“If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
– Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” -John Adams to Jonathan Jackson (1780)
“I hate the two-party system” -David Roebuck (1974-2017)
In an earlier post I argued that money was corrupting the American political system. Another corrupting influence is the stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties have on elections and, consequently, governing. The truth is that these two parties have so much control that third parties will have almost no chance of winning elections unless the two major parties allow it. They have a very effective political monopoly and they decide whether to allow other players in to the game. This monopoly is not good for America.
You might respond that having only two parties is OK because they are very different and offer legitimate options for the voters, and you would be at least partially correct. There really is a clear difference between the parties; at least there is a difference in their platforms. Any standard first-year textbook in American government will tell us that:
- The Democratic Party is liberal and the Republican Party conservative.
- Democrats favor a more active government that attempts to solve social problems whereas Republicans favor passive government that lets the economy and social forces solve problems.
- The Democratic Party is pro-choice and Republicans oppose abortion.
- Democrats favor more gun control, Republican oppose it.
- Democrats favor more government regulations, Republicans disagree.
- The Democratic Party’s economic policies are more Keynesian (government spending to stimulate the economy) whereas the Republican Party tends to favor “supply-side” policies that focus on producing more so consumers will invest in the economy by buying stuff (this is a terrible over simplification on my part).
- Democrats tend to focus more on environmental regulations.
- Republicans tend to spend more on the military.
The list of differences, at least on paper, is much more extensive. So what is the problem? The parties are obviously different, right?
- Both parties have contributed almost equally to the national debt. For example, the debt increased 68% under Barack Obama and 101% under George W. Bush.
- Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took huge donations from large banks and corporations to fuel their campaigns.
- As of 2015, of the top ten wealthiest members of Congress, five were Republicans and five were Democrats (the top 50 wealthiest were worth at least $7.28 million each).
- The wealthy tend to benefit regardless of which party is in power. Under Barack Obama the top 1% gained 95% of the wealth created.
- Both favor capitalism though their views on who should profit from the economy may differ.
- Both parties are more than willing to spend your tax dollars on projects for which they can take credit (via “earmarks”) and gain voters’ support, whether or not the projects are necessary.
The truth is that although the parties do differ in the types of issues they tend to support, both are dominated by big bucks and are, consequently, less likely to focus on the needs of the masses. Further, they both benefit from the current system and have no reason to promote reform.
The two major parties currently hold 533 of 535 Congressional seats. Congress has a 22% approval rating and, as I’ve said previously, I wonder what that 22% is seeing that the rest of us miss. The Democrats and Republlicans also hold 7,312 of 7,383 state legislative seats. So the truth is that we can blame both parties for the national debt (almost $20 trillion), the failing infrastructure, air pollution, wars, problems with criminal codes, poorly funded state universities, and the crushing impact money has on American politics.
There are various reasons the two parties retain control over the political system.
- They are in control of drawing legislative districts and are more than willing to gerrymander those districts (draw the districts to favor their parties).
- They write the election rules and do so in such a way that third parties have trouble winning.
- They also write the campaign finance laws that benefit their parties.
- They have the advantage of historical name recognition because they have dominated since the mid 1800s. It is thus difficult for minor parties to gain acceptance.
- They can use governmental resources such as free postage to keep in touch with voters, and this also helps with name recognition.
I can think of only two ways a successful third party could emerge. First, if a widely loved and respected individual decided to lead such a party (I cannot think of any such individuals today). The other way is by establishing a grassroots movement and begin electing third-party members at the lower levels of government. In my mind a viable third party would need to be focused more on common sense than ideology and would be moderate in nature because most Americans do not identify with ideological extremes.
I firmly believe that until such a party emerges nothing will change because the Democrats and Republicans have nothing real to gain from changing the system they dominate.
And for anyone who might argue that the system isn’t broken, I have only one question: Do you really believe Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the best choices available out of 330 million Americans? They rose to the top of their parties.