Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lincoln and the two-party system

Reply to comment in T&G on Spielberg's new film on Lincoln:

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Agreed, we need another Lincoln. Or another Roosevelt. Neither man however emerged from the strength of their own characters. Both were in fact shaped by the tigers they were riding.

As in our own time, the 1850's saw the failure of a set of election rules that locked in a two-party system - Whigs and Democrats - two alliances of contesting forces. Then as now, those who operated outside the two main parties were seen as spoilers, voices in the wilderness.  In the 1840's and early '50's, small anti-slavery parties apparently were going nowhere.

Lincoln's election came about with the shattering of the two-party system, climaxing in 1860 with a four-way race which Lincoln won with less than 40% of the popular vote.  The two parties had proven unable to contain the issue of slavery - or rather the rivalry between the slaveowners who ruled the Southern States and the rest of the nation.

Unfortunately that breakup led to a civil war of breathtaking savagery. One shudders to think how it might have ended if fought with today's weapons!

The crisis of the two party system today is rooted in the decisive influence over both parties - at the national level at least - of the giant international banks and corporations and their owners, hell-bent on control of the planet in pursuit of ever larger profits. Those who challenge this power from within one of the parties must unite with the corporatist leadership to win elections, but risk being discredited in the eyes of regular people for that. Any effort to challenge the corporate powers from outside the two parties gets marginalized by the dynamics of the system - and corporate control of the media.

The events of the 1850's, like those of the 1930's, were driven by the beliefs and actions of regular people bursting through the constraints of the political system.  As that pressure keeps building, containing it grows ever harder.

How events unfolded in Lincoln's time is well worth studying for the lessons it may hold.

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