mostly took the form of North vs. South, in the 20th century things became scrambled — the parties have traded positions on many issues during that period, most famously with Republicans taking over for Democrats as the dominant party of the South, and many genuinely ideological factions were split between the two parties (both parties had liberals and conservatives, etc.). The result of this ideological incoherence and promiscuity is that the U.S. party-state is uniquely nihilistic in the sense of having no real goal besides maintaining the power of the party duopoly for its own sake.
Now one might object that by my standards, there are no genuine constitutional republics, but only party states. That may well be true, though there are many countries where the party system is genuinely more open, so that the formal levers of power are more “neutral” with regard to who operates them — and more importantly, almost every modern state has a more professionalized state apparatus that maintains continuity while governments change, as compared to the U.S. state apparatus that relies heavily on a rotating cast of political appointees to run basic government services. (In the U.S., the only portion of the state apparatus with notable autonomy and public respect is the military, which is remarkably effective in playing the two parties off each other in order to get what it wants.)
If it is true that most governments are closer to party-states than constitutional republics, though, that might mean that the normative liberal-democratic analysis of politics has greatly exaggerated the importance of the state. In reality, the formal state apparatus tends toward weakness and passivity, and that’s because almost no one cares about the state as such. The state for most people is one among many sites of political struggle, a set of apparatuses to be mobilized in favor of their own preferred agenda — though many will pay lip service toward the importance of maintaining the neutrality of the state apparatus, almost no one will do so when it puts their own side at a disadvantage. We can see that in the debate over fillibuster reform. While the ineffectiveness of the Senate destroys the credibility of Congress and the federal government as a whole in the eyes of the people, neither party is willing to pull the trigger on streamlining procedures, because neither wants to lose the potential advantage the fillibuster rule gives them when they are in the minority.
The only counterweight to this natural tendency is to develop a robust ésprit du corps in the state apparatus itself, so that the state can be a political actor in its own right, protecting its own prerogatives. Yet the American system of political appointments mainly prevents anything like this from happening, and neither party has an incentive to change that. And in any case, the political ideology Americans are fed from birth teaches them to fear an effective state bureaucracy offering a wide range of well-administered services as the first step toward totalitarian fascist communism — when in reality, the party duopoly that prevents such a thing from arising is actually what makes our system most akin to 20th century “totalitarianism.”