A new two-party system?

Recent elections (notably including those for the European Parliament) have shown the evolution of what I’ve called a three-party system, replacing the alternation between soft and hard versions of neoliberalism dominant since the 1980s. The three parties in this analysis are the (a) remaining elements of the neoliberal consensus, (b) Trumpists[1], and (c) leftists, defined as broadly as possible to encompass greens, feminist, social democrats, old-style US liberals, as well as those who would consciously embrace the label “Left”.

When I wrote in 2016, the biggest loser from this process seemed to be the kind of soft neoliberalism exemplified by Blair, and many of the European social democratic parties. But that was before Trump and Brexit.

The striking development of the past few years has been the capitulation of the mainstream rightwing parties to various forms of Trumpism. That’s most obvious with the US Republicans. And, while some advocates of Brexit may still hope for a free-market utopia, its pretty clear now that this is unlikely to happen. The continuing desire to get Brexit done at all costs is all about culture wars, with Leavers cast as the British people and Remainers as out of touch elites. The same pattern is evident in Australia, where free market policies have been abandoned in favour of culture wars, to the extent that the government is seriously considering building coal-fired power stations, just to make a point.

I’m not well enough attuned to the nuances of European politics to discuss developments at the national level. In aggregate, though, it seems clear not only that the mainstream conservatives are losing ground electorally, but that they are moving towards Trumpism.

This suggests that the current three-party system might rapidly resolve itself into a new two-party system: Trumpists against everyone else, with the remnants of the old neoliberal duopoly being forced to take sides. This is already happening to some extent.

In this context, it was striking to read a piece in the Washington Post, of all places, slamming the “economically conservative, socially liberal” centrism of Howard Schultz, and pointing out that

Centrism,” in other words, has become a byword for the politics of the business elite. Defined left to right, on an x-axis, it may approximate the center of the political spectrum. But on a y-axis that represents socioeconomic status, it sits at the very top.

It’s hard to say where centrists will end up. On the one hand, they mostly benefit from the regressive tax policies and weak regulation that Trumpists have carried over from hard neoliberalism. On the other hand, the Trumpists have abandoned free markets for crony capitalism, typically favoring well-connected national insiders, exemplified by the US First Family. That poses problems for global corporations and fans of globalized capitalism like Tom Friedman, who still yearn for the halcyon days of the 1990s.

As ought to be obvious, I’m still working this out, so I’ll leave it to commenters from here.

fn1. I previously called this group “tribalists”, which was problematic. The Key characteristic is the identity politics of a formerly unchallenged dominant group facing the real or perceived prospect of becoming a politically weak minority, as with white Christians in the US. As Trump and others have shown, this kind of politics leads naturally to support for demagogic dictators and would-be dictators.

27 thoughts on “A new two-party system?

  1. The Greens in Germany according to the latest opinion polls (yes, I know, *opinion polls*) have more support, at 27%, than any other party. They have taken support from the moribund Social Democrats while on the Right the CDU/CSU is losing support to the AfD.

    German business leaders are talking seriously to them about their policies, as well they might, since on those numbers the Greens will be a big part of the next Government. Most of the Greens are happy to talk to business because it’s what you do when sit at the grown ups table.

  2. On the Australian centre-left, while Labor can’t be a party of protest (as it likes to describe the Greens) its long-term health requires it to have some kind of constructive relationship with the people who are protesting and to be alive to the reasons why they are protesting. Such a relationship will be complex and seldom conflict-free, especially as the votes of other constituencies are also needed if elections are to be won, but a social democratic party has no future if it can’t draw on, in some way, the energies of people in civil society campaigning for democracy, social justice, peace and the environment. Queensland Labor under Stash Pash and post-election Federal Labor don’t seem remotely interested in doing so.

  3. “a social democratic party has no future if it can’t …”

    Not a long term future, but in the interim in a preferential voting system it can live off the votes of those further left.

    On the government “seriously considering” building a coal fired power station I don’t know that this is true. Some noisy backbenchers have demanded it, but as far as I can tell none of the important people in the government have endorsed the idea, not even the coal-fondling Prime Minister. And certainly not the Treasurer.

    What the government is doing is spending many billions on a renewable energy project, Snowy 2.

  4. Smith9, Snowy 2 is not a renewable energy project. Because the catchment area will be small renewable electrical generation will be small. It’s purpose is to store energy which could come from renewables or coal. As perhaps 24% of the energy it stores will be lost it is a net load. Given its likely cost I don’t see how it makes economic sense compared to multiple distributed energy storage capacity. This is before the possibility of megaproject cost blow out is considered.

  5. The Right wing media is trying to force Labor to lurch to the Right by portraying the election result as a landslide and saying Labor is out of touch. I think Labor won NSW, Vic ,ACT, SA, and NT and nationwide the Liberal party got less primary votes this time compared to Turnbulls narrow win prior ? The Liberals only won by making deals with ,and so legitimising, the extreme Right. National party politicians addressed white nationalist rallies without punishment. Conservatives are trying to hold back the tide, if they must work with Fascists to do so they will. Anything but Socialism. Nothing happens without the consent of the 1%.

  6. won’t comment about O/S as knowledge is limited but in Australia we have had a yearning for yesteryear. This is best shown by one nation. They want to go back to a 1950s environment and no party in power can do that.
    What a lot of people miss is that the ALP under Hawke not only were forced in reform measures but clearly policies introduced by the ALP were not enough to ameliorate those who either got caught up or indeed just fear change. the ALP’s primary vote fell until the one-off 1993 win.
    In 1996 Howard won when he promised to both increase reform and curb it back. when he was lax or paid little heed to the latter One Nation provided the voice to those who wanted reform put on the back burner and they put their preferences to the ALP.
    In the years since we have had more populist parties who were all over the place in their preferences until the last election.
    In Australia in the HOR you essentially have to vote ALP or LNP.. My guess their preferences wil go back to normal in the next election because like Howard in 96 Morrison this year nod and wink to these voters will end up being seen as a betrayal.

    no government is going to fund a coal fired power station. It would need a 50 year subsidy but these voters don’t believe that. They think prices wi lgo back to what they were before the failure of privatisation.
    Their view of all the economic gains from new coal mines is another point of illusion with which they will blame the present government.

  7. What should we read into Yanis Varoufakis’ new party MeRA25 3.46% share of the vote in the Greek elections on the platform for Greece (from the Wikipedia site) of:
    – Restructuring the national debt
    – Reducing primary surpluses
    – Creating a public debt restructuring company
    – The general reduction of tax rates
    – Creating a public digital payment platform
    – Converting HRADF into a development bank
    – Respecting paid work and creative entrepreneurship.

    Varoufakis is working across Europe through the DiEM25 movement to contest European elections (MeRA25 in Greece). He and nine others are now elected Greek MPs.

  8. @7:10 PM

    but the election hardly changed anything, maybe it would have if not for clives jive.
    but it didn’t.

    porter wants to “protect” religious rights.

    The Declaration of Breda already covers that quite well.
    “a liberty for tender consciences”.

    that also includes those whose “tender conscience” has a hard time stomaching being told eternal agony awaits non believers.

  9. “What should we read into Yanis Varoufakis’ new party MeRA25 3.46% share of the vote in the Greek elections”

    Spectacular failure? Though his party did get 30,000 more votes than Golden Dawn, who are actual Nazis, so that’s something.

    More interestingly, the [Maoist] Communist Party of Greece (Marxist–Leninist) got three times as many votes as the [Stalinist] Marxist–Leninist Communist Party of Greece, who in turn got more votes than [Trotskyist] Workers Revolutionary Party, who got more votes than [Leninist] Organisation of Internationalist Communists of Greece.

  10. “What should we read into Yanis Varoufakis’ new party MeRA25 3.46% share of the vote in the Greek elections”

    Spectacular failure? Though his party did get 30,000 more votes than Golden Dawn, who are actual Nazis, so that’s something.

    There are plenty of examples from different countries and different times in history of parties that started out with similar levels of support when first contesting elections: some of them fizzled out, but some of them achieved greater success later. So who knows?

    If Golden Dawn does get booted out (the preliminary results show them falling just short of getting any members elected), that will be good.

  11. J-D

    Who knows, indeed? Though I wouldn’t count on it, in Varoufakis’ case. There is nothing more practically useless than a left wing European intellectual and his party is wall to wall with left wing European intellectuals.

    What was notable about the Greek elections was the outstanding performance of the mainstream party of the centre right, New Democracy. The voters were always going to boot out Syriza (though in the end, with 32%, Syriza didn’t do that badly) but they could have gone populist Trumpist. But they didn’t. The new Prime Minister is a former banker with a Harvard MBA, whose platform is to cut taxes and the bureaucracy and privatisation of state assets. He’s also an EU man. You couldn’t get a more a caricatured neo-liberal from 1989 if you wrote a fictional script and put it on Netflix. Yet the Greek people, who have been bent over more than anybody by the excesses of neoliberalism, voted him in.

    As Margaret Thatcher once observed, it’s a funny old world.

  12. “You couldn’t get a more a caricatured neo-liberal from 1989”

    Even better, the new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, used to work at McKinsey and is the son of a former Prime Minister.

  13. the irony of ironies is it was New Democracy that created the mess and it was the only sensible Papandreou that opened up the books and admitted what New Democracy had did and then tried to make amends. for that Pasok was punished for some reason

  14. It will be interesting to see how long Scott Morrison can appease the right wing of the liberal party. Will he play enough of the culture war game to satisfy them? I don’t have enough of an understanding of how committed to culture warring he is to know. If he acts too much as a conventional free marketeer we will find out how politically confident Dutton and Co are. For the time being they are really happy with themselves that they have got rid of dr Evil, Mr Turnbull.

  15. Might be a naive view but it really seems to me that the Greek electorate is simply in a continuous cycle of kicking the bums out. Although it is impressive that Syrizia seems to have established themselves as a major party.

  16. The OP is OK as far as it goes but it omits from the analysis a major set of political players, the tech companies. We’ve seen how their platforms can be used to affect if not determine elections; Amazon is on its way to becoming the world”s (non China) monopoly retailer; they are redefining the basic tenets of privacy by being able to spy on the whole world at will; they are or could be instruments of social control (In China, people are given “social ratings”); they are taking over the world entertainment industry; and Facebook has just launched a takeover bid for the world financial system. The only thing they don’t have (yet) is their own armed forces.

  17. Does Hotelling’s Law explain two major parties having very similar policies? When a person decides which party to vote for, she does a “mental walk” from her set of beliefs to the nearest party platform. Two parties side by side on the left-right, one-dimensional political spectrum will almost equally share custom (votes).

    Moving away from the center loses votes as Bill Shorten found out. However, the center itself can be moved right by money. Rightist forces (capitalists) have the most spare money, by far, and move the Overton window right with advertising and party donations. A party that wishes, perhaps for ideological reasons, to be more left-ish cannot be in practice as it loses votes. Indeed it has to keep moving to the right to chase the right-moving center. A party a little to the right of center (by internal sectarian pressure or from capitalist donation pressure) can settle there and simply for the voting center to be moved to it by the application of money and advertising pressure.

  18. I thought Clive Palmer did remarkably well at demonstrating the more obvious problems with electoral regulation in this country. He’s now shown that not only do advertisements not have to be true, they don’t have to be placed with the aim of electing the party they’re placed by and there are no effective limits on the amount that can be spent. Obviously I think those are problems, but I’m going to guess that ScoMo and Co regard them as features – it’s a win-win for them because Clive didn’t manage to get the balance of power so can now be largely ignored. Well, quietly encouraged in the hope that he will repeat the trick next time…

  19. “not only do advertisements not have to be true, they don’t have to be placed with the aim of electing the party they’re placed by”

    This was exactly the electoral strategy of the DLP in the 50s and 60s, a party whose principal if not sole purpose was to keep the ALP out of power by hoovering up the votes of natural Labor voters (namely, Catholics) and sending those votes to the Liberal and Country parties as preferences. It worked a treat.

  20. It was interesting reading Guy Rundle’s piece in Crikey today vindicating the ALP’s capitulation on the Coalition’s regressive Stage Three tax cuts. Essentially, Rundle (nominally a socialist Green) was arguing for pragmatic ALP acquiescence to ‘Aspirational Australia’. I’m reminded of something former Morgan Stanley Uber Bear Gerard Minack said just ahead of the GFC: The Anglo world was Wily E Coyote, who had chased the Roadrunner off a cliff. He was suspended over a chasm and was only just beginning to realise there was nothing between him and a 500-foot drop. Australia’s Coaltion-voting working middle class is like that. Leveraged up and mortgaged to the eyeballs, flattering themselves as entrepreneurs because they’ve surfed the real estate bubble and voting Tory. They’re all about to have the rudest awakening. And how sweet it will be.

  21. Smith9, one of my earliest childhood memories of politics was the DLP ad in the 1970 Victorian State election that featured a jingle to the tune of “Bonnie and Clyde” that was critical of the two major parties, with the crucial difference that the criticism of Henry Bolte and the Liberals was on the basis of competence, whereas the criticism of the ALP was that “they’re just a party of puppets with the Commos pulling the strings” which of course had more emotional resonance with the DLP’s base.

  22. Paul Norton

    in fairness to the DLP, there were some very influential people in the Victorian ALP in those days, including the Party President and Secretary, who, if not exactly toeing the Moscow line, were not what you would call unsympathetic to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. And they did pull the strings, such as when they forced (Labor leader) Clyde Holding to repudiate his own policy on state aid to private schools a week before the election.

  23. From which encyclopedic orifice of mother-ship mnemonist does he pull these obscure narratives of political trivia from 🙂


  24. ” it’s a win-win for them because Clive didn’t manage to get the balance of power so can now be largely ignored. Well, quietly encouraged in the hope that he will repeat the trick next time…”

    No chance. It was the most speculator of failures for Clive. If you’re a wannabe demagogue, you really need to follow the holy scriptures as a matter of gospel ie. study and replicate the political rise of Trump.

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