That, to my mind, is a real pity.

Foreigners puzzled by the US political system used to ask me about it. I would explain to them that American politics can’t be understood in terms of the political parties found in other systems, especially Parliamentary ones. Political parties around the world are based on some unifying principle all the members agree with. It might be (usually is) some sort of ideology, but it can also be a particular religion or, more often, simple family ties. If I had been advising the Iraqis, I would have suggested that they incorporate the clan structure of Iraqi society explicitly, with political parties as a model.

American political parties are, or used to be, quite different. We have “first past the post” voting and no formal recognition of Party structures, and the result (as political scientists will tell you is inevitable, and prove it with math) is two parties, with the always-smaller ideologically based parties relegated to near irrelevance. Until recently in historical terms, the two parties were not particularly unified within themselves. There were a pair of nebulous philosophies that helped keep them semi-cohesive, but the two parties each contained a broad spectrum of opinion. Ideological differences didn’t matter much anyway, because the Government was relatively weak as regards internal affairs. Political parties could be understood in much the same terms as the fan base of a sports team — “our side” vs. “their side”, but both playing the same game.

In a very real way, the United States didn’t have two political parties, it had two Governments, and they traded off. Parliamentary Governments require that the newly-elected representatives “form a Government” as the first step after an election, which is why they try to have elections as seldom as possible — it’s a cumbersome and complex procedure. American political parties went through the coalition-building and give-and-take to form a unified whole at the Party stage, and after the election had only to appoint the appropriate ministers to be off and running.

This is where Newt Gingrich and John McCain are coming from; this is the structure they are familiar with and expect. If you examine their recommendations and tactics, you will see that they are based on the expectation that the system they’re used to continues in force. Unfortunately for them — and us — they are brontosaurs in a world where the mammals are biting their heels while the velociraptors think of them as “lunch”.

The unifying principle for Republicans was, and remains, centripetalism, a tendency to favor unified solutions and single points of power — the Government itself, large private corporations, associations of all kinds. In the earlier era, Democrats tended to approve of individualistic philosophies, but since about the Kennedy Administration Democrats have become more and more a Party that promotes communitarian solutions, ranging from Populism to out-and-out Communism. Communitarian policies are, almost by definitition, centripetal, tending to push toward more and bigger organizations and more and stronger central control. It’s important to realize that the “Party Flip” applies almost entirely to Democrats. Republicans stayed pretty much where they were while Democrats moved strongly toward communitarianism, for which the shorthand is “the Left”.

The result is appalling uniformity between the two parties, and the incredible growth of centralizing Government intrusion. Each individual intrusion may, and often does, have good-sense argument in favor of it, but without a stabilizing force in the form of a Party with centrifugal tendencies there is no restraint on the centralizing force. They may apply different reasoning or invoke different principles in support, but both Democrats and Republicans today work toward a system with strong central control, differing only in the details.

Gingrich, McCain, Snowe, et. al., are still trying to make the old system work. They fail, because the basic function — effective opposition — no longer exists. Both Parties agree on the underlying principle of growth of Government as a centralizing force. When Democrats propose some centralizing policy, Republicans differ with them only in the details. Details may be important, but the only thing Republicans can offer is, perhaps, a bit less central force, because their own tendencies are in the same direction.

The TEA Parties and the occasional intrusion of people who label themselves “conservative” — meaning, in this context, opposed to forceful centralization — are an attempt to provide an opposition to the centripetal tendency that has become uniform in main-line politics. Conservatives, by that definition, have almost no representation in Government today, although they are certainly a large minority and perhaps a thin majority of the populace. It remains to be seen whether or not Republicans can ever understand that and re-form themselves as a largely-Conservative party opposing the communitarian Democrats; the early signs aren’t hopeful. The fact that most Party-favored candidates on both sides are Senators, rather than Governors, Representatives, or people from outside the system altogether, is symptomatic.

In a two-party system third parties have a tough row to hoe, and a good chunk of that comes from the short-term effects. It could be argued that Ross Perot elected Bill Clinton by siphoning off the conservatives from Republicans, allowing Democrats the majority. It could equally be argued that Ralph Nader did something similar for George W. Bush. This is the problem Gingrich is pointing out. In the past, it’s been overcome by having third-party policies incorporated into the philosophies of the major party most closely aligned — but if Republicans cannot abandon centripetalism, cannot adopt centrifugal, Conservative policies, that won’t work here.

If there’s nobody on the ballot who isn’t a promoter of centralization, there’s little point in voting Republican and no real motive to do so beyond the “sport fan” attitude. When it comes to promoting centralization, Democrats have the stronger, or at least more effective, arguments. If Republicans want to survive as a Party, the only real alternative is for them to adopt centrifugal — “conservative” — policies and promote them. “Me too, but cheaper” is not an effective campaign slogan.