Arms and the duopoly
Afghanistan was a disastrous bipartisan war supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. Daniel Lazare lambasts the idea that the solution lies in a third bourgeois party untainted by the arms industry
Whenever America blunders into some new disaster - when it gets itself in trouble in Iraq, elects a senile hack like Joe Biden or showers Wall Street with torrents of cash - the call goes up for a third party. It is not hard to understand why. Despite being at one another’s throat, Republicans and Democrats are equal partners in a great Washington game, whose purpose is to benefit members of Congress and their corporate clients, while leaving the masses out in the cold.
So what better way to put a stop to the racket than by taking aim at the duopoly that supports it? Now that America has shot itself in the foot in Afghanistan, it is not surprising, therefore, that the call for a third party is going up once again, this time from an independent journalist named Matt Taibbi.
Said to be an heir to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S Thompson (of Fear and loathing in Las Vegas fame), Taibbi is a freelance reporter with a major base. He has more than half a million followers on Twitter, his articles on the online platform, Substack, regularly draw hundreds of comments each, while YouGov says he is amongst the most popular political columnist in the country.1 Indeed, he possesses an acerbic wit and a bracing contempt for the Washington political establishment and was particularly brilliant in exposing the great CIA destabilisation campaign known as Russiagate back during the age of Trump. With ‘Repocrats’ now accusing one another of ‘losing’ Afghanistan, Taibbi is once again in his element, as he notes that what passes for political debate in America is a charade “designed to distract from the fact that Afghanistan is as pure a bipartisan fiasco as we’ve had in recent times”:
Both parties were directly and repeatedly complicit in prolonging the catastrophe. Republicans and Democrats were virtually unanimous in approving the initial use of force, both voted over and over to fund the war to insane levels, and both Democratic and Republican presidents spent years covering up evidence of massive contracting corruption, accounting failure (as in failure to do any accounting), war crimes, and other problems.
Afghanistan was the ultimate symbol of the two-party consensus - the ‘good war’, as Barack Obama deemed it - and defence spending in general remained so sacrosanct across the last 20 years that the monster, $160 billion defence spending hikes of 2017-18 were virtually the only policy initiative of Donald Trump’s that went unopposed by a Democratic leadership.2
Quite right. Terrified of the ‘peacenik’ label, Democrats have spent the last few decades trying to show they are every bit as macho as the Republicans. The result is a pas de deux that has steadily pushed the country to the right, and Taibbi is entirely correct in calling such hellish bipartisanship out. But when he comes up with a solution, the heart sinks:
We need new institutions free of Pentagon influence, probably starting with a new political party. It doesn’t even matter so much what such a party would stand for, ideologically, so long as it adheres to one basic principle: don’t accept contractor money.
The hoariest of American clichés thus heaves into view. Supposedly, the republic of 1787 is so holy and pure in its glorious New World isolation that the only thing that could ever undermine it is the money power boring from within. So a long line of demagogues have warned - from Thomas Jefferson worrying about the threat posed to his beloved Virginia squirearchy by a nascent northern bourgeoisie, to Andrew Jackson denouncing the evils of a central bank, and William Jennings Bryan raging against “a cross of gold”. In its modern form, the myth of American innocence holds that war is foisted on an otherwise peace-loving republic by greedy weapons manufacturers feeding at the public trough.
“Lockheed Martin by itself gobbled a remarkable $75.8 billion in contracts last year,” Taibbi writes, “and the top five defence firms overall took in a staggering $167 billion” - money that they then recycled in the form of $135 million worth of lobbying in a handful of key House and Senate committees. Since Republicans and Democrats are merely two wings of the US War Party, the answer is to come up with a third party that will just say no to whatever blandishments such all-powerful warmongers have to offer.
But there are obvious problems with Taibbi’s prescription. For starters, there is the unfortunate fact that a third party is flat-out impossible, thanks to America’s pre-democratic 18th century political structure. The reason is not only a ‘first past the post’ voting system that inevitably casts third parties in the role of spoilers, whose only effect is to draw votes away from the less reprehensible party, thereby guaranteeing that the ‘even worse’ will win. Its logic is all but designed to stop third-party advocates in their tracks.
Even worse, a fragmented political system requires them to risk serving as spoilers not in a single parliamentary election, but in hundreds of separate federal elections for the House, the Senate and, ultimately, the presidency - not once, moreover, but for years on end, until they at last gather the momentum for a breakthrough.
However, this is impossible in a country in which parties are chronically weak and undeveloped.3 To be sure, Abraham Lincoln pulled it off in 1860, but he is the exception that proves the rule, since in normal times his 40% share of the popular vote would have marked him as an abject failure. It was only the fact that the opposition had self-destructed first, by splitting three ways over the slavery question, that put him over the top. It was a classic case of a revolutionary minority prevailing over a majority that was divided and torn.
Since then, Republicans and Democrats have joined forces in making sure that nothing like that ever happens again. Besides red-baiting and bribery, this has entailed jacking up ballot-access requirements to the point where third parties die aborning. In 1931, Illinois decided that third-party candidates would have to gather 25,000 signatures each just to be listed on a state-wide ballot. Pennsylvania decided that they would have to gather thousands of signatures in just three weeks, while, in New York, Republican and Democratic lawyers set about tying up third parties in court by scrutinising their ballot-access petitions for the most hyper-technical of defects.
Third parties had to hurtle enormous barriers before they could even campaign. As Jacobin, the semi-official mouthpiece of the Democratic Socialists of America, pointed out in 2016, this is entirely unique as far as the rest of the so-called democratic world goes. The only comparable barrier the Labour Party faced during its climb to power in Britain, for instance, was a requirement, instituted in 1918, that each candidate pay a £150 filing fee, refundable if he or she gained 12.5% of the vote. In Canada, any party with 250 members is entitled to compete in all 338 House of Commons districts nationwide, with candidates required to gather only a hundred signatures per contest. In Australia, a party with five hundred members can run candidates in all House of Representatives districts, with individual candidates required to make a $770 deposit that is also refundable if they get four percent or more of the vote.4
In February, a poll found that 62% of US adults believe that Republicans and Democrats do “such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed”.5 But, thanks to such barriers and more, it is the one thing they cannot have. Americans can speak their mind freely on any topic they wish, they can denounce war and capitalism from the rooftops, and they can do anything, for that matter, short of walking naked down Broadway. But they cannot achieve significant political change because a centuries-old constitutional structure says no. So Taibbi’s call for a third party is a non-starter due to structural impediments that he does not care to address.
Then there is the ideological question, which renders his proposal a non-starter as well. If Taibbi honestly believes that ideology does not matter, it is because he takes the easy way out by arguing that the weapons industry causes war, when the real culprit is something more powerful. It is called imperialism, which is to say capitalism’s relentless search for foreign markets, profits and resources. Imperialism creates war and, in the process, creates the industries needed to wage it. Arms makers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are thus secondary phenomena, and preventing them from making campaign contributions - assuming such a thing is even possible - will have roughly the same effect as breaking up Standard Oil had in 1911, which is to say nil. Socialists might support such a ban for propagandistic purposes. But they would let it be known that it is akin to firing a pea-shooter at a tank. The war machine will barrel on regardless.
Inadvertently, Taibbi has hit the nail on the head. If a third party is necessary to break up “the ‘iron triangle’ of Congress, the Pentagon and defence contractors”, as he puts IT, and a third party is impossible under anything like present political circumstances, then one thing is clear: the iron triangle will continue ad infinitum. If ideology is something Americans should not talk about because “it doesn’t even matter”, then a genuine anti-imperialist movement will never take shape - which is why Lockheed Martin will continue making money hand over fist and US bombs will continue raining down on a growing list of countries from Afghanistan to Yemen.
As grim as this sounds, the ice is starting to break. 2021 is only two-thirds through, yet already it has seen two major fissures opening up in the US political edifice: the Capitol Hill insurrection in January and the Afghan debacle in August. One showed that the ‘delicate balances’ that supposedly hold the US political system together at home are starting to unravel, while the second shows that an over-extended US empire is collapsing as well. Comparisons with the Russo-Japanese War and the revolution of 1905 are premature. But, the more instability grows abroad, the more it will deepen at home, and vice versa.
By holding back change, America’s frozen constitutional structure merely assures that it will be all the more radical when it finally arrives.
See ‘Explosive contradictions’ Weekly Worker February 23 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1287/explosive-contradictions.↩︎