Clarence Thomas on the One-Party State that is our Two-Party System

From Clarence Thomas’s dissent in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003):

The joint opinion also places a substantial amount of weight on the fact that “in 1996 and 2000, more than half of the top 50 soft-money donors gave substantial sums to both major national parties,” and suggests that this fact “leav[es] room for no other conclusion but that these donors were seeking influence, or avoiding retaliation, rather than promoting any particular ideology.”Ante, at 38 (emphasis in original). But that is not necessarily the case. The two major parties are not perfect ideological opposites, and supporters or opponents of certain policies or ideas might find substantial overlap between the two parties. If donors feel that both major parties are in general agreement over an issue of importance to them, it is unremarkable that such donors show support for both parties. This commonsense explanation surely belies the joint opinion’s too-hasty conclusion drawn from a relatively innocent fact.

Lefty critics of the American two-party system have complained for years that there is too much ideological alignment between the two parties, particularly on questions of economics and corporate power, as evidenced by the fact that many wealthy donors are only too happy to give to both parties. Clarence Thomas doesn’t disagree.


  1. Roquentin January 7, 2016 at 2:55 pm | #

    In a weird way, he kind of has a point. We don’t necessarily benefit from an adversarial system, even if this logic is very important to liberal ideology in the US. What I mean by this is adversarial in the “Pepsi vs Coke” sense. We call this competition, as if a slightly sweeter or more carbonated soft-drink represents authentic choice or that if the money goes into the hands of slightly separated sectors of the bourgeoisie it isn’t a “monopoly.” As reactionary as Thomas is, he can be strangely blunt about things. I very seldom read court opinions or legal documents, but there’s a certain candor to his views. It’s as if to say “Why do we really have to pretend that having two entities with nearly indistinguishable goal matters?” There’s a certain dignity to the directness of it.

    Maybe we should formulate the question this way: “Would forcing big political donors to give exclusively to one party or the other really fix anything?” It doesn’t seem to me like that’s the fundamental issue at work. If you allow a few individuals to amass massive amounts of wealth and power relative to the society they inhabit, it is 100% inevitable that they will use that to dominate and control said society while protecting their privileged position within it. People with that kind of wealth simply shouldn’t be allowed to exist if we were serious about fixing our political system. But we aren’t. We want pretend solutions, symbolic gestures, empty posturing, so we can turn off these tedious debates and go back to the game. I can hardly fault people for it either. It’s a myth that political participation is something that you have to con people out of. Most people don’t even want to. The want the political and economic machinery to run quietly in the background so they can get on with more pleasant matters.

    • Will G-R January 8, 2016 at 1:54 pm | #

      “It’s a myth that political participation is something that you have to con people out of. Most people don’t even want to.”

      Not only do most people have no desire to care about electoral politics, but if you left them locked in a room with a stack of political science textbooks and a computer that could do nothing but access politics-related websites, then later put a gun to their head and forced them to articulate a political critique, they’d probably end up saying something to the effect of exactly what Thomas wrote. In that sense, the apathetic nonvoter’s reflexive thought process is perfectly rational: engaging with the electoral system as it exists isn’t capable of producing any effect remotely commensurate with the time and energy it demands from me, therefore I’ll ignore it. At least pop culture can always find some new combination of sex/violence/humor to keep it engaging, plus it won’t get all sanctimonious on you if you stop paying attention to it for 5 minutes.

  2. Nqabutho January 8, 2016 at 4:43 am | #


    “People with that kind of wealth simply shouldn’t be allowed to exist …” has a certain ghoulish attractiveness, but maybe you want to say that the concentration of that kind of wealth in the hands of a few people, especially those intent on seeking influence over government policies and decisions and overriding the public interest, shouldn’t be allowed to exist. If the public interest is not represented by the established political parties, and we are unable to prevent the corrupting mechanism of money attempting to buy access, maybe access of the public interest to the political process, policy and decision making could be institutionalized in a permanent “department of the critique of government in the public interest”, if only it could be shielded from those same plutocratic interests and from the influence of the political parties. Sounds impossible; is there a way to do that?

    My concern is that the dominance of plutocratic interests in the form of the corporate media prevents the kind of rational, honest and informed public debate that would allow the public interest to be articulated and mobilized. A public that is thinking in the way Trump’s crowd is thinking would not make for an effective debate. In the meantime, maybe we can form an international movement to confiscate the excess wealth of all those who have more than they need, all that excess savings and capital that keeps sloshing around the world, all the surplus money that is flushed down the toilet in political campaigns, and put it to the public good. In what kind of an alternative reality would that be possible? A possible point of significance in the evolution of political systems: “people power” does seem to be an effective influence.

  3. Roqeuntin January 8, 2016 at 8:24 am | #

    I meant what I said simply and directly. People shouldn’t be allowed to amass that much wealth and power. That’s what I mean by not existing. This isn’t about any particular individual’s wealth, it’s that we should legislate and operate our economy in such a manner that amassing so much capital is not allowed to happen. I’ll admit that the current election has put me in a sour mood and I’m more hyperbolic about things than usual, but I stand by that assertion. You can’t let people get that rich and then expect them not to use that money to maintain their fortune, the advantages that come with it, and to further change society to let them get even richer. I’ll also say that I have no idea how to accomplish this and even under the best of circumstances wouldn’t live to see it. Admittedly, that changes things somewhat, because then the question becomes: if an ideal society isn’t achievable, how do we make the best of the mess we’re in. Writing all of it off as empty gestures is short sighted.

    I agree with pretty much everything in the second paragraph. It’s not even that I agree with Thomas, just that there’s a certain logic to his position. I can respect that.

  4. Nqabutho January 9, 2016 at 2:17 am | #

    No, in my comment I meant to express my 100% agreement with your idea. It was only that your formulation (“People … shouldn’t be allowed to exist …”) struck me as amusing, and I wasn’t complaining. I get your intended meaning, but the expression has an alternative reading, meaning something like, “People (who currently already have that kind of wealth, and who currently exist (and who constitute an impediment to fixing our political system)) shouldn’t be allowed to exist (i.e., allowed to go on living)”, a scenario which is, perhaps sadly, not unpleasant to contemplate. (I’m totally against the death penalty, but sometimes in my frustration I imagine a world in which it is reserved for crimes of gross abuse of power.) I think my reformulation (“the concentration of that kind of wealth … shouldn’t be allowed to exist”) expresses an idea equivalent to what you expressed in your comment and reply, in the relevant respects.

    I also am unable to specify a path from here to that kind of a world, but also I think an official body independent of the other three branches (and insulated from “politics”) that has as its purpose critique of government policies, decisions, activities, and constantly telling the world about it might be a good addition in any case. (How dishonest and shortsighted a government that does not allow critique: restricted to brute power-play!)

    But your idea I think is important. There should be an upper limit on the wealth at one’s disposal (defined in some way to be specified), and any additional income from whatever source should be taxed at 100%. My intuition is that it should be possible to construct an ethical argument demonstrating rigorously that it is unjustifiable and a violation of ethical principles to pursue wealth beyond necessity. Beyond a certain point, people do not have a right to possess that money, however they came by it. There are public goods that need to be financed, and these should take precedence. It’s not my field, and I could be wrong, but it’s my impression that we do not yet have an effective understanding of the logical structure of ethical principles and the nature of ethical justification (e.g., an explicit statement of the “symmetry rules” upon which all ethical principles depend for their validity). The arguments against acceptance of economic inequality that I’ve seen so far all are supported by only practical reasoning, not ethical justification properly speaking.

    The Thomas quote is interesting because of his acceptance of the idea that the aim of political contributions is to attempt to buy access, which he thinks is unproblematic, but is precisely the centre of the problem. The problem is not pursuance of this or that ideological agenda, but the overriding of the public interest in policy making. (A decision between action a, justified by money, but violating accepted ethical principles, and action b, justified by ethical principles and benefiting the public, is decided in favour of a, because somewhere there is a payoff.)

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