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Americans seem to debate the future of democracy on a near daily basis. But one idea that we don’t focus on very often is whether we have the proper structure to support the democracy we collectively crave. I don’t mean the structure of voting or how we draw political lines or even how the Senate conducts its business. I mean something a bit more basic: the two major political parties. They are simply too big for the coalitions each is attempting to represent.
One idea that we don’t focus on very often is whether we have the proper structure to support the democracy we collectively crave.
Both political parties have too much power — look at how most election laws are written with the assumption that there are only two major parties. At the same time, both parties also have too little power — look at how the leaders of the GOP failed to stop Donald Trump, even when there was a rhetorical movement to do just that back in 2015 and 2016.
And yet, both parties have become soulless zombies of their former selves, re-animated every four years by a cult of personality that on paper appears to offer the party direction and leadership, only to collapse once that personality fades. When one or the other party loses its majority in Congress, it goes on the defensive, eschewing policy for hyperpartisanship and obstruction. (Bill Clinton and the GOP; George W. Bush and the Democrats; Barack Obama and the GOP; Donald Trump and the Democrats). Wash, rinse, repeat.
The most extreme example right now of a zombie party is the GOP, which doesn’t seem to know what it stands for anymore. How do we know this? In 2020, leaders couldn’t even come up with a party platform of policy ideas to campaign for outside of being pro-Trump.
I’m not here to advocate a third party; that’s not the answer. Where on the ideological spectrum would a third party make sense? Certainly not in the center, as some would like to believe. “Moderates” by their nature want a little of one and a little of the other.
No, instead the solution is the same one that would help solve the problem of big corporations. If both parties split in two, the now-four major political parties would be far better at being responsive to their constituents and far more clear in what they were advocating.
In fact, 2016 was a potential model for what four major political parties could look like. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton could easily have been the avatars for two distinct left-leaning parties; Sanders as the leader of the Progressive/Greens and Clinton as leader of the Center-Left Kennedy/Scoop Jackson Democrats (they’d need a better name).
One the right, let’s use John Kasich and Donald Trump as the avatars of two Republican derivatives, with Kasich the leader of the Chamber-wing of the GOP and Trump the leader of the America First/Isolationist wing of the party (they’d probably need better names, too).
The four candidates, all running as major party nominees, would give voters a clearer understanding of the policy fault lines on both sides of the two larger left/right coalitions.
Now, for this system to truly work, we’d need make some institutional changes to accommodate an America with four major political parties. But, guess what, these institutions badly need changing anyway.
Currently, the biggest impediment to this idea is every election board in the country. Our elections are run by the two major parties to the point that they enact laws to make it extraordinarily difficult for any political party not named the Democrats or the Republicans to get access to the ballot.
And for this system to truly be successful, we’d need to redesign our presidential election system so that there was a runoff (or ranked choice) so that a minority didn’t end up electing the president.
Is anyone really happy with this bizarre Electoral College system we use today to decide our president?
But is anyone really happy with this bizarre Electoral College system we use today to decide our president? When we were a country of 25-50 million people with limited communication technology, perhaps it had some merit. But not anymore. So if we want to change how we elect our presidents, we ought to think about ditching the two-party monopoly and encourage a multi-party system to match what the public is already demanding.
Nobody loves being a member of either party these days because the party itself is a compromise for many people, whether on the left or right.
And there are other benefits to a multi-party system that could actually cut down on legislative gridlock. If we condition politicians and the public to think that power requires create coalitions (which a four-party system would likely institutionalize), then lo and behold, once in power, these folks would realize they have to create coalitions to pass legislation.
The bottom line is this: Today’s two major political parties are simply too big. These monopolies do more to crush potential competition (in the idea space) than they do to empower those looking for more representation. So, as we debate how to improve our democracy, let’s not overlook how much the two political parties — as they are currently structured — actually stand in the way of the changes many members of all parties would like to see.