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What About the Two-Party System?
Would a multi-party system fix what ails American dialogue, or make it worse?
Traditionally, the two-party system has been a bedrock for stability that has kept change incremental and demanded compromise from not only the political parties but from all interest groups who want a place at the table.
The traditional argument for the efficacy of the two-party system goes that the introduction of a multi-party system could create a highly volatile new norm with smaller and more ideologically rigid parties that could become destabilizing outlets for single-issue interests.
In such an atmosphere, such single-issue interest groups as the NRA on the one hand or Planned Parenthood on the other could become single-issue parties themselves instead of groups that lobby members of the existing major parties. Parties in a multi-party framework can be viable while only maintaining a small but loyal constituency. Purity, and not compromise, would become the currency of affluence.
I have long been of this school of thought. However, the two-party system has presently fallen into serious dysfunction. While, even ten years ago, a switch to a multiparty or two-party plus system in the United States would have been seriously disruptive, such an idea cannot be so easily dismissed today. Perhaps we must entertain the thought.
In recent years, both parties have increasingly failed to moderate their internal influences. As can be seen by the rise of Donald Trump and populist nationalism in the Republican Party, and the growing influence of ultra-progressives and social democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and AOC in the Democratic Party, the major political parties are no longer functioning as strong coalitional institutions able to adjust their platforms to encompass the actual beliefs of a majority, or even a plurality, that represents a broad spectrum of Americans.
More and more, each party is becoming defined by a negative partisanship whose pitch to the American people is their opposition to the extremes of the other side, allowing each to garner majorities towards governing mandates without actually working to represent the various beliefs of their constituents.
There's a strong argument to be made that the development of a two-party plus system would keep both the Republicans and the Democrats from garnering governing mandates without actually working to moderate themselves and better reflect the plural nature of American society.
A third party or coalition of third parties able to present itself as a viable alternative to center-left and center-right Americans who increasingly feel left behind by the hysterics of two parties captured by extreme camps could prove to be a stabilizing catalyst that reintroduces the incentives for moderation and compromise.
While these are all excellent considerations, I nevertheless think the possibility of negative outcomes in a multiparty system still outweighs the possible positive ones.
Right now, Americans on the Right are worried about the encroaching socialism in the Democratic Party and anarcho-communist violence in the streets. Meanwhile, Americans on the Left see the echoes of fascism, ethnic nationalism, and vigilante justice perpetrated by armed militias.
In a multiparty system, these would neither be encroaching themes nor echoes on the peripheries of the two major parties. While a multiparty system could create a system that better reflects the vastly different viewpoints in American society, it could just as easily create a system that allows for the rise of extreme parties in the halls of government.
Would there be more centrist-oriented parties? Sure. But there could also be, and very likely would be, a Socialist Party, an Antifa Party, a Militia Party, a Nazi Party, or a Neoconfederate Party. Without the framework of the two-party system requiring compromise to achieve government positions, the path for extremists and radicals to gain power and influence would be wide open.
We definitely have serious problems and political decay in America today. But is it the fault of the two-party system? And, is attacking the two-party just a shortcut that allows us to skip over the actual issues at hand?
I think much of the dysfunction within our two-party system has arisen because we've begun treating our parties as monoliths instead of coalitions. Even just a decade ago, there were pretty clear factions within a faction when it came to our political parties.
When asked about political affiliation, I used to be able to explain that I was a liberty-minded conservative and was a Republican because I support limited government and fiscally conservative economic policy. Since I belonged to a clear faction within the Republican Party, I could, for example, disagree with President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative or the Patriot Act while voicing my support for tax breaks, deregulation, or expanded protections for the right to bear arms.
There was room for internal debates within the party because it was understood that the party was a big tent of different interests and attitudes towards being conservative and Republican.
But today, I'm a hated member of my own political faction because there's no longer any allowance for internal dissent. I can support 75% of things the Trump administration did, but if I speak out against the 25% I disagreed with or posit that his toxic presence in the public square not only overshadows his administration’s accomplishments but poisons the well when it comes to making a case for conservatism to the country, I'm immediately derided as a RINO, a cuckservative, and a traitor.
The two-party system in America has worked for so long because it has mostly been multi-factional within the two-party framework. But now, neither party allows room for internal dissent in their mad dash to utterly defeat the other side and gain control of the leviathan the federal government has become.
The solution, then, likely isn’t to be working towards establishing a multi-party system. It’s questionable whether that could even be possible without seriously reconstructing the Constitution, but even if it could be done, it’s doubtful it would have the results so many assume.
Instead, we should work to re-establish the independence of smaller interests who will look to the parties as institutions of coalitional effort. We need to resist the partisan mind and how it’s turned the smaller interests and the independent institutions into extensions of the party, an inverse of how healthy pluralism works.