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Let's Discuss the Real Duopoly
Rather than an inherently nefarious two-party system, the term "duopoly" better reflects the realities of factional capture that have thwarted the effectiveness and functionality of our system.
This week, I’m still knee-deep in finishing off my final exams and term papers. So, for this newsletter, I’ll offer something a bit more stream of consciousness than usual on a topic that I’ve addressed before. You know what they say, an issue isn’t exhausted so long as there are additional sides to come at it from.
For better or worse, we have a two-party system. It would take transformational election reform and likely several constitutional amendments to alter the realities of our system. And, as I've studied single-party, two-party, and multi-party systems, I've yet to find a convincing demonstration that the monumental effort required to alter our current system would be beneficial in any meaningful way. Both two-party and multi-party systems seem equally capable of dysfunction, and the health of the government seems mostly predicated on the health of the political culture, regardless of its party system.
In terms of political theory, I prefer two-party systems because it better reflects the principle of sovereignty. A party in a two-party system typically must establish a coalition of concerns to get at least 51% of public support to be able to govern, the "first past the post" idea, which avoids the minority rule that more often occurs in multi-party systems. Additionally, functional two-party systems demonstrate a more natural centralizing effect where neither party can wander too far to the margins without shedding the votes it needs to be competitive for majority support.
Those who use the term duopoly are correct that it effectively reflects our present scenario, but the term does not reflect reality in the way they assume. Because I call for engagement in the major parties, I’m accused of supporting and enabling the duopoly. But the reality is that the various approaches that encourage disengagement are actually the ones compounding the present duopoly.
The duopoly we face is not one where we are faced with a two-party system that’s inevitably dysfunctional and corrupted, but one where those parties have been subject to factional capture. Two extreme factions that fail to properly reflect a terribly large segment of American society, social democrats and national populists, have managed to simultaneous gain control of our two major parties. This poorly reflective duopoly manages to perpetuate itself through a very destructive process.
First, the extreme policies and rhetoric of either extreme faction drives typical voters out of the parties, solidifying their control of party processes (especially the selection of candidates). But then, the extreme factions are able to rely on the effectiveness of negative partisanship to gain votes they wouldn't otherwise earn through persuasive arguments as the public simply decides which faction they are most fearful of in any given election. What results is best understood as a negative mandate, a majority rejection of one of the extreme faction's vision rather than an endorsement of the other's.
But, of course, that is not how election results are ever interpreted by the newly crowned party in power. They assume majority support and a mandate for its extreme policies and rhetoric that doesn't reflect reality, and they overextend themselves. This then drives voters back into the arms of the competing extreme faction who, rather than confronting how their extremism drove voters away in the previous election, is able to reclaim a competitive constituency based almost solely on their position as the opposition party. And, around and around it goes.
This duopoly, then, can only be broken by disrupting the extreme faction's control of the party processes and the selection of candidates. The reality is, because of the way our election system works, third parties and independent candidates can only ever be protest votes. Now, don't get me wrong, I think protest votes can be valuable and effective, but only as a last resort. If protest votes are embraced as a first resort and if they convince the average voter to continue their disinterest and lack of engagement in party processes, then the effort perpetuates rather than addresses the actual duopoly we are confronted with.
Political parties are not clubs, they are political institutions. And in our election system, the two major parties are institutions who, both through the first past the post system and also through various state legislation, are integral and unavoidable parts of the system, no different in functionality than other political institutions such as courts, legislatures, and executive offices.
Political parties wield actual power in the political process, both as the pipelines through which officers of government rise and gain public office as well as the forums that construct proposed public policy and build majorities towards the passage of laws. Because of these realities, boycotting the major political parties doesn't lessen the power they wield.
Consider a scenario where "liberal" or "conservative" justices chose to boycott the Supreme Court over a decision they disagreed with. Their choice to leave the court wouldn't lessen its power. They would only be surrendering what power they had in the process by surrendering the institution entirely to their opposition.
Consider again the Senate or House of Representatives. If any given group of legislators chose to walk away in protest over any given legislation, or lack of legislation, they would not actually be impacting policy nor would they be damaging the power of the institution they're boycotting. All they would have accomplished is to have removed themselves and their values from the table.
This is the unavoidable reality of boycotting a political party over factional capture. A political party is a political institution, it wields actual power in the political system. Choosing to leave a major party in protest doesn't lessen the power it wields in any meaningful way. This means those who leave surrender power and those that stay wield more power and, crucially, it has the effect of expanding and solidifying the factional capture that is at the crux of the problem.
Leaving a major party does not punish the party nor does it punish the extreme faction that has captured it. They want people to leave the party, they want to face fewer contrary perspectives as they wield more and more power. The fewer people participating in the major parties, the more the actual duopoly we face gets worse and worse.
Effective judges don't abandon the judiciary when faced with judgments they disagree with. They understand they have to engage, rather than disengage, and actualize the change in the institution they want to see through their own efforts. Effective legislators don't abandon Congress when faced with legislation they disagree with or gridlock ham-handing their efforts. They understand they have to engage, rather than disengage, and embody the better path they want the institution to take.
American voters must learn that, to be the most effective and to wield the most available power towards positive change, they have to engage rather than disengage with the processes of the major parties. We have to understand that a protest vote wields very little power compared to a positive vote for better candidates within a party. A protest vote can be valuable if, after all we can do, a party still chooses a poor path. But embracing paths that amount to perpetual protest votes only assures that the duopoly resulting from factional capture goes on and on and on.
The only way the reality of factional capture can be effectively addressed is to re-establish the major parties as factional coalitions. This can only be accomplished if more voters engage in the parties and if new factions are created and expanded within them. This path would challenge, rather than enable, the duopoly of the social democrats and national populists.
Don’t think of membership in one of the major political parties as enabling or acquiescing to the extreme factions. Think of it in terms of how the system actually works. Every center-left American who engages in the Democratic Party takes power away from a social democrat. And every center-right American who engages in the Republican Party takes power away from a national populist.