But is it time for a change? Advocating for the reform of the presidential debate commission, Lee Hamilton and Vin Weber argued at Politico this week that the current rules completely bar third-party candidates from becoming a major participant in the political process. “While the debates are more than a year away, it is essential that the commission end its stonewalling and implement reforms now,” Hamilton and Weber write. “Given the demands of ballot access, further delay by the commission essentially codifies the notion that only Democrats and Republicans can become president.”
Sadly, however, this notion is about a lot more than just debates. While there are many specific ways the strict ideology of right versus left is hurting this country, the larger truth is that the current two-party system is simply not healthy for America, and abolishing it would, in all likelihood, be good for everyone.
Critics have long predicted the death of toxic two-party politics in America. Nearly two decades after Independent candidate Ross Perot’s 1996 run, economist and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman predicted we might see another contender rise to the occasion in 2012. And while that didn’t happen, the rallying cries for more options continue. In his book The Centrist, Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelman argues the need for a party that occupies the middle ground between the left and the right, but with more specific principles than those of generically identified “independents” like Perot.
The current two-party system is simply not healthy for America, and abolishing it would, in all likelihood, be good for everyone.
However, none such candidate stands a chance in the next few years. America is so deeply polarized right now that it’s going to take nothing short of a nationwide movement to chip away at the line between Republicans and Democrats. However, this also cuts to the heart of the issue. The biggest flaw of America’s two-party system is that it renders individual politicians functionally useless—because their loyalties will always be to the party over everything else. When you only have two options, you’re not going to do anything that makes people question your loyalty to the side you’ve chosen, lest you find yourself without any party, and unable to get elected entirely.
Naturally, this level of adherence makes most politicians desperately spineless and cutthroat. In a debate about the status quo at New York University, the Times‘ David Brooks declared that politicians are “stuck in our current two-party system, which forces them to behave in ways that are worse than they are.” Even political satirist P.J. O’Rourke, who argued in favor of the two-party system seemed to agree with Brooks: “Republicans and Democrats don’t have ideologies. They just have these vague platform planks made of rotten wood of political expediency.”
However, as O’Rourke sees it, it’s not the system itself that’s the problem—it’s the two parties that we have right now that cause all the trouble. But there’s little reason to believe that things would be any different if America had Britain’s Conservative and Labour Parties to choose from instead; when there are just two options, towing the party line becomes mandatory regardless of what the platforms are.
And that mindset continues to trickle down to the public. One of the other participants in the Brooks-O’Rourke debate, Arianna Huffington, later wrote about this: “The two-party system has not just narrowed our choices, it’s narrowed our thinking. It has deeply infected our political discourse, our media, and our politicians.”
That mindset continues to trickle down to the public.
The effect this has on real issues is devastating. Saloman Orellana has written about the weaknesses in a two-party system for the Washington Post on multiple occasions, specifically citing Washington‘s inability to address concerns related to climate change and incarceration rates. On the latter, Orellana argues that two-party systems inherently get in the way of change. “Two-party systems tend to have higher incarceration rates because they are more susceptible to ‘policy pandering,'” Orellana writes. “Policy pandering happens when politicians pursue votes by taking positions and adopting policies that appeal to voters’ preference for quick-fix policies—even when these policies that are often detrimental to the society’s longer-term interests.”
This is politics as usual, but it becomes particularly harmful when it’s against the best interests of the nation—or, in the case of climate change, the future of Earth as we know it.
Another issue where this principle applies is gun control. Republicans can’t waver on it, for fear of alienating their base, and Democrats can’t act effectively to curb America’s rates of gun violence, for fear of losing votes to Republicans. Ultimately, the only one who wins in situations like this is big money. Lobbyists like the NRA profit off the political discord between the two parties, while Americans pay the price. One can say that for the two-party system itself.
This is politics as usual, but it becomes particularly harmful when it’s against the best interests of the nation.
There are valid alternatives to the limitations of political dichotomy. As Matt Parker at the Los Angeles Times points out, “the problem is, someone can be elected even if a majority of the voters do not want them. … This means that if you vote for a smaller party, then you are effectively throwing your vote away.” As a solution to this problem, Parker proposes a method called ranked-choice voting. This would allow voters to pick a candidate in a major party, but also vote for other candidates in descending order of preference. If one candidate ends up with more votes than anyone else, that candidate wins.
However, if the results are not so clear-cut, then the candidates who received the fewest votes are eliminated, while the remaining votes go to the other choices on the ballot, until a definitive winner emerges. In Britain‘s House of Lords, Australia has been doing this since 1918; several smaller state elections in the U.S. have also employed ranked voting from time to time.
The idea of determining elections in a way which resembles how people vote at the Oscars might sound strange, but at this point, almost anything would be better than our historically rigid two-tier approach. Whether ranked-choice voting ends up being the answer or not, the fact is that a wider playing field is the best solution for better democracy. American politics have become so entrenched in groupthink that it’s all but impossible for nonpartisan decisions to have any chance.
Almost anything would be better than our historically rigid two-tier approach.
On an individual basis, Republicans and Democrats aren’t necessarily bad. But filtered through a machine which allows for nothing but black and white interpretations, the Republican and Democratic parties are doomed to repeat the same divisive logic that we’ve seen prevent Congress from accomplishing anything time and time again.
There is hope that within our lifetimes, the two-party system will begin to show its cracks. The digital age has allowed the potential for greater grassroots movements, capable of capturing the electorate’s attention on a nationwide scale. As Arianna Huffington proposes, “the Internet and social media are making the shakeup of the two parties much more likely, with young people less and less aligned with large, established institutions—and more empowered than ever to connect with each other and cut through the spin perpetrated by politicians and special interests.”
While the digital age may prove a useful tool in furthering a multi-party revolution, this idea has long predated the Internet. On the subject of political parties, Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” George Washington felt similarly, claiming that through political parties, “unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” His warning proves eerily prophetic.
When 2016 rolls around, you should still vote, but just because you cast a ballot doesn’t mean you have to live your whole life based on one party’s terms.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as The Daily Dot, Mic.com, Salon, xoJane, The Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Photo via AK Rockerfeller/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)