According to legend, Benjamin Franklin was spotted emerging from the Continental Congress and a citizen asked, "Doctor, what have we got?" and Franklin replied, "A Republic if you can keep it."
We have failed to keep it. We have evolved into government in stasis yet heading toward anarchy en route to fascism. Two party government as it exists in the United States fails to meet James Madison's test for a republic: a representative democracy in which supreme power is held by the people through elected representatives of the whole population, and which has an elected president rather than a monarch.
Today, millions of Americans hold strong beliefs about social and political issues that are utterly unrepresented by either party. The Republicans have become a party of the far right, fraught with more dementia than typifies the far right parties in other attempts at democracy around the world. The Democratic party has become a center-right party, with a weak and spineless centrist core and a powerful right-wing minority that is closer to the Republican right than to its own center.
Progressive Democrats and independents voted for Barack Obama in either the belief or the hope that he would in fact lead a changing nation. When he used the internet in an unprecedented solicitation of citizen input into his new administration, those voters overwhelmingly told him they wanted single-payer health care, an end to Bush's wars, saner environmental policies, restoration of civil liberties and the rule of law, an end to corporate welfare and more effective government regulation of businesses that work against the public interest.
He ignored us. Instead of single-payer health care, he gave us a lame "public option" that he never fought for, and he began his "reform" by selling his soul to the pharmaceutical industry. Instead of ending the wars he extended them. Instead of strong legislation to stop climate-changing carbon emissions, water and air pollution and abuse of public lands, while creating clean energy jobs, he bargained away the enforcement powers of the original Clean Air Act. His party members in Congress were as complicit as Republicans in give-aways to dirty coal and Big Oil. Even his weak-tea legislation is being savaged by the right wing of his own party in vile alliance with the Republicans. In the latest betrayal of the principles he misled us into thinking he stood for, he has reversed positions and is said to be ready to resume the Bush policy of military kangaroo courts to try detainees long held illegally and immorally without charge or counsel, many of them having been repeatedly tortured as well. The list is endless.
It is time for us to learn from Europe. Multi-party democracy thrives there because it enables representation of people across a broad and often subtle spectrum of interests and needs. Hence England, for example, has room for parties dedicated solely to the interests of independence for Scotland, Wales and North Ireland; parties in shades of green, degrees of left-lean, conservators of traditional values, differing angles of rightward tilt, and a fluid center. There are, in short, real, functioning political parties to represent all the people.
Millions of Americans believe that progressivism, whether personified by Republican or Democratic leaders, has served this nation well. Progressives, after all, gave us suffrage, fair trade, anti-trust laws, the income tax, the Fair Deal, the New Deal, regulation of financial markets, Social Security, liberation of the political process from control by bosses and corrupt machines, labor unions, institutions dedicated to peace and human rights, Medicare, national parks and a vast, once-prosperous middle class.
The inheritors of such ideas have been effectively disenfranchised. Many of them voted for Obama simply because he was not Bush or McCain. Unless their interests are re-empowered by new parties, their polar opposites will take the country into fascism unopposed.
What's happening in Washington today is a travesty of democratic republicanism. We have not kept the priceless treasure we were given by Franklin, Madison and the other founders.
We desperately need ethical, economic, political and social reforms -- and we can't even pass health care reform.