Saturday, September 17, 2005

The two party system sucks…

Close your eyes and imagine if you will (metaphorically, don’t really close them or you won’t be able to read my sage words) an America with more than two major political parties. I know there are many other Parties in the U.S., but none of them are significant enough to make a substantive difference. Many would argue that Ross Perot’s Reform Party enabled Bill Clinton to unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992 and then 8 years later the strong showing of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in several key battleground states cost Al Gore the 2000 election. I concede that this is all true, but these are not viable opposition parties. The Greens do not have any nationally elected members of Congress and very few state elected officials. Likewise, the Reform Party is not viable as it has essentially imploded since the strong showings in 1992 and 1996. No credible liberal would argue that Ralph Nader was a viable candidate for the presidency of this country. I think we can all agree that his administration would be like Jimmy Carter to the eighth power.

I am sitting here on a chilly Danish afternoon reflecting from afar on the state of affairs of the country that I love so much. I find my musings on America are much more clear and enlightened when I am not actually in the States. Perhaps that is because it is easier to contrast the differences. Perhaps it is because when in Denmark I look back at America fondly and think about all the ways to make it better, make it the best it can be.

Let’s face it; the United States is not all that it can be to paraphrase the old U.S. Army slogan. Perhaps that is the magic of America, the always striving and never achieving. Ours is certainly an ambitious venture; Home of free and land of the brave, respecting all, valuing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are all very worthy and honorable goals. So why can’t we achieve them? It is because our political system makes that all but impossible. I am not saying that our constitutional democracy and congressional model are flawed. In fact, I think that they are quite adequate considering the low intellectual level of many of the officials elected to run it.

The problem is that our system accepts only two different possibilities. I have denigrated George W. Bush on this Blog many times for his inability to see the shades of grey inherent in all public policies. It is always easiest to see things as black and white, but that just isn’t how things work sometimes. What if it isn’t just George W. Bush? What if it is our entire system? Look at the facts. Throughout our history, with few exceptions, we have only ever had two options. Initially there were the Federalists (those who favored the supremacy of the federal government) and the Anti-Federalists (those who favored the supremacy of the states). To Europeans looking on, our party system must seem painfully inadequate. Talk to an Englishman about the difficulty with getting all of the party on board with a particular policy objective, and they will be shocked at how difficult that is. The whips in the House of Commons are much more adept at actually whipping the backbenchers into line when an important vote is scheduled. In the United States that is nearly impossible.

Imagine if instead of two parties we had four or even five. As it stands now the Democratic Party is far too diverse to mount much of an oppositional challenge to Bush and Co. When party unity is required there is simply too much diversity of opinion to make much of a show of unity. This is evidenced when there are primaries for presidential elections, the Democrats always field at least a half dozen candidates who could be potential Presidents. When the GOP has open primaries there are usually only one or two candidates, though 2008 may be different.

What if the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, people like Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold, split off and joined the Green Party. Then you would have middle of the road Democrats like John Kerry who would maintain the party. Those Democrats who are members of the infamously centrist Democratic Leadership Council, think Joe Lieberman or Hilary Clinton, could form a socially moderate, fiscally moderate party.

Likewise I think you would find the Republican Party would likely split. Though they make a good show of party unity, I think that is a much easier feat when you control both the Legislative and Executive branches of the government. You would have a religious conservative party on the right and a socially moderate, fiscally conservative party as well. Can you imagine if the long silent moderate Republicans awoke to the power that they actually hold but are convinced by neo-cons that they don’t? After shaving their long Rip Van Winkle beards, they would wield considerable power within our government. I talk to Democratic friends about the vulnerability of moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and as a liberal I must say that the prospect of adding Democrats is attractive, but as a political scientist I believe that the elimination of moderates in the GOP is probably not a good long term goal. Chafee and his fellow moderate colleagues play an important role in keeping the religious conservatives who run the Republican Party in check. (But then again, are they really?)

The stated strength of a two party system is that they are far more stable than multi-party ones because government composed of coalitions tend to collapse much more easily, but I don’t buy that argument. Just because our government is not collapsing regularly does not mean that the U.S. government is more stable then the government in Japan, Israel or Germany.

The fact is that there aren’t just two ways to think about policy issues, and just because someone is liberal on education issues does not mean they are liberal on defense issues. Simply taking anyone who is liberal on any one issue and throwing them into one party means that they will inherently disagree on many other issues, thereby making it difficult to build consensus on any number of issues which need to be addressed as urgently as the issue they agree on. Until we have viable candidates that are willing to run on a third party platform we will never achieve the kind of voter turn out that is enjoyed in other parts of the world. The success of our very republic depends on it.

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