can we dismantle it?
A Coin Never Lands on its Edge: The Two-Party System Inhibits Progress
For as long as any of us have lived, the great American battle has raged on: Republican vs. Democrat, Red vs. Blue, Liberal vs. Conservative, Donkey vs. Elephant. These words and symbols have become synonymous with the two dominant political parties in our nation. Two parties competing for rule has been the norm for over two centuries; the names of the parties and their positions have changed, but the fundamental structure has remained the same. The two-party System in the United States creates legislative impasses, fosters a political culture of enmity, prevents the growth of third parties, and is antithetical to democracy.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”George Washington
(The Farewell Address)
The pernicious effects of powerful political parties were known and warned against well before they appeared in the American electoral system. Almost all the Founding Fathers shared a staunch anti-party sentiment: Alexander Hamilton called them a “most fatal disease,” James Madison spurned the “violence of faction” inherent in partisan systems, and George Washington, equally concerned, said that powerful parties would bring “frightful despotism” (Cohen). Yet despite their warnings, a system of two shifting but never disappearing parties engulfed the United States. For over 200 years, America has been victim to the manipulation and despotism inherent in a two-party system. The purpose of this project is to identify, explore, and offer solutions for a critical issue in our nation. But until the two-party system is a memory of the past, any solutions for other issues will require tremendous effort. I had to explore how my cure could pass by a Congress filled with party-chosen politicians who would lose their seats almost immediately if it ever were to come into being. This circumstance was the premise of my biggest question– How can we make change happen when it would take power away from the lawmakers, the very people who are empowered to make the change? Social issues are rarely attributed to two-party system, but it is reason why our government is so slow to act, and why the American people are so drawn to fight one another. Unless we move to solve the inadequacies and evils of the two-party system, we may not be able to solve the other problems facing us in time.
To read more about my interest in this project, follow this link:
Why the Two-Party System Defiles Democracy
The American people have fought for change within the confines of a two-party system for generations. While debates on social issues have arisen and continue to develop, the root cause for many of them remains unchallenged. Since the 19th century, Americans have lived, worked, and died under a two-party system. It affects all levels of government and all social policy. The effects of such a structure are many, but the most dangerous and pernicious ones are the roots of many of this nation’s voting problems and the lethargic pace of social change.
The current system is an awful arrangement, but the two-party system is a truth that we all have come to accept. During the nation’s formational years, however, the leading thinkers recognized and spoke against the idea of political parties. They would consider the conditions Americans live in right now as a dystopian future. So why was nothing done to prevent this duopoly from emerging?
The Founding Fathers’ Failure to Prevent Party Politics
One document sealed the fate of the United States: in more ways than one, it was the Constitution. The Constitution is a crucial element of the two-party system precisely because it does not mention them. If the framers had, per their beliefs, restricted party activity in the Constitution, such a system as the one in place today likely could not exist (Ross). After the Constitution was written and ratified, without any clauses to restrict political parties, the first federal election would prove a test of the nation’s resistance to partisanship. George Washington was elected America’s first president in 1789, in an election entirely unlike any in our times. With no real contest and only a fraction of the populace enfranchised, Washington carried ten states and took 85% of the vote, but more importantly, he won as an independent. Washington remains, and for decades shall remain, the only president in U.S. history to be elected unaffiliated with any party (Mills). His choice to run without any written allegiance was purposeful and based on principle; he believed it was possible to create a republic unplagued by partisanship. Washington won twice without party backing owing to his popularity and legendary status as the “Father of His Country” (Mills). He would warn American citizens of the dangers of a two-party system and the eventuating “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension” (Washington’s Farewell). When Washington announced that he would not run again in 1796, he created a power vacuum that would put the Founding Fathers against each other in a race for influence. His allies, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Jay, had already formed the Federalist Party in 1791. Knowing that a powerful organized coalition such as the Federalist Party, full of famous and wealthy politicians, would win in a landslide, the Anti-Federalist movement, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, organized into the Democratic-Republican Party (Mills). When politicians organize into two powerful factions, especially in anticipation of an election, a two-party system arises.
Political parties have persisted throughout American politics because they provide such an array of powers and benefits to their members that it becomes illogical for politicians not to join. Parties enable massive interstate electoral efforts, create networks of allied politicians, and have the funds and influence to dominate elections (Ross). The Founding Fathers recognized the danger of these powers, but after the creation of the Constitution, there was nothing that they could do to prevent their emergence. If one side of the debate chose to take the high ground and refused to come together under a party, the opposition would triumph. It resulted that the most vocal opponents of partisanship created the very parties that would commit the wrongdoings anticipated of them (Ross). Consequently, even though the creators of the nation’s founders despised political parties, the system has come to wholly rely on them.
The second President, John Adams, reluctantly accepted the label of Federalist. While the evident adverse effects of parties have never been forgotten, every president since Adams has run on behalf of one (Mills). Parties and movements that came after the original “First Party” system are only extensions and evolutions of the same political order. When the Federalist Party collapsed, the Whigs filled the void, and when the same occurred to the Democratic-Republicans, what we have come to know as the Democratic Party took their place. As a result of the unchallenged power of parties and the dependency politicians have on them, elected officials have made no efforts to destroy them. Unless people come together in large-scale political efforts to end the conditions which mandate a two-party system, it will persevere indefinitely.
To read more about the background of this issue, follow this link:
An Unexpected Alternative: Ranked Choice Voting
The obvious countermeasure to a two-party duopoly is the introduction of powerful new players. If third parties could take root, America would experience a political revolution and civic awakening. Alas, present conditions make this revolution, for now, impossible. To challenge the two-party system, we must first change the way we vote. Currently, all states use a “First Past the Post” system to elect representatives and vote in presidential elections. In such an election, all vote for one candidate, either an independent or a party nominee (“Voting Systems”). The critical flaw of this method is that only the two historically biggest parties are valid choices. The Democrats and Republicans are guaranteed to be the two unchallenged leaders, one or the other winning by a small margin. Therefore, voting third-party, or writing in a candidate not on the ballot, is little different from not voting at all. But there is a solution: Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). If implemented nationwide, it would end the two-party system within a few election cycles.
In an RCV election, voters rank the candidates in order of favor. If their number one choice is eliminated, the vote passes to the number two, and so on, until a winner emerges (“Voting Systems”). RCV would enable voters to select third parties without fear of wasting their votes. The introduction of functional third parties would diversify archaic politics and reignite a desire to engage within disillusioned voters (“The Two-Party”). If we are to create a more perfect union, the United States must begin to use Ranked Choice Voting in congressional and presidential elections. It may seems that our present system is ingrained so deeply in U.S. politics that it would be impossible to end it without uprooting the government’s entire foundation, but the two-party system is completely detached from the U.S. Constitution, which in theory embodies the founding principles and ideals of the nation. The Elections Clause states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” (“Constitution of the United States,” Art. I § 4). The Framers intended that the states decide on their own voting methods, and they intended that procedures may change with the times and necessary conditions. Today, every state constitution has clauses which pertain to the electoral process, but they can differ greatly (“Maine and Nebraska”). So long as every citizen has the opportunity to vote, is not discriminated against, and can vote only once, the Constitution has no restrictions on the method by which a majority is discerned from the votes. The federal government has neither the right nor the precedent to prevent states from shifting to alternative voting systems. If we are to create a more perfect union, the United States must begin to use Ranked Choice Voting in congressional and presidential elections. But even with legal blessing, such a change cannot happen at once or at the highest level. RCV must be a grassroots movement if it is to catch on.
Breaking the Cycle
Local election reform is the best way to challenge and eventually dismantle the duopoly held by our country’s two parties. In the current state of affairs, implementing RCV into national elections is impossible. It is infeasible that a congress made up almost entirely of members of just two parties would facilitate the conditions for their removal from office. But local change does not encounter this obstacle to the same extent, and the proof is all around us. Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area live in the American capital of superior voting practices: Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley all use Ranked Choice Voting to elect their mayors and city officials (“Where Is Ranked”). If enough cities transition to RCV, voters will see its benefits, and a strong movement for its implementation at higher levels of government would begin. This is the best and the most approachable angle to tackle this problem. Local movements have always proven themselves more powerful than they first seemed. All Americans feel the perpetual gloom of the two-party system; for people to begin engaging civilly, they must be made aware of the possibilities.
This short overview is the beginning of my response, but there is much to be said yet. People need to engage more in politics, research the issues, take concrete but critical stances on problems, and then disseminate them. This battle will be more difficult than the fight to end the electoral college, because such change challenges deep-seated laws and undermines the comfort that our Senators and Representatives have thus far enjoyed. However, it is not insurmountable: the signs point to a gradual victory, coming about over decades. But perhaps we lack the time, and if so, RCV will not be enough.
To read more about the current problem, and its solution, follow this link:
Feel free to comment your thoughts, or ponder independently. I would love to discuss this multifaceted, and tangled issue further.
I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics:
- Do you feel disillusioned with the present political system?
- Have you ever heard of or encountered RCV before?
- Are third parties a remedy for our political issues, or is it just putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound?
- If you are not from the United States, does your country of residence suffer the same two-party problem?