The two-party political system is here to stay
Every American presidential election we see the same widespread disillusionment with the two-party system. Somehow, we always seem to end up with two of the least palatable candidates imaginable (though that might just be because we look at them for too long). We have a choice between two modes of thought we don’t fully agree with, and the American people wind up being “forced” to figure out which is the lesser evil.
Waxing philosophical, it may be that choosing the lesser of two evils is simply the reality of politics. But pragmatically, there are a couple of very strong reasons why the two-party duopoly is here to stay, regardless of how unpalatable it is. Everyone hoping to make a real difference in politics would do well to accept it and work within that system.
It’s not really a question of ballot access, campaign finance laws, lack of funding or manipulation of media (though I admit that there are ways to make it easier for third party candidates to appear on the ballot through electoral gimmicks, and that more funding would be helpful for getting third party candidates elected). We could pass electoral reform legislation and help third parties get access to campaign funding, and generally the two-party system would still dominate our politics. Heck, we could abolish party organizations themselves, and something looking like the two-party system would still form.
There are a couple reasons for this, but the biggest one is that it’s in the structure of the U.S. Constitution itself. We have a presidential system of government, in which the legislative and executive functions are divided, and in which the presidency has strong policymaking power. It’s been that way since the days of George Washington. In such a system, ultimate policymaking power is focused within the presidency itself, and as such, the ultimate goal of any faction is to control the presidency.
But most factions are too small to win the majority of votes required to win a presidential election. Even if we didn’t have the Electoral College, they’d still need a majority of votes. So factions lump together in coalition with other factions to get the 50-plus percent of votes they need to get someone elected to the presidency. For various reasons, these sorts of coalitions have to be assembled before the election of the president; parties are the easiest way to organize those coalitions.
But there’s another reason. When we talk about diversity in America, we often forget that the most internally culturally diverse group in the country is Anglo whites — the Puritan-descended cultures of New England and the Northern Tier differ substantively from the Scots-Irish-descended cultures of Appalachia and Texas, and so on and so forth. These cultural groupings, among others, tend to divide along not only regional lines but partisan lines. The Deep South has never been in a political coalition with New England, and both tend to compete for the loyalties of Middle America at different points in history.
The fact that there is such a cultural polarization between the highly individualistic cultures of the South and West and the highly communitarian cultures of the North, and that these are demographically dominant groups, virtually ensures that in a constitutional system based on over 50 percent of coalitions, one of the coalitions will have a Northern base and the other will have a Southern one. The South did not successfully secede, so for better or for worse, we will always deal with cultural polarization of some form in our politics.
On the face of it, having a perpetually two-party system based on incompatible cultural groupings seems dismal for moderates.
The key is a political temperament that realizes that no one will get everything they want, but everyone should get something. What is required is a temperament that sees politics as a way to balance different factions against each other to keep them from destroying each other, and thereby preserves liberty; not a view that society is a project to be improved and perfected in pitched, apocalyptic battles between opposing forces.
Unfortunately, both the left and right in America today tend to wax utopian, believing in their missions as something like divinely-ordained. The pragmatic establishment, meanwhile, is unable to cope with changes in our political economy and technology that are influencing how we organize politically. There’s need for a tempering on both sides and a reform of the middle; and politics being the art of the possible, that means working within the two-party system we are condemned to and blessed with.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in international relations. His column,“Tory Men,” runs every other Wednesday.