The case against the two party system

Should America have a two party system?

In theory America has a two party system. Many Americans find it hard to imagine anything else. But a two party system is not what the founders envisioned and in fact they warned against it. John Adams said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution“. (Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 October 1780), “The Works of John Adams”, vol 9, p. 511

In his farewell address George Washington stated, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty“. Read George Washington’s entire farewell address here.

The effects of Technology and Sociology

Both men, Adams and Washington, understood people, politics and passions. If they had known how far technology would have taken us I believe they would have offered even more severe warnings.

In 21st century America the two party system has become ineffective; sociology and technology have combined to create a one party system that does not represent a large majority of Americans. In effect the two parties have merged to marginalize the middle class, the philosophical and economic heart of the country. And in a slightly ironic twist by emphasizing what one would typically think of as the margins of society.

The impact of Technology

The speed with which news is disseminated is increasing. In 1776 folks in Philadelphia did not hear about events in New York until two days after they happened. In Boston almost a week would go by before they received news from New York. Today news doesn’t just travel fast it is almost instantaneous. A senator breaking wind in Boston is breaking news in in Nebraska minutes later as texting replaces word of mouth.  Emails fly around the country faster and to more people than Ray Tomlinson ever imagined.

Fox News 6th 48 jeh

Radio, television, computers, cellphones, even the sides of buildings are constantly dispensing “news” to anyone who will listen. And a lot of us are watching and listening but fewer of us are reading. Those reading print news has decreased from 57% in 1999 to 28% in 2014. (more detail here) And I see no sign the trend will reverse itself.

Increasingly people are getting their news from social networks, Facebook and Twitter the two most popular sites. Neither are news sites, which is a problem.

The recent presidential election ignited a fire storm of fake news ‘stories’. Many of the stories were stolen from satire websites and promoted as ‘news’. While others were taken from quasi-news sites like Infowars. The same site that claimed the Democratic Party was hosting a child sex slave ring out of a pizza restaurant.

So how is it possible for reasonable people to mistake satire and obviously false stories for fact? The Emperor’s new clothes syndrome plays a part but I believe there is more to it.

The Role of Sociology

The difference between the Democratic and Republican parties have deepened since the eighties. In a successful attempt to acquire more votes Ronald Reagan courted the evangelical vote. He managed to convince them he was against abortion even though while governor of California, he signed the most liberal abortion bill in the nation.

The Republican party welcomed the religious right, giving them perhaps more power and influence than they deserved. The religious right in turn brought a moral certainty to the party.  “If God is with us then who can stand against us” became “God is with us, you can’t stand against us”.

While on the other side the Democrats began lining up their rebuttals. The right to life vs. the right to choose, creation vs. evolution, one side says global warming is real, the other it is a hoax.  And so John Adams prediction and fear of the two party system became reality.

Can the cycle be broken?

Two party system diagram

Is there anything we can do? Possibly but it would take a fundamental change in the election system.  America would need to move to a system in in use around the world – proportional representation.

John Stuart Mill introduced the idea in his essay Considerations on Representative Government  published in 1861. “In a representative body actually deliberating, the minority must of course be overruled; and in an equal democracy, the majority of the people, through their representatives, will outvote and prevail over the minority and their representatives. But does it follow that the minority should have no representatives at all? …”

The recent 2016 elections put one party in control of the Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. A  USA Today editorial from June 39th, 1995 states, “… the nasty fact is that our winner-take-all election system, adopted from 18th century England, has the potential to leave up to 49.9% of the voters in any district feeling unrepresented — whatever their race or ethnicity.”

When you consider Donald Trump only won 46.5% of the popular vote and lost by almost 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton you realize American politics needs to change.