Some Americans are unhappy with the two-party system, notably the Libertarians, who feel excluded. They feel, not unreasonably, that the two existing parties – Republicans and Democrats – conspire to keep them (and any other third party) out of power; that the system is rigged. They insist on the necessity of a third party. Other Americans respond with horror. The idea of the two-party system has become sacrosanct, as though the Founders themselves had ordained it or enshrined it in the Constitution.
But does the idea of a third political party have merit? Would a three-party system better serve American liberal democracy?
First a few facts are in order. The two-party system is not enshrined in the Constitution. In reality, the Founding Fathers viewed the creation of political parties with horror. They had somehow imagined that gentlemen would shepherd the new Republic, and that therefore republican political leaders would possess a disinterested character. An educated gentleman of this type would in theory think of the public good and not of parochial or private concerns. But in the words of historian Gordon S. Wood, “By the 1780s it was obvious to many, including Madison, that “a spirit of locality” was destroying “the aggregate interest of the community.”
So much for the hopes of the Founders, who, it must be admitted, were not themselves completely free of self-interest.
Gentlemen had no need of political parties. Being enlightened they would put the needs of the whole ahead of the needs of the locality. As Woods says, “Most revolutionary leaders had not foreseen a “new set of folk” emerging in politics” – that is, common folk and artisans and merchants – even simple farmers. Gentlemen did not “conceive of politics as a profession and officeholding as a career.” How different from our own age! Where public offices were once seen as a burden it would be, in Jefferson’s words, “wrong to decline” they are now profitable, entailing not “great private loss” but great private gain.
Washington special interests. There is gold in them there hills. Enlightened disinterest seems to be as dead as dinosaurs and the situation is far worse on the right than on the left. This is not cynicism; there is simply a dearth of evidence to the contrary.
The enlightened gentlemen who were our Founding Fathers did not approve of electioneering. Franklin was proud of not once appearing as a candidate. As Wood puts it, “Showing oneself eager for office was a sign of being unworthy of it, for the office-seeker probably had selfish views rather than the public good in mind.”
After serving, an office holder should want to return to private life like the pagan Romans who were their inspiration. Today, it is a career few willingly abandon, and our system gives certain advantages to incumbents, who stress the experience our Founders saw as a burden as an advantage instead, while challengers charge that incumbents are part of the “establishment” and trumpet their own “outsider” or “maverick” status.
Facts often make a joke of pretensions. The Tea Partiers today claim to desire a return to the “original” idea of America while ignoring the fact of the Constitution, the living evidence of what the Founders wanted and intended – and, significantly, evidence of how compromise works, the compromise Tea Partiers ironically refuse to embrace. And if they truly want a return to the “original” settings, to go back to “default” they should not urge their members to vote Republican but to abandon the idea of political parties altogether. But not one of these challengers does not intend to become part of that establishment themselves, once elected. They have no desire to serve and retire, not after one, not after two terms. They want to make a career out of it, and self-interest most certainly plays a part.
So because the Revolution had unforeseen consequences, we ended up with political parties – two. Some see the two-party system as a strength; as an advantage over the hopelessly fragmented multi-party systems of some European nations. But there are drawbacks as well. For example, multi-party systems force the parties to work together, to form coalitions. The two party system leads to polarization of opposing viewpoints with no room for a more centrist approach.
The real world is too complex to be encompassed by a single line with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. Other, legitimate, points of view are excluded. The image created is a false one, a picture of a political landscape that does not exist. There are other points of view.
This is, in a nutshell, an image of the American two-party system: Democrats and Republicans – polarity, either/or, one or the other and room for nothing else.
A more realistic image would be a triangle to allow for a proper perspective of where Liberals, Progressives (including socialists and social democrats) and Conservatives stand in relation to one another.
We might even add another point at the bottom to create a diamond and place there Totalitarianism, which, as Timothy Ferris points out, “reflects the fact that liberalism and totalitarianism are opposites, and have an approximately equal potential to attract progressives and conservatives alike.”
As long as both parties were willing to work together, as long as the opposition was a loyal opposition, things were fine. Government continued to function; quid quo pro, not uncompromising purity standards, was the order of the day.
But those rules no longer apply. The Republicans have adopted purity standards that mean their way or the highway. There can be no compromise, no reaching across the aisle, no working together for the common good. They see themselves as the rightful, divinely-ordained rulers of the United States of America and the Democrats as an evil, treasonous usurping force. This development effectively breaks the two-party system.
What are we to do? The United States government has in the face of Republican obstructionism essentially broken down and ceased to function. The gridlock is next to impossible to break. There is no third party to turn to, no potential allies between the aisles, no possible coalition between liberals and centrists. The best that either party can hope for is that our so-called independents vote one way or another, enough so that an unbreakable majority is created.
It is time to abandon the idea that the two-party system is the “way it was supposed to be” because if we did things the way they were supposed to be we’d have no parties at all and no career politicians and the common good would outweigh the private good. We need a little disinterest, and failing that (because it is unlikely as dinosaurs coming back) we need a little willingness to work together, less purity and more compromise – or a third party.