It’s a Two Party System
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Increasing numbers of Americans sense a lack of agency because of the two-party system. Many people seem to feel that this is a limitation on their choices, discounts their individuality, and in various ways “hems” them in. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. (Whatever happened to high school civics classes?) The American system of democracy does not cost individuals any less control or influence. The misunderstanding can, however, lead to an actual lack of agency when a citizen refuses the opportunity to be actively engaged in one of the two parties and participate fully in the political process.

As the song of the West declares it, ‘don’t fence me in,’ is an American theme, Americans are famously independent, offended by being corralled into groupings, and resistant to restricted options. They like the right of voting for anyone they choose, and they like to make up their own mind without having others, or a process, narrow the choices. The very term “Independent” carries a preferential connotation and they like the basic idea of “being my own person.” Increasingly, people are registered as Independents. But what are the realities that come of deciding to withdraw from the two-party system? Actually, the more independent or removed from party politics the citizen, the less effect is that citizen’s vote or general impact on decision-making.

The American system of democracy is considered a Presidential system, not a Parliamentary system. It is dependent upon having a two-party system. If the two-party system is not working properly, the democracy is not working properly. If a citizen steps outside of the two-party system she or he will be stepping outside of the democratic system except as a spoiler or for the purpose of making a “statement.” One can recall very well the undercutting effect the candidacy of a third party had in helping to elect Bill Clinton*, and then the liberal third party candidacy that took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida to allow the Supreme Court to declare the election of George W. Bush.

The only exception to this reality has been those rare but important moments in history when a newly formed party has been capable of replacing one of the two parties within the existing system. In such a case, the new party has replaced the defunct party; it did not join the other two to become a multi-party system. If Americans are not satisfied with the limited choices presented within the two-party system it will become necessary to change the constitution radically enough to establish a parliamentary system.

When the United States formed its democracy, the founding fathers had to invent the wheel. The model to which they had reference was monarchy. They did not want a king and they were going to make sure about limiting the power of their government’s leader, as well as making sure of checks and balances on all officials, bodies, and even branches of government. But it was assumed that governance was centered on a leader, which they limited to terms of office as a presider, or “President.” Very quickly, certain new insights, practices, and institutions became revealed as necessary. For example, it rather soon became apparent that the judicial branch had to be empowered to determine if the legislative decisions were constitutional.

One of the American democratic institutions that almost immediately appeared and became institutionalized, even though not considered, or even thought of, during the Constitutionals Convention, was the political party. Just as quickly as they appeared it was as two rival parties. The system seemed to emerge “naturally” out of differences defined by the personalities, different proclivities, and disagreements among the founding fathers.

Meanwhile, this more radical form of democracy begun in American soon began to spread among the community of nation-states that had been ruled by kings and lords. These rulers and ruling classes had been having their power checked (especially financing of policies, programs, wars, etc.) in the development of a Parliamentary system, in many cases for over a period of centuries.  Because Parliaments and the systems to constitute and run them were already established it was only necessary to adjust to that system rather than adopt the new American Presidential system.

The earliest parliaments had gradually become the fundamental agent of government instead of a monarch. Centered not in a presiding executive, but on a primary legislative leader, this variation of democracy became the prevailing model for most developing democracies. Votes in national elections are not cast directly for a leader, but for the local legislator to serve in Parliament. This becomes, in effect a vote for the leader of the party to which the legislator voted for belongs. Without going into further complexities, this direct system of voting for a legislator and indirect system of voting for the leader of government opens options to chose from and the number of parties that participate meaningfully in government.

Fortunately, to date the American system that is limited to two effective governing parties has worked well enough that it has been maintained despite the far greater popularity of the parliamentary multiparty system around the world. Perhaps Americans will “change our mind” if the gridlock recently experienced continues, with the majority of the legislature so often acting in majority opposition to the President and the executive branch. But until the whole system changes Americans have to realize that the limitations are real.

Message to America: it is romantically unrealistic to suppose that voting for a third party candidate is going to have any effect in the pending election other than to undercut one of the candidates nominated by the two parties, or to make a statement of some sort of protest.

*”…most analysts conclude that his (Ross Perot’s) presence (Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote) drew support away from incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush (who won 37.5%) and helped swing the election to Democratic Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas (43%).” (Wikipedia)


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