Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Labels, No Point

After some time, I agree with Sean Carroll again:
No Labels, No Point (Cosmic Variance).
A group of moderate Democrats, Republicans, and Independents decided to establish a new centrist party: No Labels (Wikipedia). Their website is NoLabels.ORG.

Because they didn't want to create any new labels, they stole the logo of another centrist group, MorePartyAnimals.COM. But is there room for a centrist party in the U.S.?

Well, this is something we in Europe have some experience with. So if you're thinking about adopting the multi-party system, you should try to look in Europe whether you actually like the result.

You know, while the U.S. political system is a two-party system, European countries boast multi-party systems. There usually exists a dominant left-wing party and a dominant right-wing party but this status is never quite clear and eternal. Moreover, there exist many other parties and most of them try to paint themselves as some centrist parties.

Does it make sense to found a party that is centrist just for the sake of centrism? I don't think so.

They say that they don't want labels and partisanships but "solutions". But you know, there are many possible solutions to a problem - aside from the courage to offer no solutions - and these solutions often differ qualitatively. Which of them is right and which of them is wrong? That's what all the political battles are all about.

Can there be some God-given solution in the middle? I don't think so. Any solution has to be invented by someone. So a party either has an independent philosophy or recipe to determine how it wants to solve the problems as they arrive; or it doesn't. If it doesn't, the best thing it can do is to steal ideas from others - on both sides. There doesn't exist any universal algorithm to invent the solution to any problem - and even if someone believes that there is, it is a political opinion (and I would say that a left-wing one). But do such flavorless politicians contribute anything?

Don't get me wrong. I do think that a centrist politician is usually much less harmful than a left-wing politician. But he or she is much more useless, too.

On the other hand, it's sometimes a very good idea for politicians to be doing nothing if they manage to achieve this goal. The U.S. economy enjoyed great years while Bill Clinton was playing in the Oval Office. Instead of screwing the economy with bad ideas, he was at most screwing something else, and it wasn't even a real screwing. At those times, I would indeed think that the U.S. politics worked with both parties and they didn't differ much.

Some conservative commentators have described the No Labels group as a party of political correctness. I agree that this is the most natural outcome of such an arrangement. Those people will say that they want to prevent the parties from expecting their members' loyalty. But it's very obvious that for their party to survive, they have to do the same thing - just building on a less well-defined system of principles and values. Just like the ordinary parties may sometimes demonize the people on the opposite end, a centrist party may demonize people on "both ends". What's the difference?

Learn the difference between the weather and the climate or... :-)

While it's a part of the European culture to have many parties, and thinking about dozens of different coalitions to create a government is a characteristic component of the European post-election thinking, it's true that the self-declared centrist ones usually do poorly. This doesn't mean that the actual strongest parties are sharply well-defined. On the contrary, many of them are centrist. But they at least try to pretend that they're not centrist. CDU in Germany is an example. It is a centrist party that pretends to be conservative.

In the Czech Republic after the fall of communism, we've had quite some experience with failed centrist parties - and various centrist or apolitical movements, too.

First of all, the fall of communism was achieved by a large movement called the Civic Forum (OF) in Czechia - and its Slovak counterpart, the Public Against Violence (VPN) - originally founded by the actors etc. who began their strike after the students were beaten in November 1989. These two movements were making the velvet transition smooth and they won the first elections in Spring 1990, just in order to confirm that the nations wanted to end communism.

Those movements contained lots of reformed communists, assorted champions of "third ways", and so on, besides the standard champions of Western capitalism and freedom. But you had everything that a centrist fundamentalist needs - lots of vague politicians.

However, some people realized that this setup was just silly. It wouldn't be a real democracy. People wouldn't be deciding about anything if there were an overarching movement like that. There would be no options that could compete. Prof Václav Klaus in particular decided to establish a standard right-wing party within the OF, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

Although it nominally attracted just a tiny portion of the people in OF, it was an instant success. Klaus, previously a chairman of OF, became the chairman of ODS, won elections, repeatedly became a prime minister, and remained the most important Czech politician for 20 years.

Mr Miloš Zeman, his former colleague analyst from the state bank, established a powerful opposition party against Klaus which acquired the old label, the Czech Social Democratic Party. (It's questionable whether Zeman himself was ever feeling as a genuine leftist: but he surely wanted to be at least as important as Klaus haha.) They were violently fighting, just like you expect in the conventional democracy. And only much later, when they were pretty much removed from the largest parties, they realized how close they were. A retired Zeman became a kind of fan of Klaus even though he would be "going after the ODS neck" all the time a decade earlier.

Zeman's resuscitated social democrats (the party was merged with the communists sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s) became successful and were transformed into the main left-wing party - although the Czech Communist Party survived as a pretty strong one, too. However, Klaus have also had many foes who were trying to become visible in numerous waves. There were so many bizarre anti-Klaus waves that I no longer remember all of them.

First, moderate "intellectual" Klaus opponents gathered in Civic and Democratic Alliance (ODA), an elitist right-wing party that co-existed with ODS pretty well. But it would always get 5% only. At some moment, it disappeared from politics because it could no longer achieve the 5% threshold needed to enter the Parliament. New Klaus foes crystallized within ODS in 1997. They would establish the Freedom Union (US) which would fail and disappear from politics a few years later, too. All of those parties had some "centrist" tendencies. Although most Czechs usually publicly endorse some kind of centrist stuff, the elections result paint a totally different story. Centrists are losers.

The same holds for many "apolitical movements" and apolitical petition campaigns - I only remember "Thank You, Now Leave" by some former student leaders of the Velvet Revolution but there have been many such things, endorsed by many left-wing intellectuals in the Academia and elsewhere. At some point, the recycled participants of these campaigns realized that they were totally useless and we haven't seen such an event for years.

In fact, even on the left side of the political spectrum, this simple obseration holds.

The continued success of the communist party is mostly a reflection of the fact that the social democrats behave just like diluted communists. Instead of the red color, they use the orange one. A big deal. Of course, they're much more pro-European-Union than the unreformed communists but in most other aspects, it's very hard to distinguish the socialists and the communists. Their primary difference is that the social democrats would be ashamed of the communist label while the Communist Party is not ashamed. But there have already been lots of contexts in which I considered the communists' behavior to be more decent and calmer than the social democrats' behavior.

The failures of the self-declared centrists can be seen even in the central parts of the political spectrum. The Christian and Democratic Union - Czechoslovak People's Party - which kept this name even after the Velvet Divorce - has been a standard part of the Czech political spectrum, gaining about 10% in every elections. It's been an omnipresent party that participated in virtually all coalitions between 1989 and 2010.

However, before the most recent elections, a new "more crystallized" subgroup of the Christian Democratic Party was created. While the Christian Democrats kept their centrist image, the new party - TOP 09 - began to boast a distinctly conservative image. It is a highly fiscally conservative party but there are many other criteria in which TOP 09 may be claimed to be more conservative than ODS, the country's main right-wing party. The aristocrats in TOP 09 just help to strengthen this point.

TOP 09 became an instant success - the biggest incremental winners of the Spring 2010 elections - and it has overshadowed its parent, the Christian Democrats. Its power became almost unlimited in Prague - although Prague recently managed to beat this "biggest player in the city". But the grand coalition - which is, in Germany and Czechia, the standard name for a coalition of the left-wing social democrats and the main right-wing (ODS or CDU), strong enough to omit everyone else - had to be introduced to beat TOP 09. In the next elections, these two parties could even fail to have enough to do so.

It's not hard to see why more clearly colorful parties get more support. Even if many people passively endorse colorless solutions and uncrystallized answers, they never become faithful or enthusiastic about it. The clearer the message of a party is, the more faithful members and voters it may sustain. This is not just an undeserved failure of the people at the center. It's a reflection of the fact that they don't really bring any ideas of themselves.

And that's the memo.


  1. The number of a political parties a country has is overwhelmingly a product of the country's election system. Almost every country in Continental Europe has some form of proportional representation. Proportional representation almost always produces multiple political parties -- a great many in its purest form, and typically four to six in more truncated forms such as that found in Germany where a party needs to win 5% of the vote to get a seat in parliament.

    The United States, together with Canada and the United Kingdom have a single member district plurality system. The candidate getting the most votes in a single member district wins and all candidates are elected from single members districts. These systems can only support two political parties in any one region.

    It is possible to have more than one political party in a single member district plurality system, but generaly this happens via local nationalist parties. For example, Unionists and Separatist National parties, rather than parties that content in the rest of the U.K. compete in Northern Ireland. Quebec Nationalist parties rather than some of those found elsewhere in Canada compete in Quebec. Eastern Canada has one conservative party, while Western Canada has a different one.

    In the United States, there used to be a de facto, regionally based, three party system because "Dixiecrats" (i.e. conservative Southern Democrats) formed such a large subgroup of the Democratic party that acted so coherently that it amounted to a third political party (and was made possible because the Republican party associated with Lincoln's role in the Civil War utterly tarnished the Republican party brand in the South for a century leave a sole dominant Democratic party with factions within it rather than outside it), but the last 40 years have seen "realignment" in American politics with Dixiecrats being replaced in national elections by Republicans with similar political ideologies. Moderate Republicans have been replaced by Democrats or defeated by conservative Republicans; more than half of the Democratic loses in the 2010 election were from "Blue Dog Democrats" the last remnant of the Dixiecrats in the Democrat party, leaving it composed almost entirely of liberals. Thus, American politics at the national level are as pure a two party system as it has been in recent memory and there will be fewer political moderates in Congress in 2011 than there have been at any time in living memory.

    This doesn't mean that there are only two political factions in the United States. But, while in multi-party systems coalitions are made after the election in the process of forming a government, in two party systems, coalitions are made before the election.

    Right now, some very large demographics, constituencies and ideologies are basically homeless and split quite evenly between the two major political parties, most notably blue collar union members (who are far more divided than the union leaderships), Catholic voters, libertarian leaning voters, and suburbanites. The political future of American politics depends to a great extent on the ability of Democrats and Republicans respectively to win over these key populations of swing voters.