Other countries have multiple parties. Why not the US?
I’m a youngish guy (pushing 40), but I cannot remember a presidential campaign as vitriolic as this one, and we’ve barely even started. Isn’t that a depressing thought? President Obama has faced two terms of the most obstructionist opposition party in the history of American politics. Democrats and Republicans alike are doing some soul-searching these days. Democrats seem fractured into two distinct identities: a more cautious, centrist model, and a more populist, Socialist (Eek! Everybody run!) mold. Republicans face an even starker choice: a voracious social-conservative wing that essentially wants to do away with so much government that the Federal branch will be in charge of a (paradoxically huge) military and streetlights, and that’s it. The term “moderate Republican” has become quaintly hilarious as the far-right-wing of the party insists on painting anyone who actually believes that government has a role to play in daily life as a “DC Establishment Party Hack.” These divisions in both parties, though certainly more sharpened on the right, point to a vague road to the future at best.
So, to quote everyone’s new favorite musical, what comes next? As Donald Trump is the “presumptive Republican nominee for president” (I know we’re all feeling hung over getting used to that phrase) and getting ready to pit himself against (most likely) Secretary Clinton in another one of those “populist vs. establishment” elections (note my eye-roll), never has our two-party system seemed so fractious. Yes, we have a few offshoot groups, notably the popular Green Party, but why is America so hung up on its mano a mano election structure? Is it just because it’s entertaining? Though we seem more divisive now, this contentiousness goes back to the very first days of the republic, when it was the Federalists versus the Democratic-Republicans, and it was just as combative then as it is now. I think the venom has always been there between party philosophies; mass media has just made it easier to spread.
So what are our alternatives in terms of other democracies? We don’t need to look far for examples. Israel had at least 11 political parties in the 2015 elections (and, to be fair, no political party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset). Though Germany has two major parties, it has smaller but powerful parties that inform the agendas of the larger status quo. The same goes for Spain and many other European nations. Heck, even Iran has five or 10 parties supposedly tolerated by the regime.
But are more parties really a stronger alternative? As diverse and interesting as many of these countries’ parties can be, almost all of them come down to two basic perspectives: conservative and progressive. In most cases, voters lean one way or the other, and the smaller parties are almost like lobbyists, catering to specific issues or views that serve the larger platform as a whole. Then the heads of the parties must build a coalition within the parties and prove they can form a sustainable government. That sounds kind of appealing to m: Show that you have a commitment to your party’s agenda, but also show an ability to compromise with those who basically share your ideals but have a different approach. Hm. I can think of worse litmus tests for our leaders.
As rosy as this picture seems, I doubt it could work smoothly in our current climate. If and when Trump loses, we’re likely see a splintering off of the Tea Party, whose agenda will be to fight any meaningful action by the Federal government, no matter which party proposes it. What remains of the “centrist Republicans” will finally be free of the far-right conservatives and will maybe flirt with governing again (maybe). I believe we’re farther off from a Democratic split, though certainly closer after the ascent of Bernie Sanders. I find it more realistic that the Democrats will allow themselves to move slightly to the left as a party for a while, which is OK by me. On paper, the schism betwixt our two major parties is supposedly about the role of government: Republicans think it should be limited to the narrowest confines definable because the bigger the government, the less freedom we have to make individual choices. Democrats think that a properly regulated Federal government can be a significant positive force for the country. Smart people can reasonably disagree on this issue, and there are valid arguments to make for both sides. But when conflict is boiled down to social issues, cultural demagoguery and just plain mean-spiritedness, I start to look at possible alternatives and think a United-but-Separate-but-Equal-States of America doesn’t sound too bad.