...what do we mean, exactly? For these days it has little to do with the real political conflicts of this age.
There's a political model for governmental regimes that uses a circle as metaphor. For illustrative purposes, I've overlaid it on the political compass that is in such fashion with bloggers today.
You put liberal democracy (lowercase "l" and "d") at the bottom of the wheel, and total dictatorship at the top.
Now, rather than define left vs. right in terms of economics, you define it in terms of basis for political debate: ideology vs. identity.
- As you move left, you have more conformist pressure in ideology.
- As you move right, you have more conformist pressure in identity, race and religious dogma.
Push far enough and the two sides meet again at the top, with the conformist pressure having become total authoritarian control by the government: dictatorship.
For example, Hitler was the extreme of the right, and his dictatorship was defined by notions of race and genetic superiority, as well as Christian Crusade. His contemporary rival for power in Europe, Stalin, was the extreme of the left, and his dictatorship was defined by notions of GoodThink and correct ways of thinking. Yet in effect upon the populace, the result is the same: no freedom. What's more, both vectors towards the top appeal to a pro-government form of nationalism. Either way, the effect upon the population -- the "peasants," as our own plutarchs in the West call us -- is much the same: total authoritarian control, little or no liberty, little or no privacy.
Today we're seeing the left push ever further up on the left side of the wheel, wanting more control over ideology. Thus quaint notions of freedom and equality are ditched for the ideology defined by the rulers: Party first, and Party always.
On the right, they've already pushed far up the wheel. What became clear to many in the aftermath of Katrina is that much of the right's basis of authority is based upon race. "Those people" are undeserving, the Right says. And this goes back to Reagan, and how he scapegoated all the nation's problems on poor, unmarried, black mothers, appealing to people's unexamined and deep-rooted racist attitudes perpetuated by a culture that allows everything from the grossly disproportionate public spending in minority neighborhoods, incarceration rates and crime rates, to stupid jokes (like Bill Maher's tasteless attack on Danny Glover last week, asking in an accusing tone, "Have you ever been on a college campus?").
What we see of these pushes by both parties towards authoritarian rule is the abandonment of the people and any effort to build an egalitarian society, a "liberal democracy" (small "l" and "d").
Today, I face two increasingly unpalatable choices. In the GOP, the far right continues to build a bridge to the 16th century while the party's moderates (three at last count) cling to some vestige of what the party used to be. The Democrats, meanwhile, alternate between milquetoast "moderates" who are scared of their own shadows, Beltway insiders who are afrai of losing what little power they have, and far-left firebrands whose politics I find no more palatable than Jerry Falwell's.
Despite the scorn heaped on Lieberman by the Kosettes and the lack of respect that Republican firebreathers show Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, and Lincoln Chafee, I often find myself in that moderate middle ground. And though survey after survey tells me that I am hardly alone in this position, Snowe Country has rapidly become a political no man's land, leaving me with few, if any, worthwhile choices at the ballot box.
What pennywit is saying is what millions of "We the People" can see, whether we all can articulate it or not. "My vote doesn't count," "What's the point of voting?" and "They're all the same, anyway," are similar declarations of this realization that our two-party system is all about who will hold the authoritarian sword over the people, and not about representative government at all.
In a separate comment on the same thread, pennywit says:
The Democrats have sunk a lot of effort into being the default party -- that is, the people you vote for when a particular Republican is repugnant. But given that it is possible for the GOP to put forward a non-repugnant candidate, this is a losing proposition for the Democrats.
But when both parties are pushing up either side of that circle, the people are left alone ... at the bottom.
Caveat: Nothing in real life is as clean or simple as theory, and there's no question that the Democrats and Republicans also use conformist pressures from the "opposite" side. For example, Republicans certainly trumpeted their own brand of ideological pressure upon the population. To a degree, their attitudes are born out of religious dogma and identity, but as they couch their arguments more in terms of civil ideology they are borrowing from the "left" in this model. And on the other side, the Democrats seem to covet right-wing appeals to identity and religion. Their recruiting of political candidates like Bob Casey, Jr. are manifestations of this.
To be sure, there are many ways to break down and analyze the political landscape. Still, I find this model illustrative in deciphering the differences and similarities between the two parties -- especially in how they are behaving today, in this election year.