This week, two events got me thinking about America’s two-party system. One was Eric Cantor, one of the most prominent—and most conservative—members of the House, losing his primary to candidate and a movement who felt he wasn’t conservative enough. The other was a report from the Pew Research Center, showing just how polarized we’ve become in the last 20 years.
I know, this isn’t the usual sort of thing I write about here. I’m intrigued and repulsed by politics at the same time. It’s like a car crash…you can’t look away. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about participating in our political machine. So if politics isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this post. I’m mostly writing to get it out of my system anyway.
People have been talking about third party for, well… probably as long as there have been two parties in this country. But creating a viable third party is notoriously difficult. Just ask Ross Perot. Our political system is designed to favor two parties, roughly evenly matched.
I’ve started to think that what we need is not a third party but a third and fourth party. Counterintuitively, having four major parties might help ratchet down the increasing polarization of late.
The third party in this scenario is fairly obvious. The Tea Party should break off from Republicans and form their own party. Evidently, this has occurred to lots of other people. Type the words “should the Tea Party” into Google and see what comes up. Tea Partiers are notoriously ambivalent about their own party, with 43% having a negative view of the GOP.
So why not split? Why persist with an internal slugfest that most analysts predict will hurt both Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans in the long run? Why wage a battle for the so-called purity of the Republican party, calling the other side RINOs (Republican In Name Only) without ever seeing the irony? Why not give conservative-leaning voters a choice between a center-right party and a far-right party?
Of course the reason, known to Tea Partiers and conventional Republicans alike, is that splitting the party would send both groups into the political wilderness. Neither faction by itself can cobble together a large enough base to govern. Today, 47% of the US electorate leans Democratic; 40% leans Republican. If you split that 40% two ways, well…you do the math.
But what if something similar happened on the leftward end of the political spectrum? Democrats also tend to fall into one of two camps—moderate or “blue dog” Democrats on the one hand and progressives on the other. The divide is nowhere near as fractious as the one between Tea Partiers and Republicans—yet. But it’s real nonetheless.
So what if progressives bolted? It’s no secret most are almost as disillusioned with Barack Obama as conservatives are. (OK, for very different reasons.) And the thought of Hillary Clinton as his heir apparent has caused some to not-so-secretly wish that Elizabeth Warren would mount a challenge…sort of doing to Clinton in 2016 what Obama did to Clinton in 2008.
Why not let voters choose from four parties instead of two? The right and left wings of the electorate are pulling away from each other, as the Pew Research Center showed this week. Meanwhile, the two major parties are failing to get much of anything done as they struggle to contain their increasingly discontented bases.
I think a four-party system would be good for two reasons:
1. Four parties would cover the political spectrum better than two.
Most of American politics over the last several decades has consisted of people somewhere in the middle duking it out. This might have worked well enough when the number of people identified as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” was fairly small, as was the case in 1994. But more people have gravitated to the left and the right since then, and they’re realizing they don’t have a home in our current two-party system.
Another way to get at this is to think of political ideologies in terms of four quadrants: the authoritarian right, authoritarian left, libertarian right, and libertarian left. Only the first two quadrants are represented by our two-party system. (Some would argue that both parties operate entirely within one quadrant, that Democrats and Republicans are varying shades of authoritarian right.)
Libertarians on the left and right tend to be overlooked…until they make some noise, that is—as right-wing libertarians have done in the form of the Tea Party. (Heck, many Americans don’t even realize there is such a thing as left-wing libertarianism.)
2. No party would be able to claim a majority on its own, forcing parties to work together in order to govern.
Granted, moving toward a European parliamentary model might not be most Americans’ cup of tea. But creating a system where no single party commands a majority by itself does have one key advantage: it forces people of differing ideologies to work together if they want to accomplish something.
In some cases, depending on the political cycle, that could mean a legislative coalition between Republicans and Tea Partiers. Or between Democrats and progressives. It could mean a coalition in the middle, between Republicans and Democrats.
On certain issues of importance to libertarians both left and right, Tea Partiers and progressives might even come together—for example, to roll back government infringement of privacy (Cough! NSA. Cough!).
Having four parties would not lesson our ideological differences. But it might force us to be more honest about them. It would give like-minded people a chance to organize around a platform they believe in, instead of waging a civil war for control of a political party that never really belonged to them in the first place. And because no single party could govern unilaterally, it would force people from different camps to stop demonizing each other long enough to (hopefully) achieve something meaningful.
It’s probably pie in the sky, I know. But can it be any worse than what we have now?