Beyond Two-Party America

Beyond Two-Party America October 27, 2016

I felt both proud and ashamed as I listened to Butler students share their feelings about the upcoming election yesterday evening. In a fantastic panel discussion, religion majors (joined by a political science professor for this panel, moderated by a religion professor) expressed the enthusiasm which they brought to this first time they will have the right to vote, and how the options available to them have succeeded in robbing them of that enthusiasm. I felt incredibly proud as they articulated their viewpoints eloquently and insightfully. And I felt ashamed that my own and other generations that have gone before them have bequeathed to them an electoral system, parties, and candidates that these first-time voters are appropriately disappointed with and frustrated by.

Data was shared at the event indicating that an enormous number of Americans do not identify in a simple and straightforward with a particular religion or political party. They may consistently vote one way. But it is because they feel that they only have two options. And it is that sense of having to choose the lesser of two evils that makes the election process disappointing. One of the evils may be much, much less evil than the other. But that is not the same thing as having a candidate that you can be entirely enthusiastic about.

I was happy that students in the audience asked questions and joined in the discussion. But I wanted very much to ask a question myself, and was sorry that time ran out before I could. If the two main American parties were placed in Europe, they would not be viewed as “polar opposites” in the way they are by Americans. They would be the center right and slightly further right parties that form a coalition to keep the Nazis and Communists further towards the extremes out of power.

And so my question was whether there is any indication that the shift in outlook among younger Americans might finally move us away from the two-party system that we currently treat as a given.

I had hoped that the divisions over Bernie Sanders on the one side and Donald Trump on the other might lead to breaking ranks and some individuals running as independent candidates.

It doesn’t seem like it will happen this time. But I hope that one day soon it will. Because the mistaken view that the American parties and their candidates are polar opposites is contributing to the way political discourse is becoming increasingly toxic.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    There are certainly some structural things that would have to change in order to facilitate this.

    I’m not a Libertarian, but a point they have made about the political process that I think is worth considering is that, to participate in presidential debates, your candidate needs at least 15% of the support of the national electorate as determined by 5 polling organizations at that time.

    Well, needless to say, that is an immensely difficult number to hit if you are a third-party candidate. Ross Perot did it through sheer expenditure of money, but many candidates would find it hard to muster that level of national awareness.

    It’s a difficult issue, because obviously there’s nothing stopping every American ego out there from declaring themselves a candidate of the (insert name here) Party and running for president. On the other hand, our barriers to national participation appear to be so high that it’s difficult to envision any third party being able to hit those numbers -without- debates and media coverage.

    I think about some of these parties in America that have been around a while – whether I agree with them or not – and they’ve worked their butts off to clear that hurdle every election and still can’t do it.

    Third parties can’t get in front of people without a lot of support, and they can’t get a lot of support without getting in front of people.

    • jh

      I think that new media formats will prove an equalizing factor. Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Apps … all of these provide a way to excite the voting population. I’m betting within 20 years (the time it will take for twitter and the like to become more developed as in, your grandma will be using it)

      but I’d rather see a third party build itself out of the implosion of an existing party or from a grass roots growth that builds up to the presidency rather than arrogantly reaching for the presidency on wishes and hope.

  • arcseconds

    Unfortunately, I don’t think you can really feasibly move beyond two parties without a giant change in the electoral system across the board. And the US’s system is designed to make this kind of change especially difficult.

    First-past-the-post structurally encourages just two parties:

    While some countries with FPP do manage to have somewhat viable third parties, it’s always somewhat fraught. In Australia, the Liberal Party and the National Party work as a coalition so closely organised from the outside it basically appears to be one party, so that’s one possibility. As a minority party, if you don’t strike some kind of a deal with fellow-travellers, you either split the vote so neither of you gets anywhere, or you’re doomed to live life in a kind of wilderness.

    It also means people start voting strategically, so you can’t tell whether they voted for the Original Democratic Party because they prefer that to the New Sanders Democratic Party, or whether they like the latter better but felt the former was the only going concern.

    Preferential voting systems are a distinct improvement on this, and so are proportional representation systems, and you can even have both!

  • Brandon Roberts

    our system needs some major fixes

  • Michael Wilson

    We have a winner take all system of elections that doesn’t bode well for minor parties. the results I suspect are the same as we would expect from parliamentarian systems, since at the end the leader is usually a compromise choice, not a rotation between extreme views, which probably wouldn’t be great for society. Voting for people you don’t enthusiastically support is very grown up. Basically, Kids for Bernie probably wouldn’t get Bernie under other circumstances either. if your left wing views can’t make it past the Democratic primary voters, then they probably wont get past the genial election voters.
    Trump did shake things up by being rejected by so much of the Republican donor and intelligencia. It made a third party plausible, but there was no time to organize and most rank and file Republicans opted to accept his candidacy. If the GOP remains split between white identity voters and wealthy business people and conservatives ideologues we might see a new party form. The Democrats will have to work to maintain their coalition of wealth whites, minorities, and leftist.

    • arcseconds

      If we say there are 15% of people who really really like a ‘socialist’ like Bernie (really ‘mild democratic socialist’ or ‘moderately left wing’ are more accurate descriptors), then in a proportional representation system like Germany or New Zealand, then 15% of representatives in the Bundestag/Parliament could be expected to be elected on those views.

      A party with that size of representation is unlikely to get to furnish the office of Prime Minister, but they might get to furnish the Deputy as the result of a coalition arrangement.

      So while you’re right that Sanders supporters probably wouldn’t get to see their candidate with the top job, they would get substantial representation in Parliament, and have a good chance of having people who (at least ostensibly) share their outlook in high-ranking positions.

      In a first-past-the-post system it’s quite possible for minority positions of 15% or even greater proportions to not get any representation at all, if they happen to be scattered throughout a country rather than making up the plurality of a particular electorate.

      • Michael Wilson

        It’s really for the better if wing nuts not get important post due to electoral share. Any how, some times they’ll get something to make their supporters happy, but it probably won’t be Bernie, I can’t imagine Hillary giving that goof any thing important.

        • arcseconds

          You can’t actually build sure protection against wing-nuts and have a democracy. I think Trump has kind of proven that.

          • Michael Wilson

            Right, but Hillary managed it. Partly it was the close coordination of president and Clinton. Republicans don’t have such a clear center. But they should do super delegates and limit primaries to registered party members.

            Wing nuts are the darlings of the politically inactive. When you actually work in the party, the reality of voters and pols kicks in