RALL: America Gives Up Tag Team Politics
After the fall of Rome in 453 AD, the former empire's Eastern capital, Constantinople, became immensely prosperous. Until the 15th century, the great Byzantine city-state collected so many taxes from Silk Route traders who had to pass through to the West that virtually everyone lived well. It was both fat with cash and unmolested by neighboring nations. Soon the class differences that had driven politics since the beginning of recorded history evaporated, and the bored, well-fed citizens had nothing to get riled up about except the chariot races.Gradually, residents became obsessive devotees of one of the two teams of chariot racers in town, the Reds and the Blues. The growing rivalry led to riots and murders, until eventually a member of a "Red" family couldn't marry someone from a "Blue" one. There were no ideological, religious, racial or political distinctions between the two groups, yet a millennium of feuds raged over which was best. Then the Ottoman Turks showed up at the city wall with some really big cannons, and both the chariot races and the Byzantine Empire came to an end.This year's American presidential campaign vividly demonstrates that the distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties have become no more meaningful than Constantinople's Reds and Blues. Although various factions have played the roles of Left and Right since the founding of the Republic (the current alignment of Democrats as proletarian and Republicans as patrician dates to 1932) Americans have always thought of their politicians as ideologues who will espouse a set of unshakable values that, if elected, they would be governed by."New Democrat" Bill Clinton only needed one term to unravel two centuries of two-party political predictability. Going far beyond pragmatism, he got Republican-backed NAFTA and GATT passed after Republicans Reagan and Bush failed. He threw gays (traditionally a Democratic voting bloc) to the dogs with his "don't ask, don't tell" policy for the armed forces. Most recently, he signed a welfare reform bill so draconian that even Ronald Reagan wouldn't have dared to endorse. Just in case we all forgot or forgave all that, he bombed Iraq, continuing George Bush's brilliant foreign policy.Looking back at Clinton's first term, a pattern emerges: he was liberal on low-level judicial appointments and conservative on big policy issues. At last month's Democratic National Convention, the Clinton strategy became clear: Take any position in order to win, and change sides as quickly as the polls. Delegates gleeful at Republican fractiousness paraded before the television cameras, intoxicated by the imminent victory of their man without a mission. The spectacle of liberal Mario Cuomo kissing Clintonian butt after signing the welfare bill was the perfect end to the Democratic liberal tradition.As in the inconsequential contests between the Reds and the Blues, the Democrats and Republicans don't care about changing the world -- they just want to win, no matter what the cost.Republican Bob Dole has also switched to the Vince Lombardi school of postmodern politics. After crushing icky idea-guy Pat Buchanan in the primaries, the would-be neo-Huey Long quit the Senate and ditched his tie to act just as unemployed as the downtrodden denizens of trailer parks he hopes will bring Southern states into the GOP column this fall. Anyone who doubts that something a tad left-of-center is up in the Party of the Twice-Married White Male has only to refer to Dole's recent attacks on heartless corporate downsizing. The GOP isn't really drifting left -- it's lurching all over the ideological spectrum as it scrambles for winning stances.Dole's roots in an ideological past show when he tries to stir up resentment against "liberal Bill Clinton" and his "liberal agenda." Insults that worked against George McGovern don't fly now because voters know that Clinton is no more liberal than the Mets or the Bengals. And that's the point: Voters have become sports fans -- they flock to candidates with good packaging, and everybody loves a winner. The result is a syllogism Ionesco would love: Perot probably won't win, so people won't vote for him, so he's sure to lose. Americans dislike Clinton personally, but they'll vote for him in droves -- after all, he's a winner.Dealignment pervades local politics as well. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, plays it tough on crime but liberal on immigration. He's so willing to jettison party politics that he publicly denounces his own party to delighted New Yorkers, themselves alienated liberals who voted for a Republican mayor.Obviously, the death of party ideology has meant an end to serious discussion of issues, but that's been going on since the first time a candidate put on make-up for TV. More importantly, it also renders the results of elections meaningless, since voter-fans can't register their positions on issues when none of the candidates on the ballot represent any. Imagery decides elections now, so election results don't mean anything. Newt Gingrich's ugly face in Democratic attack ads will be more responsible than Clinton's promises for the President's winning reelection this November. As the symbiosis between government and popular opinion rots away over time, citizens will become even more alienated from their leaders, and the leaders won't have a clue where to lead them.For now, the big problem for an amoral, rudderless president like Clinton and his party of hyperkinetic fanboys is their inability to cope with the future. Not long ago, it was possible for any American to predict how strongly-defined ideologues like LBJ and Reagan might react to almost anything. Guys like Clinton and Dole have platforms to guide them on existing issues like gun control and abortion, but they have to analyze opinion polls before they can take a position on anything new. Dole has even gone so far as to publicly disclaim his party's platform, proudly announcing that he hasn't even read the thing. Dole's only promise is that, if elected, he'll be president.The triumph of ersatz politics isn't the end of the world. As the millions of Americans who spend their weekends cheering for teams conceived in NFL marketing meetings can attest, it can be a lot of fun. After all, it's only a game.