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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Political Parties

America’s three-party system is mutating yet again, but it is unclear exactly how the game will play out. Hmmm….? Yes, you read that right. America’s three-party system.

America never really had a party system until roughly the middle of the 1800’s, when the Whigs and the Democratic-Republicans faced each other during and after Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The Whigs had formed to oppose Jackson’s policies, but the issue of slavery was as fractious then as the issue of abortion is today. It shattered the party into two wings, with the anti-slavery wing eventually mutating into today’s Republican party.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s presidency also shattered the Democratic-Republicans. Jackson’s party eventually mutated into today’s Democrats. By the end of the Civil War, only two major parties were left standing: the Republicans and the Democrats.

But the Civil War created a third political party. After all, the war had created the system of railroads and telegraph lines that made fast news transmission possible. With the post-war ubiquity of the telegraph, America developed the modern news media.

As Joseph Pulitzer, of Pulitzer prize fame, and William Randolph Hearst, founder of the Hearst newspaper empire, pointed out, they could manipulate public opinion at will and start wars as they saw fit. And they did. The Spanish-American War was largely an invention of Hearst’s desire to sell newspapers. Then, as now, making the sale was more important than saving lives.

These three parties, two voted into power by ballot, the third voted into power by sales, faced each other off in shifting alliances over the next century. The third party was voted into power because the American people chose it. We liked hearing one kind of news as opposed to another kind, delivered in a yellow-journalism style as opposed to a different style; we chose what kind of lies we most liked to hear and we empowered the ones who pleased us with lies to keep at it.

The industrialists of the time recognized this. They went with the flow by creating the compulsory mass school system. Invented by men like Carnegie and Rockefeller at the turn of the 1900s, the mass school system was designed to stratify society into a hierarchical social class system. The schools trained most people to be nothing more than factory workers, with concomitantly low literacy and intellectual skills. The unions that the industrialists fought so hard against were slowly destroyed by the industrialists’ new right-to-work card, the college degree.

Universities became the new apprenticeships, replacing both the agrarian small-business apprenticeship model and the union card. Whereas the earlier systems placed an apprentice into a job according to biological nepotism, the new system places people according to intellectual nepotism – only those who think the right thoughts will move into positions of power. As a result, university professors have become the gatekeepers to society. The newest political party, the university, fills the empty slots in political, judicial and media positions.

But new and interesting possibilities appear on the horizon. Hearst and Pulitzer dominated the political situation in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The mainstream media and Hollywood dominated it in the latter half of the twentieth. Even now, Microsoft is positioning itself to dominate the news distribution of the early twenty-first. Whether control of the mechanism by which information is distributed turns out to be as critical as control of the informational content itself remains to be seen. Clearly, though, the monopolies are changing.


c matt said...

Don't worry, the FEC will step in to curb all this free flow of information and ideas on the web. Can't have the masses thinking for themselves now, can we?

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