The Crisis of the American Party System and Occupy Wall Street

The American Party system is in crisis. People are disillusioned with the system because it is not doing what it is supposed to do: provide people with a way to translate their preferences into policy.

The reason is simple: both parties are heavily influenced by the 1% – the super-rich corporate executives and bankers who are increasing their share of  our national wealth and income. There are very clear differences between the parties, but neither party represents what a majority of the public wants: a higher share of taxes paid by the rich, government action to create jobs, an end to “free trade” agreements that undercut labor rihts and environmental protection, and more support for the middle class.

The Republican Party is generally against all of the above. That would not be a problem if the other major party, the Democrats, was for them. We would have elections, the voters would vote their preferences, and the policies favored by the majority would be implemented. As things stand, though, the Republicans are against these policies while the Democrats are divided. The result is that if the Democrats win an election, the Republicans still win in policy-making.

So the crisis of the party system is its stasis. To resolve the crisis, this stasis must be broken. From 1992 through 2000, the main attempt to break it was through electoral activity: the independent campaign of Ross Perot in 1992, the Reform Party (again with Perot) in 1996, the Green Party campaign of Ralph Nader in 2000, along with a significant number of state and local independent and minor-party victories.

This electoral insurgency has been dwindling since the election of George W. Bush. Bush was such a polarizing figure that there was no room for a third alternative. Progressives would rally around whoever the Democrats nominated, because a Republican victory looked so much worse to them. This left us with a paradoxical situation: elections offered a clear choice between the parties, but neither choice was what a majority of the public wanted.

Occupy Wall Streeet is a new approach. It is not electoral. It is not trying to re-elect Obama or to defeat Obama. It is not a Democratic majority in Congress, nor is it seeking to replace conservative Democrats with more progressive ones.

Occupy Wall Street is not saying anything about elections. It is simply demanding action. It is demanding that public officials take their responsibility to the public seriously, by finding ways to meet people’s needs. Of course, that will have to involve more taxes on hugely profitable corporations, a fairer distribution of wealth and income, stricter regulation of banks, and much more.

Fort years ago the movement against the Vietnam War probably contributed to the election of Richard Nixon. It also ended the war. Maybe that was more important.


Background reading:

George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968

Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, ed., “Takin it to the Streets:” A Sixties Reader 

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Robert H. Frank, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class