There is a common lament, in particular by liberals and other leftists, that the U.S.’s two major political parties are all the same. One of the benefits of the Bush Administration is that it has taught us how far from true that claim is. Certainly fewer still engage in this lament than before 2000 (to maintain the claim is tantamount to thinking that the events of the last six years would have gone essentially the same under a Gore Administration), but it’s still a common enough sentiment. While I do regard as patently ridiculous any claim that the Republican and Democratic parties are virtually identical (which doesn’t mean that I think either party is particularly great), I do think that they are more similar than is healthy for the representation of a broad range of interests and perspectives in a fully functioning democracy.
There are several reasons for this, some of which are widely familiar: both parties are heavily lobbied and largely represent corporate and other monied interests, and this has become more true as campaign financing has become a more and more important part of federal and state and some local politicking.
There is another factor that produces some convergence between the parties that reflects a feature of the relationship between labor and capital for the last century in American capitalism. An article in the February 24, 2007 issue of The Economist (p. 37), “The Environment: Green Sums,” discusses different reasons why passing new legislation to tighten emissions caps for automobiles will have trouble passing through Congress. Not only will Republicans, or Democrats, who routinely represent the interests of the automobile and/or oil industries be reluctant to pass on such legislation, but so will those Democrats who rely on the support of labor, and in particular auto workers who see more stringent emission standards as threatening the standing of manufacturing jobs by threatening the standing of American auto corporations.
There has always been, and always will be, an opposition in the interests of labor and capital that is a structural element of capitalism (even while there has been a blurring of the line between who is labor and who is capital, via things like stock holdings as a now fairly standard part of retirement packages for workers fortunate enough to have retirement packages). While there is a perennial tension between capital and labor, there has been for a century or so a limited rapprochement between the camps in the U.S., with the labor movement in the U.S. for a long time now emphasizing a stable stake within the capitalist system rather than any sort of revolutionary transformation.
Globalization has enhanced the bargaining position of capital while greatly diminishing labor’s bargaining position and ability to hang on to a stable piece of the capitalist pie. So far at least, labor has responded not by radicalizing (and this smartly so – globalization has greatly weakened the structural position of labor anywhere, even while benefiting those same workers as consumers in some ways) but by conservatively attempting to hang on to what it has. It might never have been the case that what is good for General Motors is necessarily good for labor, and that certainly can’t be taken for granted today, but it is very much the case that what is bad for General Motors is bad for labor. One result is that Democrats who do genuinely try to represent the interests of labor on some issues end up converging with politicians who more clearly represent the interests of capital.