By Vince Montes
This article examines the US political process and the duopoly party system within a vast array of state strategies and elite manipulation. It contends that analyses of the political process as a real engine of change and that significant differences within the two-party system are flawed because they do not account that they serve as mechanisms for how power and dominance in maintained and reproduced.
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By taking seriously the idea that the 20166 presidential election exposes the lack of trust and ultimate legitimacy of rule by the duopoly party system, we can attempt to understand the structure of power and domination in the United States. Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump were both widely explained as anti-establishment candidates, because of their alleged outsider statuses. Yet, Sanders had been in Congress for over 25 years and Trump is considered a member of the 1%. It might be accurate to view these attempts at populism as still occurring within the duopoly party system. Sanders’ slogan about bringing forth “The Political Revolution” a version of socialism, situated in New Deal Keynesianism, whose aim is to smoothen the jagged edges of the brutal capitalist system. Whereas, Trump’s slogans to “Make America Great Again” and to “Drain the Swamp” includes promises to restore the US to its rightful prosperous place, with mixed-messages on anti-neoliberal and anti-neoconservative intervention policies. Trump’s campaign also featured nativist and xenophobic rhetoric, reminiscent of political leaders generating emotional excitement and fear during economic declines. A critical observation can point out that to varying degrees much of Trump’s rhetoric is already institutionalised and represented in both the Democratic and Republican parties’ domestic and foreign policies – e.g., mass (targeted) incarceration, the “war on drugs”, and the “war on terror” are widely thought of as policies that ethno-racially profile and vilify particular groups of individuals.
Political parties attempts at appealing to populism to gain the support and “allegiance of the fickle crowd” and presenting themselves as the most “in touch” with popular concerns (Hitchens 2012) is in fact nothing new. It is very difficult to argue that these so-called insurgent candidates broke from what is largely considered the establishment. Aside from campaign promises, both candidate’s subjugation to the establishment is confirmed. Let’s take just two crucial aspects; their commitment to neoliberal policies (with a tinker here or there) and to a neoconservative foreign intervention policy based on a humanitarian pretext or otherwise. In fact, what is currently underway in the president elect Trump’s soon to be administration is the recycling of the established bureaucracy of politicians, military leaders, and the business elite. So in this regard, we are merely addressing elite manipulation. One can only surmise what a Sanders administration would have looked like had a democratic process occurred during the DNC primary and he had won the presidential election. All indications are, not much! After all, he pledged his allegiance to the Democratic Party before, during, and after his defeat. In fact, there was never any real indication that he would be radically different than the standard issue center-right democrat, such as a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
So with the great fanfare of emotions that president elections bring, so too follows the eventual drying up of aspirations for change. With the soon to be new president in office, neither will the Red Sea part nor will Armageddon arrive. Although the Trump campaign illustrates his success in out maneuvering both the Republican and Democratic brands of elite populisms, the power structure is poised to continue as usually. It is in this way, power and domination is maintained and reproduced by elite manufactured populism, which both parties engage in during election cycles. On the surface, largely the opinion of the corporate media and bipartisan academics is that a Trump’s presidency demonstrates a crisis in their respective established parties’ ability to gain the necessary amount of votes due to ineffective messaging and campaigning. In the case of the Democratic Party, the blame is now focused on Russian government interference in the election. Yet, still, some have explained the outcome of the election along racial lines as revealing the racial character in the US and a racial backlash to the election of Obama. While others have focused on the class character among the discontent and their sense of being left behind as the driver for voting for Trump. Yet, still, others emphasise the intersectionality of race and class in understanding the outcome. However, a deeper analysis points more to how the outcome of the election demonstrates a crisis in the legitimacy of the duopoly party system in which many just do not view as a viable means for change. At this moment, it is extremely difficult to imagine that after Trump is disciplined and briefed by the power elite he will do anything, but play by the rules of the game.
Perhaps than the only real difference between the Obama administration and the soon to be Trump administration is that Obama had been pre-selected and well vetted by the elite before he entered the race for presidency (Street 2009). Some have even stated that the Obama candidacy would reaffirm the idea of a post-racial society (Alexander 2010) and neutralise not only the black-white dichotomy and other ethno-racial conflict, but the protest that had generated momentum under the George W. Bush administration. Yet, within time, acting against calls to give Obama a chance, narrow identity politics, and an endless chorus of the liberal and pseudo left academics that pointed to the obstructions of Republicans for not delivering on his promises, emerged the Occupy Wall Street, Immigrant, Black Lives Matter, and Dakota Pipeline protests and movements that challenged the Democratic Party. These protests/movements nevertheless faced or face repressive measures from a democratic administration that has claimed itself the guardian of the oppressed and exploited.
Whereas the novice, Trump threw his hat in the race at the most opportunist time of increased disillusionment. Although it appears that the Democratic Party won the popular vote, millions did not even bother to vote. President elections have consistently been at around 50% for decades. This could mean a variety of things such as voters are either so satisfied that they feel that there is no need to vote, or that voting is meaningless so why bother. So I strongly suspect that when the discontent and dispossessed looked at the Democratic Party they did not see a great deal of credibility. And the flash moment of the Sanders’ campaign was not enough to revive Democratic Party populism. This could be in part the consequence of the enduring damage done by the political strategy of triangulation employed by the William J. Clinton administration (Hitchens 2012) that appropriated and implemented Republican ideas and issues such as neoliberalism, “tough on crime”, anti-social welfare, and a similar interventionist foreign policy. The continuity of this strategy continued with the Obama administration (e.g., the Affordable Care Act and not universal health care, the bailout of Wall Street and not Main Street, and the continued policies of the “war on drug” and the “war on terror”).
The triangulation strategy may have in fact accomplished its intentions, which is to get and keep Democrats in office, with the occasional loss of the office of presidency. All of this, without even offering any real change to the class structure and institutions of discrimination that produce wealth and power inequality. The problem is that if all they have to offer is the repacking of Republican ideas and policies, than one can only imagine that at some point this manipulation would be exposed, and periodically it has. Thus after Clinton’s two terms in office, a Bush administration followed with two terms of its own. The Democratic Party strategy of triangulation appears to be rooted in the fact that the US is far removed from a New Deal funded welfare state or from having a global dominant post-WWII economy in which the use of social funding and programs could be used in exchange for votes and acquiesce. In fact, similar to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party has no real program for change just rhetoric that masquerades as populism, because the political process has never been a vehicle for change, but a means for elite to manipulate and control the masses.
“If voting could change anything it would be illegal”, which is a quote largely attributed to Emma Goldman that captures the suppositions of this analysis. Therefore, the idea that a party, or that the personality and mannerism of a particular president is vitally important is an absurdity. Yes, this is a dangerous conclusion because it is not nuanced and parsed within the established perimeters of party orthodoxies and loyalties. Or worse, it is irresponsible for underplaying how a Trump presidency is indeed the raise of neofascism (Montes 2016b). This is precisely the point! By taking a critical stance, we prevent the perpetuation and validation of the “worst of the evil” conformity. There is an old adage that states that rather than ask why do people deviate, as do the field of social deviance and social control, we should flip this question and ask instead: why do people obey the system? Clearly the short answer is because of individual convictions (however this is a product of socialisation) and/or because individuals derive economic, political, and psychological (e.g., elevated esteem, honorific statuses sanctioned by the state and its manufactured legitimacy) benefit from their active collaboration in upholding a system that is fundamentally rooted in inequality. Or to use Robert Cover’s example of how “a convicted defendant may walk to a prolonged confinement, but this seemly voluntary walk is influenced by the use of force. In other words if he does not walk on his own he will most certainly be dragged or beaten” (in Green and Ward 2004: 3).
State repression is a crucial component to the establishment and continuation of the social order. The amount of force necessary for order maintenance in the US is often underestimated. According to many critical theorists, stability is problematic even in the most “democratic” society because resource distribution is so skewed that only a few reap excessive rewards, freedom, rights, and security. As a result, in order to maintain unequal relations there are over 10 million individuals working directly and indirectly in coercive occupations (such as policing, corrections, military, and intelligence organisations). In addition, there are approximately 7 million individuals under correctional supervision in the US alone, and countless populations around the world that live in wretched and oppressive conditions so that the US state can maintain its global dominance (Montes 2016a). The view that states that repress also facilitative and tolerate protest strongly suggest a complex and sophisticated state strategy. For example, what makes the US state facilitation so effective is that it is buttressed by state repression. In this respect, state repression is also multifaceted and includes not just the policing of protest, but an extensive counterinsurgency strategy that is preemptive and permanent, which target “threats” and potential “threats” (Montes 2009: 2016a).
What is key and often not brought into the analysis is the significance of understanding the state as the enforcer of the status quo. According to Tarrow, in the period of western state formation, “states that took on responsibility for the maintaining order had to regulate relations between groups, and this meant creating a legal framework for association as well as providing more subtle mechanisms of social control than the truncheons of the army and the police” (1994: 66). It is clear that the modern state produces powerful tools for repression and facilitation to hinder popular politics. Gamson argues that decentralised states generate “the strategy of thinking small,” within the confinements of the political process, but sets up a barricade against these who challenge property or security (in Tarrow 1994: 90). This is somewhat of a contradictory statement, because property rights require a great deal of security and as a result the greater inequality: the greater the reliance on the military and police. Yet, this insight provides us the context in which to understand how the state channels political “acceptable” grievances to the political process. In other words, modern states narrow the scope and the selection of politics as in the case of the US duopoly party system.
Groups or movements who do not advance their claims in the political process are more likely to meet the repressive side of the state. Therefore, the strategy of groups and movements has been to target the state and/or elite with their grievances, because it has offered some degree of protection from state repression as well as the hope of achieving some resolution or redress. This modified version of the concept of facilitation continues to view the state as a complex and strategic agent, but facilitative measures are not reserved for only contentious actors or social movements (Tilly 1978), but is more generalised to include the entire society. States use facilitation in order to target specific contentious groups or individuals (selective) and the general public (nonselective). By looking at state facilitation as more of a hegemonic strategy designed to win over and/or to manufacture the consent of aggrieved and oppressed people, we see it as a permanence feature that is pervasive in society with the aim to discourage general dissidence. The aim of state facilitation is to foster a sense of loyalty and obedience through the implementation of various forms of co-optation and appeasements. Some of the ways this is accomplished is by providing: employment and social aid (Piven and Cloward 1971); elite promotion, i.e., co-opting oppositional leaders into positions of intermediaries between elite and non-elite sectors of the population (this is also the realm in which narrow identity politics take place); and by channeling grievances into the political process. States do indeed respond to protest by also absorbing their demands and facilitating their entry into the polity (Tarrow 1998: 82).
Without a focus on the political process and the duopoly party system within a vast array of state strategies and elite manipulation, we will be left with the view that the political process is a real engine of change and that there are significance differences within the two-party system. Or even worse that there is no need for non-institutional politics, because of the efficiency of the political process. One of the ways to avoid the pitfalls in understanding power and domination and their reproduction is to avoid addressing one mechanism of it (e.g., the political process) in “a fragmentary way” as scattered and unconnected (1943: 166) with other mechanisms that are connected and are part of the larger power structure.
About the Author
Vince Montes is a lecturer in sociology at San Jose State University. Earned a Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research. Recent publications: “America’s ‘Duopoly Party System,’ Central to Understanding Power and Domination,” Global Research, December 03, 2016 and “Coercive Occupations as State Facilitation: Understanding U.S. State’s Strategy of Control, Radical Criminology, Issue 6, Fall 2016.
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4. Montes, Vince. 2009. “The Web Approach to the State Strategy in Puerto Rico.” In Knottnerus, David and Bernard Phillips, eds. Bureaucratic Culture and Escalating Problems: Advancing the Sociological Imagination. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 99-118.
5. _______. 2016a. “Coercive Occupations as State Facilitation: Understanding U.S. State’s Strategy of Control. Radical Criminology, Issue 6, Fall, 71-129. (http://journal.radicalcriminology.org/index.php/rc/issue/view/6/showToc)
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