Freeing Our Politics from the Horizontal Rule
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director
February 6, 2008
There comes a time when politics stops making sense. I have a hunch we’re arriving at such a moment.
For my entire life and for generations before that, we've had two primary political factions in our country – Republicans and Democrats. And we've made sense of political debates and elections and acts of governing by thinking about where all the participants and their ideas fit on an ideological spectrum that runs horizontally from right to left. Then we label them in a shorthand – liberal, conservative, moderate – for easy reference.
Trouble is, the old labels don’t seem to fit like they used to. Record numbers of citizens no longer are willing to call themselves either Democrats or Republicans. Maybe it’s just that average folks have had their hopes, dreams, worries and fears ignored by the political class for so long that they've grown hostile toward both sides. Something tells me there’s more to it than that, though.
The conventional political shorthand is becoming illegible, and the horizontal ideological spectrum on which that shorthand is based is becoming increasingly irrelevant because it no longer is especially helpful in making sense out of modern political realities.
Whether we realize it or not, the political spectrum has turned. It is vertical, not horizontal. The definitive question in today’s politics is not whether you are standing with those on the left, right or middle, it is whether you are for those on the top or bottom or somewhere in between.
To vividly illustrate how outdated the old horizontal spectrum has become, try placing the two major political parties on a vertical spectrum. Who are the Democrats and Republicans standing with? Who are they working for? Those on top or those on the bottom?
Both parties belong at or near the top because both are catering to wealthy special interests and neither major party is listening to ordinary people or reliably acting on their behalf. The masses know who owns the politicians and our government, and it’s not us. It’s the big campaign donors and the lobbyists and the wealthy elites those lobbyists represent.
So while the old horizontal spectrum continues to foster the illusion of two parties with separate and distinct masters, a vertical spectrum does a much better job of depicting how the two have really morphed into one in so many ways.
If we modernize the ideological spectrum and stop thinking right and left and start thinking up and down to make sense of politics, we'll also be forced to update our political vocabulary. We'll no longer talk about liberals and conservatives and left wings and right wings. We'll need new shorthand, new labels. Maybe we'll speak of royalists and commoners. Then and only then will our speech again have a ring of truth when we tell each other who’s on our side and who’s not.
Such recalibration of political language will not come from the political class. That crowd is obsessed with who’s right and who’s left. Which is why they are so hopelessly out of touch with average citizens. If they'd spend half as much time thinking about what’s right and wrong, we wouldn’t be in the midst of political corruption scandals of historic proportions. Maybe the public’s regard for politicians wouldn’t be somewhere between that of used car salesmen and child molesters. And the majority of citizens might not feel politically homeless, as they do now.
The people of Wisconsin and America are not as hopelessly divided as the political pundits like to claim. We all have much in common. But the party bosses thrive on playing up what distinguishes them from their political enemies, and this leads them to ceaselessly drive wedges between groups of citizens.
There’s much that needs doing if we are to restore some sense of honor to government. But while we endeavor to clean house, we also need to think about creating a political home for common folks. We need a common party. One where talk of the common good is not so uncommon.
For the record, I am not talking about a third-party movement. I am talking about a first-party movement. We should have at least one that truly owes its allegiance to the people.
Maybe one of the existing parties will finally take notice of the public’s wholesale retreat from public life, sense a growth opportunity, and make an offer the commoners can’t refuse. Maybe.
Just as likely, we’re approaching one of those historic turning points that calls for the creation of something brand new and tests our capacity for democratic renewal.
Either way, the near future promises to be exhilarating . . . or petrifying, depending on how you take to social upheaval. Because the status quo is not sustainable. Something’s got to give.