What do Two Party Democracies and Dodo Birds Have in Common?

That’s right. Three guesses and the first two don’t count. Yes, I’m trite but I’m right, (apologies to my high school english dominatrix–Cecelia “Iron Jaw” Aarons). Worldwide, two political party systems of government are rapidly facing the same fate that dodo birds faced in the late 1600s–extinction.

Maybe according to typical metrics the world is getting better – less starvation, more education, and healthier populations (admittedly the U.S. is an extreme exception). But the established political parties which often helped make it so? Gone. Kaput. Finished.

Like coal and steel manual labor; going, going, soon to be a ghost.

Now, by and large, parties are at the mercy of immense societal movements that are usually global rather than confined to individual nations, (much to the chagrin of anti-globalists like Steve Buh-Bye Bannon).

In the United States, for instance, the Republican Party has been hijacked by Donald Trump, a man who clearly seems to prefer autocracy to democracy. In the U.S., change was driven by forces as incongruent as an increasingly precarious and resentful workforce (nearly 60 percent of American workers are paid by the hour), a white backlash against the Obama presidency, and a corporate world which is ecstatic over a new tax giveaway plan that enriches the one segment of  the U.S. population that was already rolling in dough. Voters might very well turn against the Republicans in the 2018 mid-term elections, but the Democrats, having lost a presidential election they should have won easily, have yet to find a leader, (Oprah? Oh please!) much less a unified message.

In Germany, Europe’s de facto leader, the narrow winner in the September federal election – the center-right CDU/CSU – have begun talks with the center-left Social Democrats, coalition partners in the previous government. Both parties, however, with decades of often-eminent political struggle and governance behind them, do so with hesitancy; both fear the growth of new parties, a sign of an uncoupling from the establishment, and winning support from only 40 percent of the electorate.

In the UK, the Conservative government seeks an exit from the European Union while a barely suppressed civil war rages from within. The far-left commands the Labour opposition and resembles the extremist “Bernie Bro” movement in the U.S. In France, the multitude of established parties have been ostracized in the national assembly by a wave of political novices in the newly-created En Marche movement – a support group for presently all-powerful President Emmanuel Macron.

In Italy, elections in early March could see an invigorated right wing, with a significant far-right element come to power – as it has already shown in Austria. Spain’s conservative ruling party is deadlocked by a vote in Catalonia for pro-self-government parties. In Central Europe, Poland and Hungary are ruled by authoritarian (and popular) parties; in Poland’s case the governing Law and Justice Party is about to be sanctioned by the European Union for departing from approved liberal-democratic norms.

All of this goes on while in China and Russia, Egypt and Turkey, autocrats, not subject to public or institutional accountability, enjoy high approval and openly mock democracies. And if the few remaining members of the GOP who are not easily bribed with sullying pristine Arctic regions with oil rigs, government protected wildlife refuges being sold for development, or other previously protected natural treasures don’t step up, irreversible damage will have already occured by the time historically-minded Democrats might win back control of Congress.

Less than three decades ago the triumph of democratic governance was renowned as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell to pieces. Now the dystopian assessments are the bestsellers in both the left and right markets of the respective electorates.

And do not be fooled into believing that this is local occurrences, there are larger forces afflicting the most storied parties.

Globalism is made up of a multitude of intricate and interwoven factors. Many of them – the spread of medical expertise and skills, the enforcing of human rights through such organizations as the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, the rapid dissemination of communications technology and the containment of some of the world’s conflicts through the actions of NGOs, the UN and the richer national governments –seem to be, largely undisputedly, good. This excludes the tantrum-throwing, knee-jerking, Trump administration, of course, who has proudly bragged of cuts  (can you say welcome back to the John Birch Society?) of more than $285 million in its 2018-2019 budget for the UN after member states voted to reject his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.)

In addition, many other factors – the amplified pressure on the environment through the effects of higher growth, the upsurge in inequality that has dictated that the highly-educated, elite, and wealthy, benefit while the rapidly shrinking middle class get left behind— exacerbate the condition. The familiar institutions of the nation states are replaced, shrunk, or bought by foreign companies (or governments) and are considered by millions in the U.S. as a loss to their self-respect and their quality of life.

There’s no doubt that liberal values were and are themselves part of the globalization movement. They were and still are aggressively encouraged globally, (at least since the end of the Cold War) and initially appeared to everyone to have opened up the globe to a gratefulness of the values of freedom. These included freedom of speech and in print, equality between men and women, an end to racial discrimination and expanded acceptance of all sexual orientations. They were developed by parties mainly on the liberal or left end of the gamut, but quite quickly adopted by parties of the center right. Since the centrist parties often generally agreed on economic policies, and were in favor of the “Open market”, the dissimilarities among them declined, even disappeared in many environments, making them less centers of activism, more of policy development by experts.

Activism has shifted to NGOs and deliberative lawmaking to global foundations. In the course of this changeover, wages and working conditions has worsened due to competition from the developing countries’ workers willingness to produce the same products for lower pay and the blitzkrieg of the fourth industrial revolution with the robotics that has been its driving force. Because of the lower-income willingness of the developing countries, globalization’s effects in the U.S. are felt by many as repression, and the government, despite unachievable claims by the Trump administration, can do virtually nothing positive to alleviate the situation. Protectionism has a long history of disastrous effects and is the worst possible strategy…not that there was ever any real chance of it being effectuated.

In reality, mainstream U.S. parties were established to encourage, or oppose, concerns that have nothing to do with today’s realities. In all fairness, how could they? As a country, we should aspire to adapt, but many workers resist change like children resist brussel sprouts. In coal country, twenty and thirty year old white laborers won’t even accept free retraining because they believe Trump’s promise that coal and steel jobs are coming back, much the same way covered wagon builders believed the locomotive wouldn’t permanently replace their jobs.

Maybe far left and far right parties will take hold, and fill the void, or will established parties expand and take their place? It’s hard to tell, but there’s no denying that the two main U.S. political parties are in transition and splintering. For now, at least, Democrats are pretty focused on cultivating the anti-Trump movements, but that cannot last and is probably even insufficient motivation for the imminent 2018 midterms, but November is a long way off. Either way, parties – once centers of influence, policy making and optimism – will struggle to maintain their cohesion in the face of rapidly changing demographics and impossible expectations of the return of obsolete jobs.

Harvey Gold