Politics for the Non-Political – Volume 1: Two Party System

I am by no means an expert on U.S. Civics or political science (oxymoron alert). However, I enjoy sharing my thoughts on politics and our political system. It would be correct to consider talkin’ politics to be a hobby for me.

My interest in the ‘art of the practical’ leads me to read a lot of political stories and opinions from a variety of different viewpoints. As such, I pay more attention to politics than a normal person should. While not a full-blown wonk or politico, I would still consider myself to be part of that small subset of beings who follows national political happenings on a daily basis. So, most of my discussions are aimed at that same (obsessive) crowd.

But, I thought it might be fun to look at things from a normal perspective and try to engage in political discussion with people who don’t live and breathe politics (read: People who have a life).

Now then, it seems a bit self-defeating to be posting these thoughts on a personal blog, since most anyone who would happen to find this would already be a bit of a politicker. Be that as it may, if you like what I say here and have friends or family who don’t follow politics but might be interested in calm, rational discussion, I would ask that you send them in my direction.

That was all a preface to say that I am starting a new feature here at RightWay in which I will take a topic on civics or politics and try to offer my thoughts and analyses in ways that are accessible and interesting. This decision has been inspired by two different things: 1) A recent post I made discussing some weird things we do in American civics that not many people think or talk about and also 2) A question/concern a friend of ours had about the two-party system.

So, for our first Politics for the Non-Political, I would like to address the subject of political parties.


The author will be offering his opinions on these matters. Anyone who says they can discuss politics or civics without any kind of personal bias or preference showing is lying to you.

Volume One: Two-Party System.

It’s a good question: “Why are there really only two choices for President?”

This is an acknowledgement of the fact that in 2012, despite there being more than two people on most State’s presidential ballots, either Barack Obama will remain in office for another 4 years, or Mitt Romney will be our 45th President.

On it’s surface it seems somehow almost unfair. What happens if you don’t like either of the two “major party” candidates? Why can’t we have more viable choices?

I would simply say that, in truth, having two real choices is the best situation under our system.

First, let me suggest that a more European-like system where there are multiple parties just would not work here. There are differences between our systems that make adopting a multi-party situation here unwise.

Take for example, the United Kingdom.

For their Parliamentary elections, the people don’t vote for individual candidates. Rather they vote for a Party, then each Party is assigned a certain number of seats based on how many votes they got. The Parties then assign people to those allocated seats. There are currently around 10 different Parties in the U.K. that have representation in Parliament. But, even there, two major parties dominate the political system.

In America, we believe in a more direct form of representation. We actually select our candidates and expect them to be the voice of our individual districts (that’s the principle, even if it doesn’t always shake out that way).

But, let’s assume for a moment that we somehow create a situation where we have ten equal parties (even though no such system truly exists anywhere).

No, let’s bring it down even closer to the earth, Let’s say we have 5 equal political parties here in the U.S.

Each of the 5 generally attract 20% of the electorate and so we end up with a Congress more or less equally divided between these five parties. This is good, right? Now every voting citizen can feel as though their beliefs are represented.

But, the thing is…

Voting on Bills in Congress is not a multiple choice or fill in the blank proposition. There are two active choices: Yea or Nay. So, each individual member of Congress would have to choose between supporting the passage of a particular bill or not. Yes or No.

If that is any different from how things work now, I don’t see it.

So, having more parties in Congress is kind of a wash.

What would happen if we had just five equally supported parties running for President?

That’s where things go off the rails. Each Party would run their own candidate… and let’s assume still that each party has roughly the same amount of support (which is the only way we could justify having multiple parties). When the polls close and the votes are counted, we would end up with a President who potentially only garnered 20-30% of the popular vote. While it is not necessary to win a majority of the popular vote to become President, only having 20-30% of the electorate vote for you would completely delegitimize the administration of the ‘victor’.

Why not make it simpler and just allow for the formation of a 3rd Major Party?

The same basic reasons for arguing against 5 or more parties applies to having a 3rd Major Party.

Former President Teddy Roosevelt’s party-splitting run in 1912 as a Progressive notwithstanding, the most successful 20th century 3rd Party candidate in terms of the popular vote was Ross Perot in 1992. He captured 18.9% of the vote (while not winning a single state in the Electoral College).

That year we elected Bill Clinton with 43% of the popular vote. It is difficult for a modern candidate to capture a true majority of the popular vote. But, if the winning campaign cannot muster more than 45% of the vote… wouldn’t you agree that is a problem?

You’ve generally got two type of people who push for the legitimizing of a third (or more) Major Political Party:

  1. 18-25 who just haven’t put a lot of thought or historical study into the matter
  2. In-Your-Face Libertarians/Greens/Socialists/Constitutions/[insert would-be major party advocate here]

The second group recruits quite a bit of the first group simply by being loud and persistent about these kinds of things.

But, when you get right down to it, these vocal advocates don’t really want there to be 3 or more parties to choose from. What they really want is for their preferred party to replace one of the Major Parties.

Now, there’s not really anything wrong with that. There is certainly precedence. Just a brief look at a general flow of our political parties shows how things changed over time (the following list is by no means exhaustive)

  • Our first real political party – the Federalist Party was basically destroyed by the dominance of the Democratic-Republican Party.
  • The Democratic-Republican Party eventually split into the Democratic Party and the National Republican Party.
  • The National Republican Party and the Anti-Masonic Party eventually became the Whig Party.
  • After the Whig’s disintegrated in the 1850’s, the Republican Party emerged from their ashes.
  • The Democratic Party split along with the country in 1860 and re-emerged as a different group but retaining the title of Democrats.
  • The Republican Party split in 1912 and also re-emerged as a different group but with the name Republicans in 1920.
  • The Democratic Party split again in 1968 but came back slightly altered.
  • And since 1968, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have experienced shifts in their composition.

Now, the point is that we have normalized into a Two-Party system by default. It has naturally occurred because it works best. There are times of change and turbulence, but then, eventually, we follow our national instincts and work our way back to Two Party normalcy.

Beyond that, we have entered a further pattern of having those two parties be the Democratic and Republican Parties. Instead of creating new parties to destroy and replace the current ones, most people have been content to simply either change party preference or work to shift the goals of one of the parties from the inside. There is room enough in the overall visions of each of the Two Major Parties to allow for anyone to support them.

Neither Party is perfect… and there are legitimate reforms that each needs to make to their own structures. Both Major Parties are prone to seeking power at the cost of principle and both have a tendency to entrench and protect their own selfish interests. And this is why we, as citizens, have a duty to keep our politicians on their toes and minding their p’s and q’s.

But, folks, our imperfect two party system is the best possible system for us in this imperfect world.

It’s simple, yet elegant.

In 2012, if you believe that the Federal Government should take a larger role people’s everyday lives, you should vote for Democrats.

If you believe that the Federal Government has too big a role in people’s lives and needs to be shrunk, you should vote for Republicans.

Those visions may flip someday, but for now, asking yourself what you think of the Role of the Federal Government should be is a good first step to wading into the conversation and making your views known. Your best expression comes with your vote.

Again, no Party is perfect. But you always have a choice.

The Democratic Party is offering a particular vision for America’s future… and the Republican is offering one that is completely different. Decide which vision most closely aligns with yours and you have made your choice.


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