Rethinking the two-party system

Posted Jan. 17, 2010, at 7:25 p.m.

Are the rumors of political anger throughout the land evidence of temporary squalls or serious storms? There is the sound of breaking china from the tea party right, the angry barking of centrist blue dogs, and howls from the progressive left. Some say they want their country back, others want government to pay as it goes, still others want us to forge ahead into the frontier of progressive change.

Of course it may all blow over, especially if 2010 brings some sense that problems are actually being solved, but we should remember that it doesn’t take much to start third-party movements, which can have profound effects upon political outcomes.

Arguably both the Ross Perot campaign of 1992 and even Ralph Nader’s run in 2000 “stole” enough votes from one side so as to alter what the outcome would have been without them.

Even given the profound unpopularity of both parties, it remains almost impossible for a third-party movement to become a viable major contender. Only the most extreme circumstances seem to allow this to happen in the U.S.

The last time was the result of the crisis over the question of the extension of slavery into the new territories in the 1850s. This crisis destroyed the Whigs, one of the major parties of the time, and divided the Democrats. The resulting vacuum allowed for the formation and eventual triumph of a new party, the Republicans (a liberal party in the context of the times), to win with Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Such a replacement has not happened since, even though there have been a number of important third-party efforts that have made a difference.

Why is it so difficult to achieve a more lasting victory? In such a large and diverse society are there really only two major opinions on any major issue? Of course not.

The major reason for our enduring but often dysfunctional two-party system is structural in that it lies in the use of the single member district electoral system. In such a simple majority (or plurality) system there can be only one winner within each electoral district of a particular kind. This system, as opposed to various forms of proportional representation used by many democracies, may be good, bad or indifferent depending upon one’s point of view, but it does discourage any kind of multiparty system from emerging since the structure encourages the strategic logic on the part of each competitor to try to form a decisive majority. Thus many divisions within any potential coalition are smoothed over or masked in order to try to get to 51 percent.

However, this does not always prevent discontented minorities from spoiling the hopes of one or both major parties. Judging from the noises today we may be on the brink of one or more such efforts on a national scale.

Some on the right believe that government is too expensive, too expansive and ignores whatever conservative ideologues choose to define as “traditional” values, causing some friction with more conventional Republicans. Will the tea partiers try to become a party? It seems unlikely since rank and file Republicans appear to be far enough to the right to keep the discontented on board. If they stay united, they can hope to cause the Obama administration some real pain come November.

What about the center? Those who register or vote as independents do not always share the same beliefs, but many are somewhere in a frustrated middle, worried about big spending government but not always happy with right wing frenzy about social issues or military adventures. Is there a potential critical mass here, perhaps joining with moderate Democrats to form a new middle party?

And then there are the progressives. (Some of us still prefer liberal, but the new label seems to have taken hold). Although Barack Obama has not strayed much from his campaign promises, which he kept as vague as possible, many on the left are still angry and disappointed with his dogged insistence on trying to govern from the middle, while ignoring demands for real health care reform, an end to seemingly endless wars and decisive action on global warming.

Probably, given the ingrained inertia of established institutions, the active power of entrenched corporate interests and the general confusion and ignorance within the electorate, nothing much will change. Some who occupy the margins and gaps may continue to dream.

Larry Litchfield of Belfast is a retired community college professor of political science and history.

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