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)

Who’s in Charge?

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Democracy is supposed to maximize the agency of the individual citizen, to give everyone, to the extent possible, the opportunity to control her or his own destiny together with fellow citizens. Today, few of us in the United States who are ordinary citizens feel that we have much of a say. We share a profound sense of being out of the loop, in some else’s control, helpless. This is leading to rather scary possibilities. I make no secret of my most immediate fear that could come of this: election of a pseudo-strong-man hyper-nationalist who will “take charge” by running over whole categories of population that he opposes and seek fatuously simplistic solutions that will not come close to working, but instead can be devastatingly counterproductive. Whatever may come in the fall, the fact is that our collective sense of being out of a political ballgame that feels rigged begs some analysis and evaluation.

It will not surprise anyone that people of faith are unsettled by the institutional decline of the church and by the overwhelming secularization of western culture. A society that has no faith in religion, and takes so little interest in transcendent reality, will become faithful only to matters that cannot ground us and are bound to fail us. If being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity, then it is hardly surprising that human society seems increasingly crazy, for it is more and more out of touch with the fullness of reality. It is especially dismaying to a Christian to grasp how misunderstood the gospel of Jesus Christ is within this society – despite the assumption that it knows all about it. In fact, the Christianity that is popularized in American society comes closer to the first century pagan religious understandings of God and humanity than to the vision of the man from Nazareth. But let’s come back to this after some consideration of facts “on the ground.”

We will need to think about this in a series of offerings. This will be more productive if you contribute to our thinking about why we feel that we lack the personal agency that we once enjoyed. Nothing would be more helpful than a conversation. I would be happy to post whatever you have to say.

I have to begin with an admission that I don’t understand the world as clearly as I used to think I did.

I wrote a book (The Songs of the Mothers) in which I asserted that the world is changing so much and so rapidly that the church, as an incarnational faith, was going to have to change in order to adapt to it, and serve it as the body of Christ. Thus did I predict the coming ecumenical reformation and issued a plea that we begin reforming now – even if full and ecumenical reformation is not so immediately at hand.

I based this assertion regarding the church’s reformation on the premise that there have been only three watershed reformations (The Constantinian Settlement of the Fourth Century, the Gregorian Reformation that established the Medieval Church, and the Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformations of the Sixteenth Century) and they came about because of two simultaneous forces. First, there was, in each instance, so much pain being experience by the faithful within the church that the internal call for reform was insistent. But at the same time, the world was changing so profoundly that the church too had to adjust just as radically, by way of reform.

That brings us to the question of what is forcing change in the world today. Historically it takes a turning point crisis or a technological revolution to bring about the magnitude of change the world is in the process of going through. Today we have both. We will begin our discussion there.

On Saturday, February 15, The Rev. Dr. Patricia Teel Bates will be hosting a national meditation and prayer vigil for the many citizens affected by the excessive and inhumane use of solitary confinement. She asks that people in the US and around the world take a stance within their own communities against the use of solitary confinement at 5 p.m. on February 15.

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Monday night, the Grammys got political. While the hip hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed “Same Love” (though it always seems to me that Ryan Lewis lurks around in the background more than he performs), Queen Latifah officiated a wedding for thirty-three couples, representative of multiple ages, sexual orientations, and racial backgrounds. Out of the entirety of the Grammy’s ceremony, this seven minute clip was the only part I watched, on the internet, long after the ceremony had closed. To me, this was the only segment of the Grammys that mattered.

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