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There is near unanimity amongst Americans that its two-century old political system is badly broken.  Partisan gridlock is paralyzing the federal government, while the rest of the world is moving forward on a broad front of issues which increasingly put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.  Public outrage is falling squarely on the growing political polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties, as the ranks of independent and third-party affiliations are swelling.  Even though the public’s blame is asymmetrical (aimed more towards the GOP’s Tea Party wing), the real culprit may be America’s de facto two-party system that evolved into being through circumstance rather than design.[1]

The dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is so prevalent now that it’s difficult to point to any major legislative act since 2008 that passed without a bitter partisan confrontation.  Currently, efforts to craft a reasonable gun control bill are being effectively torpedoed by the Gun Lobby despite strong public support that arose in the wake of the Newtown shootings.  The American people – left, right, and center – overwhelmingly believe politicians are not representing the best interests of the nation.[2]  Such populist discontent is unsustainable.  If it is allowed to continue, the replacement of democracy in the U.S. with an illusory form of autocracy is a forgone conclusion.  The allure of pragmatic efficiency will be impossible to resist.[3]

While some contend this erosion of American democracy is deliberate,[4] there’s little doubt it is occurring.  If the United States were to discard one of the greatest gifts ever given to human civilization, courtesy of its Founding Fathers and The Enlightenment, it would be committing an historic travesty of justice.

Various measures to avert this outcome are already underway which mostly focus on getting the corrupting influence of money out of our political system.[5]  However, other avenues should also be considered to provide as many viable alternatives as possible.

The logical alternative to America’s troubled two-party structure is transitioning to a parliamentary system.  Although no form of democracy – or government for that matter – is perfect, parliamentary systems have distinct advantages that could alleviate the nation’s political morass:

Parliamentary systems are the most prevalent application of democracy, and therefore, are the most proven.

Parliamentary systems are generally more stable and less prone to corruption.[6]

It is quicker and easier to pass legislation in parliamentary systems.[7]

Parliamentary systems are not tied to, or are burdened by, regular election cycles.

Parliamentary systems distribute power more evenly.

Parliamentary systems are better suited to demographic and ideological diversity.

It is this last point which is really applicable to the U.S.  While America has always had periods of extreme ideological divergence, it has never had as much cultural diversity as it does now.  The nation is rapidly evolving from its White Protestant majority roots into an eclectic mix of ethnicities and spiritualities.  The mechanisms of government must allow these varying groups legitimate representation, else it risks ignoring Abraham Lincoln’s warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”  America’s two-party system fundamentally depends upon a level of compromise between Democrats and Republicans for it to work, but unfortunately, that kind of cooperation is now gone.

A parliamentary system in America would allow the viability of multiple parties each having closer philosophical ties to its respective constituents.  The right-wing Tea Party, left-wing progressives, and independent centrists, for example, could establish their own political representation and break free of the patronizing shackles which bind them.  Governing would be achieved through working coalitions rather than through involuntary compromise.  And to those two-party stalwarts who insist upon a president in place of a prime minister, South Africa is a constitutional parliamentary republic headed by an executive president.


[1]  See:  Schmidt, Steffen W., Shelley, Mack C., Bardes, Barbara A (2008). “American Government and Politics Today 2008-2009”. Wadsworth Publishing Company. Retrieved 2010-11-22.  And:  MICHIKO KAKUTANI (book reviewer) American Creation (book by Joseph J. Ellis) (November 27, 2007). “The Timing, Luck and Lust Behind the Forming of That More Perfect Union”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-07. “… the standoff between the Federalists and their opponents, which led to the modern two-party system;”

[7]  T. St. John N. Bates (1986), “Parliament, Policy and Delegated Power”, Statute Law Review (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

6 thoughts on “Dumping the Two-Party System may be the only way to save Democracy in America

  1. I think as little as 10% of Congress being from a 3rd party could really change things. Most of the time the split between parties is somewhere between 50/50 and 60/40. So if 10% were from a 3rd party then neither of republicans nor democrats would have a majority. At that point they would force to compromise with somebody all the times. Whereas right now they are willing to hold out for a majority in both chambers in order to force their will upon the nation.

    The times is fast approaching when a viable 3rd party will emerge. After that initial hurdle I would expect more parties to develop and we could end up in a parliamentary system. The current difficulty is convincing the public that voting 3rd party is not a wasted vote.

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    • Transitioning to a parliamentary system would require some pretty significant changes to federal and state law – something Dems and Reps would fight strongly against. But if it could be done, the problem of getting the public to vote for minor parties would be greatly diminished.

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      • What changes would be required? Wouldn’t we just need to get people from a 3rd party (or a couple other parties) elected? If no party has a majority they would need to create a coalition in order to get their own agenda accomplished.

        Now I understand both parties have barriers in place that make getting non-dem non-rep candidates elected. But those barriers don’t make it impossible just difficult.

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      • In parliamentary systems, citizens procedurally vote for a party rather than a candidate. Proportional representation by population is used (some districts have multiple seats), and there are often extra seats awarded based on the total national vote each party receives. This is incompatible with the winner-take-all geographic representation of the U.S. electoral college, U.S. Senate, and gerrymandered U.S. House of Representative districts, all based on the various plurality-type election systems in the states.

        So, transitioning to a true parliamentary system in the U.S. would be a legal nightmare both at the federal and state level. Then, there are congressional, state legislature, and party operational rules built around the two-party structure which would have to be rewritten. There’s also a bunch of agreements between the two parties, independent commissions, and the media, covering campaign conduct, debates, advertising, etc.

        In other words, it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon! I posted this article as a discussion piece, and to point out the inherent danger in prolonging our current state of political dysfunction in America.

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      • Ok I understand what you were getting at. Though I don’t think a parliamentary system is necessary. It might be better. But simply getting a viable 3rd party could break the stranglehold the two party system has on US politics. I find it unlikely that a 3rd party could get presidency because of the electoral college. But that isn’t necessary at this point. If we could get Congress working even a little better then that would be an improvement and that is possible.

        If we are to make any improvements we need to plan for short-term obtainable goals with an eye for long-term improvement. An organized 3rd party winning some Congressional seats would be the current aim. It may be possible to take a few districts away from the parties and that would focus resources into a few small areas so that we could get more bang for our buck. After several Congressional seats have been taken then people will start noticing. At that point it is a matter of building strength in areas where there is least resistance. After that the people may start seeing a 3rd party as a viable option then real change comes within reach.

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      • Even that would require a lot of effort. We’ve discussed election reform before, including non-partisan solutions like open primaries and instant runoff elections. The two-party system is so entrenched that any significant change is unlikely. However, we must continue to try.

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