If Orwell had lived today
I was wondering, if George Orwell had lived today and had applied the writing in his novel “1984” to the political environment in the United States of today for a novel called, let’s say “2055”, how would that look like? I am definitely not in Orwell’s league, but let me offer some ideas for a synopsis of such a parody. And no, this is not about Trump: it is about the absurdity of two party politics in the US.
It is 2055 in the United States of America. Two political parties, Red and Blue, alternate the reins of power in equal branches of government, but rarely do they rule all branches at the same time. Red- and Blue-speak are the official and mutually exclusive narratives. When one party takes power, it publishes a list of words previously used by the other party, now to be banned from official documents. Censorship by the White House Office Of Proper Parlance (WHOOP-P, to discourage any comparison to Big Brother) enforces the use of the approved narrative by government and members of the ruling party through digital monitoring. Bad news is classified, of course.
Admiration and support of the President by members of his/her party are compulsory, as are continuous attempts at impeachment by the opposition. Both sides investigate each other’s action when they can and then later on investigate the investigation. By 2037, all legislation has come to a near-halt and the government is in a permanent shutdown. Red counties and towns in blue states declare themselves sanctuaries or even secede or join another state. The political map is beginning to look like a leopard skin.
Vacancies in the courts are filled by judges fluent in Red- or Blue-speak and selected through DNA analysis with a preference for longevity. Knowledge of the law is of secondary importance. In 2055, the Supreme Court includes 39 Justices, because every time the ruling party has a minority represented in the Court, they add and appoint justices to gain a majority.
Whatever legislative or policy achievements have been made by the previous party in power, especially if objectively good for everybody, will immediately be undone by the other when they gain power, since neither party can afford a political victory by the other. As a result, there is barely progress in any field. Bipartisan agreement is believed extinct. Healthcare in particular has suffered. Most people are now going to Greenland (now actually green and still part of Denmark) to see a doctor.
Looking at the rest of the world, single-party states and multi-party democracies had greater political agility and adapted better to the dangers of the climate crisis (Miami went under water and was moved to higher ground in West-Virginia in 2049). Foreign powers are loathe to enter into agreements with the US, knowing that these may be cancelled after the next election.
Neither party will accept responsibility for the ever growing deficit and will never raise taxes either, for fear of losing future elections. As a result, the US will default on its debt in 2034, driving the world economy into a deep recession, for which both parties continue to blame each other, rather than the system that brought them to that point. To solve the crisis, Alaska is sold to China.
The media is equally divided, having to sell stories that people will want to read and thus attract paid advertisements. Both Blue and Red outlets therefore offer wishful-thinking stories about the looming collapse of the other side or revel in mostly made-up scandals involving prominent personalities of the other side. In any event, Blue folks only talk and listen to Blue media and so it is with Red.
Conspiracy theories are rife, hoaxes are real, vulgar insults are normal, doctored images are fair, and accusations once uttered immediately become fact. Truth had become irrelevant already in 2027 and fact-checking was declared illegal in 2030. The CIA was disbanded a year later in a rare bi-partisan vote, since narrative always trumped intelligence anyway. Scientists went underground.
Political change is brought about by a small group of independents, whose role is shrinking as a result of gerrymandering, prohibitions on inter-party ‘purple’ marriages, and overwhelming social pressure to belong to either Red or Blue, both of whom accuse independents of being un-patriotic and of being in cahoots with the mysterious Deep State.
Hypocrisy is no longer a negative attribute. In fact, people are expected to switch views if suddenly the shoe is on the other blue or red foot. Politicians supporting impeachment on grounds of e.g. gross incompetence when the other side occupies the white House, gain great respect when they oppose impeachment for the very same reason when the White House has changed color (literally, since an executive order to that effect was signed in 2041. This caused a real mess when a contractor used water-soluble paint that turned the grounds purple during the six-week rainstorm of 2043. An investigation revealed that the contractor (one of the heroes in this story) was an independent. Rumors that he was Deep State could not be proven.)
You cannot go for dinner to a restaurant if it does not belong to your party. There is a Red football league, a Blue baseball league. Independents are rarely welcomed in clubs, restaurants or stadiums, nor do they want to go there for fear of attack and endless tirades in Blue- or Redspeak to make them see the error of their ways, so they go undercover. Death threats are par for the course. Both sides see the other as a menace to their way of life. In schools across the country, children are taught either Red or Blue versions of history. There is an objective (but illegal) history book in circulation, allegedly published by the Deep State.
How will this story end? Well, it could go on forever until the country collapses into total chaos, unless one party manages to gain a 2/3 majority in both houses and ¾ in the States by itself or in coalition with malcontents in the other party. This could happen, for example, when the other party makes a huge mistake with the economy and drives everyone into poverty. At this point, three alternate endings are possible. (A): the minority sees its identity threatened and starts a war of secession, (B): the ruling party effectively establishes a dictatorship, or hopefully (C): the ruling party or coalition (in a fit of wisdom) decides to do away with the district-based electoral system through a constitutional amendment and sets up a system of proportional representation. Now the independents, the far-left and the far-right, plus a range of single issue and fringe parties (e.g. the “Save The Moon” party) see their chance to get some representation in Congress. The US slowly turns into a multi-party system with a coalition government, since no party will be able to gain a majority needed to make laws and adopt budgets. Impeachment is scrapped and replaced by rare votes of no-confidence. The Deep State was never talked about again, if it even existed in the first place. And with that, civility has landed.
This story is exaggerated as it means to provoke and perhaps entertain, but it is not completely absurd. Make no mistake, much of the above is drawn from or inspired by today’s headlines. I do not blame Trump or Pelosi or Democrats and Republicans; you can substitute blue and red for any combination of two colors. Nor has the two party-system always been bad: good times may well return. Still, there are dynamics baked into the Constitution that may cause harm to this republic in the long run.
As a European living in the United States for decades, I have always been struck by the deference by politicians and the public alike to the Constitution and its Framers. This is understandable, yet at the same time it is a bit surprising since they have given us (unwillingly) a rather dysfunctional form of democracy: a two-party system. This system is a direct result of the electoral system enshrined in the Constitution, whereby a single candidate just needs to get more votes than his/her opponents to represent an entire district or state, even if that majority represent a minority of total votes cast. Winner takes all.
Unbeknownst to the framers of the Constitution at the time, according to political science insights of today such an electoral system is nearly certain to lead to a two-party system as an unintended consequence. An important reason for that is that voters would prefer to vote for a party that would promote at least part of their interests and stands a chance of winning, rather than a party in the middle that is a an exact political match, but would never rise to power. Ask yourself why a third (or fourth) party has never taken off in the US. The UK and Canada feature similar systems and thus also have two principal political parties.
By contrast, an electoral system based on proportional representation is known to lead to a multi-party system as in Western Europe, including my own country, the Netherlands. To make things worse, changing the Constitution to fix the electoral system requires a two thirds majority of both houses and three fourths of States to agree. But why would any party, whether Republican or Democrat, voluntarily do away with the very electoral system that gave them such a majority in the first place, if they ever get there? Bottom line: the US is going to be stuck for a long time with a two-party system and the political dysfunction that has become so apparent in recent years. Dysfunction will become the function.