The U.S. as a party-state

Yesterday on Twitter, I ventured the hypothesis that the U.S. form of government is, most fundamentally, not a constitutional republic, but a variant on the party-state form — the difference being that there are two parties instead of just one. This can be difficult to see, because the predominant analysis of the great party-state forms of the 20th century, namely fascism and communism, has focused on the misleading concept of “totalitarianism.” Interpreting the party-state phenomenon through liberal democratic norms, the “totalitarian” analysis decides that since something like civil society or the private sphere no longer has the desired autonomy, we can only conclude that the state, as the only other available center of power, is over-dominant. This is a profound misreading of the situation, however, as Foucault points out in Birth of Biopolitics. The problem in party-states is not that the formal state structures are too strong, but that they’re too weak to restrain the party-movement that instrumentalizes them. In China, for instance, formal state structures “exist,” but the Communist Party essentially ignores them — indeed, the Party is not even recognized as a legal organization.

In the U.S., the party-state operates by pretending that it’s not a party-state. Constitutional norms and the division of power are given continual lip-service, as when Obama castigates “Congress” rather than the Republicans, and the Founders’ desire to prevent factions is presented as an operative norm of contemporary politics. Nevertheless, the constitutional division of powers is less important to the functioning of the government than the party structure. Indeed, both parties instrumentalize American constitutional quirks whenever the opportunity presents itself. More broadly, both parties seek to cover up their own corruption or incompetence by pointing toward the other party’s illegitimate “partisanship” — and the much-vaunted “bipartisanship” mainly serves as a mechanism to allow them to congratulate themselves for subverting the will of the American people.

More important than the rhetorical and political strategies, however, is the sense that the party duopoly is above the law — both in the sense of instrumentalizing it to maintain its hold on power and in the sense of evading legal sanction. On both counts, the major U.S. parties qualify. The legal hurdles to developing a viable third party are considerable, and meanwhile, the formal state apparatus subsidizes and coordinates party activities (such as primary elections). Even in areas where one party has an insurmountable advantage, the official elections are almost always formally between a Democrat and a Republican, although the decisive vote is carried out in the context of a party primary. (This is the case in most Chicago elections, for instance.) The rules of legislative bodies are written with the assumption of an alternation of power between the two parties, and any independents must “caucus” with one of the parties to have any input.

The really disturbing thing is that the party duopoly renders both parties above the law. We can see this in the IRS scandal that is currently unfolding: although there are very good reasons to suspect Tea Party organizations of being less than completely upright when it comes to taxes, the formal state apparatus is likely to back down and sanction the agents who carried out those investigations, because the appearance of neutrality vis-à-vis the two parties is more important than the rule of law. Similarly, one cannot prosecute Bush-era war crimes, because that would be an illegitimately “partisan” move. Given that Clinton and Obama have both committed similar atrocities, one might have some sympathy with the inevitable Republican whining that would accompany a Bush prosecution — it genuinely wouldn’t be “fair.” But it’s when one asks why we don’t just prosecute Bush and Obama that we realize that the two parties are truly above the law — a bipartisan agreement on foreign policy trumps even the most sacred norms of international law.

This is not a recent development in U.S. history. I do not have the expertise to pinpoint a decisive “turning point,” but a two-party system developed early on, and even such important issues as the admittance of the Western states into the Union were carried out with an eye toward maintaining a balance between the two dominant factions. While that mostly took the form of North vs. South, in the 20th century things became scrambled — the parties have traded positions on many issues during that period, most famously with Republicans taking over for Democrats as the dominant party of the South, and many genuinely ideological factions were split between the two parties (both parties had liberals and conservatives, etc.). The result of this ideological incoherence and promiscuity is that the U.S. party-state is uniquely nihilistic in the sense of having no real goal besides maintaining the power of the party duopoly for its own sake.

Now one might object that by my standards, there are no genuine constitutional republics, but only party states. That may well be true, though there are many countries where the party system is genuinely more open, so that the formal levers of power are more “neutral” with regard to who operates them — and more importantly, almost every modern state has a more professionalized state apparatus that maintains continuity while governments change, as compared to the U.S. state apparatus that relies heavily on a rotating cast of political appointees to run basic government services. (In the U.S., the only portion of the state apparatus with notable autonomy and public respect is the military, which is remarkably effective in playing the two parties off each other in order to get what it wants.)

If it is true that most governments are closer to party-states than constitutional republics, though, that might mean that the normative liberal-democratic analysis of politics has greatly exaggerated the importance of the state. In reality, the formal state apparatus tends toward weakness and passivity, and that’s because almost no one cares about the state as such. The state for most people is one among many sites of political struggle, a set of apparatuses to be mobilized in favor of their own preferred agenda — though many will pay lip service toward the importance of maintaining the neutrality of the state apparatus, almost no one will do so when it puts their own side at a disadvantage. We can see that in the debate over fillibuster reform. While the ineffectiveness of the Senate destroys the credibility of Congress and the federal government as a whole in the eyes of the people, neither party is willing to pull the trigger on streamlining procedures, because neither wants to lose the potential advantage the fillibuster rule gives them when they are in the minority.

The only counterweight to this natural tendency is to develop a robust ésprit du corps in the state apparatus itself, so that the state can be a political actor in its own right, protecting its own prerogatives. Yet the American system of political appointments mainly prevents anything like this from happening, and neither party has an incentive to change that. And in any case, the political ideology Americans are fed from birth teaches them to fear an effective state bureaucracy offering a wide range of well-administered services as the first step toward totalitarian fascist communism — when in reality, the party duopoly that prevents such a thing from arising is actually what makes our system most akin to 20th century “totalitarianism.”

41 thoughts on “The U.S. as a party-state

  1. “Now one might object that by my standards, there are no genuine constitutional republics, but only party states.”

    This objection would most definitely be wrong. I think that the US example is rather peculiar, in fact. Your general point vis-a-vis state parties/party states applies well to the US and probably some other countries too but it’s definitely not the rule. The British system, for one, differs radically from the US one because it has a permanent civil service. Relatively few bureaucratic positions change hands when governments change (that’s why we call them ‘governments’ and not ‘administrations’). This has its own problems, of course. It means that the British state is dominated by an extremely conservative, establishmentarian elite and that changes in government have relatively little direct impact on the state bureaucracy (all of this has changed somewhat in the past thirty years or so but it’s still true). The same is true of France, with respect to elitism and so on. I don’t know about Italy but with their fractured, dysfunctional multi-party system and extremely powerful and politicised judiciary you’d have to say that the state overbears the parties to some extent there too.

    All of which isn’t to say that parties aren’t very strong in Britain, France, Italy, etc. but I don’t think they can be said to dominate the state in the same way that US parties do.

    Anyway, good post!

  2. I’m interested in how you see this intersecting with an orthogonal (but also seemingly true) complaint that the two parties in the US are basically indistinguishable from each other when considered through any lens wider that mainstream media discourse. Isn’t the other side of this that the US is a one-party state that pretends to have two parties as a carnival-style distraction? The inability to meaningfully reform the filibuster, for instance, strikes me as pointing towards one-party oligarchy rather than the competitive-party analysis you use here.

  3. You can see my eagerness to get to the one-party state issue in the way I originally characterized this article on my blog, though I’ve changed it now in light of this question.

  4. How does business as a political power fit into this analysis? At first glance, a major difference between the Soviet Union and today’s US is that in the former “business” was subordinated to the party; whereas in the latter the duopoly is clearly subordinate to business. The parties may have no goal other than staying in power, but they recognize that the only way to do that is to serve the perceived interests of big business. Is this difference less important than it seems, or are these two different forms of party-state: one in which the party is in fact the dominant political power and another in which the parties are essentially a figurehead?
    This analysis also fits with something else I’ve been wondering about for the past few months: why is it that politicians always tell us to go out and vote? “No matter who you vote for, make sure you do your democratic duty and vote.” This makes no sense if we accept the official justification for elections, ie. that politicians have ideas about how the country should be run and voters choose between those ideas, but it makes perfect sense if the point of the election is primarily to demonstrate approval of the two-party system and only secondarily to choose one party over the other. It seems to me that voting is a kind of complicity with this system.

  5. Gerry,

    While politically the two parties are functionally and politically very close together, socially I do not suppose that they are. That is, I propose that they in fact function as two separate social groups with their own power structures. I offer this as a hypothesis, because this is a matter of expert knowledge rather than my amateur speculations. Hence, this doesn’t disagree with Adam’s analysis, but offers a glimpse into further detail if true.

  6. Nonmanifestation, I think the role of business is definitely important for understanding this political structure. The thing that’s important to understand, in my view, is that “big business” as such does not have a unified program of demands — although there is significant overlap, there are also necessarily conflicts. The two parties serve as a mechanism for sorting out those conflicts in the political realm, or at least that would be my hypothesis. And we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which business and politicians are rigorously separate categories; viz. the infamous “revolving door” (enabled by the party structure that prevents a rational civil service from emerging).

  7. You cite the “weakness” of formal state structures as one factor in producing a duopoly. A sharper way of stating this would be to say that “A two-party system often develops in a plurality voting system. In this system, voters have a single vote, which they can cast for a single candidate in their district, in which only one legislative seat is available. In plurality voting (i.e. first past the post), in which the winner of the seat is determined purely by the candidate with the most votes, several characteristics can serve to discourage the development of third parties and reward the two major parties.” This quotation is part of the statement of what political scientists call Duverger’s Law. It’s well-trodden ground in political science.

    A separate point about the post: there is an oblique morality in your analysis that does damage to it in at least two ways: first, it renders an unlikely disjunction between people in parties (demonstrating somehow a lack of political virtue) and a hoped-for clique of partisans of the state apparatus itself (among whom political virtue flourishes?) – contra this, I propose that if man is fallen, then all are fallen. If, on the other hand republican virtue is possible, then it is possible in parties as much as among technocrats. To think otherwise is at least not very promising. Maybe you say that the parties themselves structurally dispose the people in them to un-virtuous behavior, but that partisans of the state apparatus would not be subject to the same structural forces as the parties. But the conceit, I think, underlying your whole analysis is that parties are an example of the operation of the will-to-power through collective agency, in which case, why aren’t the partisans of the state apparatus just another party and just as likely to overreach to achieve a purported good? I think you are imagining political redemption that cannot be, which leads to:

    The second point about oblique morality: constitutionalism for its own sake is not a non-controversial project even for its partisans, but you seem to believe that it could be; that it could be somehow purified of the will-to-power, the political contest, overreach, ruin etc. In fact, the defenders of the U.S. constitution include people who disagree very much about what that constitution means or how it ought to be expressed in our laws and institutions. Your guardians are actually already on the ground, working hard to achieve the goals of constitutional government in the U.S. Why don’t you see them? Because they work through the parties for the most part. The political parties after all represent coalitions of concerns (including, but not limited to, constitutional concerns), reasons people have, real people, citizens of this country.) The parties are not philosophers – they are political parties engaged in the practical attempt to gain enough support and stability to accomplish some of their stated aims some of the time. Nihilism is a harsh charge when there are so many obvious non-invidious factors militating against ideological purity. Many of these are explained by Duverger’s Law, but that’s another way of saying that many of them are only practical common sense. It’s a trick of the mind to think you could have neutral administrators of the state that are free from all of this. What would they stand for exactly? Which aims would they privilege? Which would they exclude? The state operates for reasons, human reasons. Human reasons are precisely the ones that are in contest in politics. There’s no saving us from this, at least not in the here and now.

  8. Where do I express a preference for a more neutral state apparatus? I’m just making an argument for placing the U.S. form of government in a different category than it is usually put in.

  9. That’s how I read “The only counterweight to this natural tendency is to develop a robust ésprit du corps in the state apparatus itself, so that the state can be a political actor in its own right, protecting its own prerogatives.” I’m pointing out that the prerogatives of the state cannot be exercised in a neutral way, so you will necessarily have a contest of interests among its defenders, and these will ultimately find sponsors in the major parties, as they pursue their objectives. In other words, if you were saying anything, you were saying the defenders of the government’s prerogatives would be immune to the politics of the major parties, but in fact they never can be. They’d be absorbed by them, and therefore subject to them. And in fact this is the situation that we have.

  10. ” The thing that’s important to understand, in my view, is that “big business” as such does not have a unified program of demands […].” That’s a good point; I think there’s a tendency to imagine an evil cabal with a master plan running the show rather than various actors with conflicting interests. Would you say that the public nature of the conflicts within the ruling class is the main difference between a Soviet-style party state and an American-style two-party-state?
    I would agree that business and politicians are not rigorously separated categories, but I still feel that business is primary even when the same person plays both roles. Do people work their way up the corporate ladder in order to run for Congress? Or do they become congressmen so that they can get a nice job at a think tank and speaking tours etc after they retire?

  11. On the main point of your post, I think Duverger’s Law knocks out your contention that we are in the grips of a manipulative duopoly pretty easily (and therefore your main contention that we are in a party-state), since it’s the U.S. constitution itself that creates the circumstances favorable to a two-party system. Afterward it’s just mop up. I’d think you’d prefer Duverger’s Law to your own explanation just on the grounds of Occam’s Razor. It requires far fewer high level political and theoretical commitments than your view does. So there’s no need to make presidents into war criminals, or to make run-of-the-mill constitutional debates into the ruin of the republic, or to say that all constitutional republics are party-states, or that American libertarianism is just administered ideology, or to pretend that our civil service is still in the grips of the spoils system… Instead there’s a commonsense way to explain why it’s hard for small minorities or third party candidates to get a fair hearing in our politics.

  12. I don’t think Duverger’s Law is relevant to the point Adam is making. Duverger’s Law attempts explains the existence of a two-party system, but not the ideology of bipartisanship, that is, the curious demand that the two parties not oppose one another.

  13. Bush clearly is a war criminal, as is Obama. My argument doesn’t “make” them into war criminals — torturing people, administering a vast system of illegal drone attacks, etc., does all that work for me.

  14. The United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court. I really don’t think that this is because our political parties are covering for each other. I think it’s because Americans dislike the curtailment of national sovereignty that membership in the court would bring about. Likewise, they dislike opening the door to politically motivated prosecutions of our leaders, diplomats and soldiers by cabals of illiberal foreign states who would welcome the opportunity to harm or humiliate us. The party leaders would have a hard time changing American minds about that even if they wanted to. It’s an old and abiding conviction. The more ideological point of view (by far) is to accept membership in the Court (founded in 2002) as a baseline for normality, deviation from which is grounds for theoretical analysis (no statement from me on which point of view is correct).

    Terrific post by the way. And thanks for the discussion.

  15. Why do you jump to such bizarre conclusions about everything I say? Did I mention the ICC? Is the US not party to the Geneva Conventions? Were there not already US laws against torture? Good grief!

  16. Sorry to frustrate you. (I really do find your post fascinating.)

    Of course there ARE domestic laws against torture, but that’s a way more complicated conversation. For example, The War Crimes Act of 1996 which made grave violations of the terms of the Geneva Conventions a felony, and the later Military Commissions Act of 2006 which limited the application of article III of the 1996 law. There’s been plenty of controversy about how the courts ought to interpret these, and more. I don’t have the expertise to determine by myself whether Justice could have built a criminal case against Bush administration officials for the violation of those statutes, for example. Let’s say they could have (although I suspect that they could not have). You say that the duopoly protects our presidents from being prosecuted as war criminals. How does this operate in real life? Do you suppose Justice could have built a case against Bush and others, but decided not to because of a) fear of reprisals directed at future Dem leaders? b) fear of the Justice Department’s loss of legitimacy in a poisonous polarized environment? c) a tacit understanding that lawlessness at the highest levels is ok, provided that neither side will officially call the other guy out? d) out of a sense of helplessness? I don’t understand.

  17. I think that we should be more worried about the fact the committing a war crime has few political repercussions let alone legal repercussions, especially since the latter would require engaging much entrenched power.

  18. Hi Adam, interesting post! Two “objections”: 1) (similar to that raised by Philip above – although taking objection to his characterization/generalisation of the judiciary in Italy…where is there a judiciary that is not politicised to an extent?) duopoly is certainly problematic but multi-party systems are not less “totalitarian” to use your own expression (Italy seems a case in point); 2) and more importantly, I don’t understand the distinction between the state and parties…Are not parties part of the state? Is not the state always an ensemble of relations to remain with Foucault? …but maybe I am just missing something here…

  19. Parties are not a part of “the state” in the same way that Congress or the court system is, for example. Parties are always involved in the running of the state and the electoral process in modern liberal democracies, but I’m using the term state loosely to refer to the “permanent” structures that continue to exist regardless of which party holds power at a given time. In many other countries, those “permanent” structures are much more developed and autonomous than in the US, and the party system operates within them in a very different way. In fact, in the contemporary US, both parties more or less prefer to let private enterprises carry out the kinds of functions that would often be carried out by the state in other countries (such as the recent health care reform, which tried to expand access to the private health insurance market rather than directly providing government insurance like most developed nations have).

  20. Thanks for the clarification. I think this is a very interesting discussion. I am just not sure one can separate parties or more generally states’ bureaucratic differentiation(s) from the “more permanent structure” of states without “essentialising” the state in some way… After all, despite his reliance on what has been often termed an essentialist model of the state, Schmitt too gives the movement in its identification with the party a primary role…With regard to your second point, I think this is true but it does not apply to duopoly systems only. This really seems to me a generalisable point…almost everywhere parties “more or less prefer to let private enterprises carry out the kinds of functions that would often be carried out by the state”…

  21. It doesn’t require “essentializing” the state. “The state” is in fact a physical institution carried out by administrative bureaucrats. The “more permanent structures” are in fact the positions, the people that fill them, the buildings, procedures, etc. The state in that sense is as concrete as it gets, and the proposal was to professionalize it even more than it already is by further insulating such positions from political appointments.. Of course, there are still the usual dangers of bureaucracies, but I cannot imagine that it would be much worse than the politicization we have now.

  22. Ah, Adam, if you didn’t have so many interesting notions, I wouldn’t be able to overlook your invariant rudeness.

  23. gerrycanavan:
    Isn’t the other side of this that the US is a one-party state that pretends to have two parties as a carnival-style distraction?

    In a sense. The Republicans keep getting pulled on social issues; the Democrats keep getting pulled on economic issues. Fifty years ago America was more ‘economically liberal’ and more ‘socially conservative’ (good lord do I hate those phrases, but they’ll serve) and fifty years from now, given current historical trends, it will be more ‘economically conservative’ and more ‘socially liberal’.

    It must also be noted that the two parties correspond to two sets of cultures, and many of the ones on each side hate many of the ones on the other. The old folk-wisdom one-liner that the Civil War never ended is not inaccurate at all.

  24. …and of course I would realize this just as soon as I hit post, but doesn’t it seem that much of conservative ideology developed as a response to perceived threats from outside? Abortion, the anti-gay thing, etc. Would the Confederacy, had it won, be as ‘conservative’ as the white South is today?

  25. It hasn’t always been so neatly sorted. If you asked people 100 years ago which party would be liberal and which would be conservative today, they would have guessed the opposite of what is now the case. And if you’ll recall, that ideological promiscuity is part of my supporting evidence that there’s something weird going on.

  26. ‘Duverger’s law’ only implies that, once a party system emerges in the specific conditions of extended suffrage being used to select the controlling personnel of the state apparatus (conditions in turn conditioned by a more basic social constitution of what the political is, and so the state, ‘party-ness’ etc.) using specific FPTP rules, the party system will tend to be partitioned into two.

    But these will form a dyad rather than be just external to each other (necessarily through communicative and reflecting interaction between each pole) and have complex internal relations so ascribing the diremption into two to just the electoral mechanisms seems wrong (Here Occam’s razor is the wrong thing). It starts that way perhaps, and it is a strategic imperative that pluralities be captured, but it’s an underdetermined and mechanical explanation of the political dimension of your society, that doesn’t get at the tacit co-ordination cutting across party lines that develops as the two sides live together through time.

  27. Going back to the OP, Adam, I’m not sure I get the connection between a “professionalized state apparatus” and a “constitutional republic”. Is it that a professionalized state apparatus would have more power to hold elected officials to the constitution of the republic, whereas the current American state apparatus with its political appointments is too weak and/or unwilling to do so? You mention the military as the one example of a powerful and autonomous state institution, so are you thinking of countries like Turkey or maybe Egypt where the military considers itself the guardian of the republic rather than the servant of the elected politicians? Though I assume you would rather see that role being played by a civil service than the military. Maybe what the civil service needs is less accountability, not more. I’m imagining, eg. if they simply refused to lay people off or make them take unpaid vacation during the sequester business and continued to issue paychecks to federal employees, instead of playing along with the power-struggles within the duopoly.

  28. There’s no necessary link between constitutional republics and professionalized state apparatuses. I don’t do much with the constitutional republic concept because it doesn’t seem very relevant to contemporary parallels. And as I’ve said a thousand times, I am not making recommendations for the reform of the U.S. government in this post.

  29. On the principle that a persistent misunderstanding must be at least partially my fault: my suggestions of things that would counteract the party-state are meant only to emphasize the fact that the party-state renders them impossible and hence reinforce the sense that the party-state ultimately makes the calls. I took it for granted that people would assume I don’t prefer a military dictatorship.

  30. The “recommendations for reform” were just my own speculations, not an understanding or misunderstanding of your post. I wouldn’t call Turkey a military dictatorship, but my question wasn’t meant to test you on whether or not you’re in favour of a military dictatorship, I was just wondering what you think of the idea of professional “guardians of the republic” who don’t consider themselves subordinate to elected politicians. This is the kind of idea that sets democratic alarm-bells ringing, and there is of course a real danger that it would be used to justify a military dictatorship, but I wonder if there’s some value to it in a situation where elected politicians are clearly not serving the interests or even expressed desires of the people.

  31. When I said “almost no one cares about the state as such,” I considered adding a part about how there was one major 20th-century thinker who definitely did: Carl Schmitt. Asserting the state just for the sake of restraining the parties is a fundamentally reactionary strategy, even if it might be strategically necessary in some cases. But it’s not as though I know what should be done.

  32. Excellent article! We do indeed have a two-party totalitarian state. I believe one part of this is that the Republicans and Democrats (1) choose issues intentionally to divide the population as close to 50/50 as possible, and (2) by nominating horrible presidential candidates pressure people into voting *against* one or the other — both tactics relying on fear to keep citizens from opting out by voting for third parties. See:

    You might also like to see the short Fable of the Lions and the Tigers I posted on this topic:

  33. This is confusing Fascism with Nazism.

    Fascism, which is based on American Republicanism (the fasces are a symbol of democracy) is different to Nazism. Fascism is a totalitarian state. Nazism is a party organisation. Birth of Biopolitics refers to Nazism, not Fascism.

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