Can The Two Party System Come To An End?

The two party system is seriously broken when we were given a choice as terrible as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. More people voted for third  parties in 2017 than in other recent elections which lacked a big name candidate, but others see third party voting as futile. It is a sign that the two party system might be due to collapse when an establishment writer such as David Brooks writes a column about The End of the Two-Party System.

While I don’t entirely accept his rational for this, it is clear that both parties are divided. True conservatives don’t fit into a party led by Donald Trump. True liberals and progressives, including many supporters of Bernie Sanders, don’t fit into a party led by an authoritarian right warmonger like Hillary Clinton, or a party which consider her fit for its nomination. Brooks concluded his column writing:

Eventually, conservatives will realize: If we want to preserve conservatism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors. Liberals will realize: If we want to preserve liberalism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors.

Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined. When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.

The scarcity mentality is eventually incompatible with the philosophies that have come down through the centuries. Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide they need to break from it structurally. They will realize it’s time to start something new.

We do need something new, regardless of whether it is for the reasons which Brooks discussed.

There are structural barriers as Brooks noted. Earlier this month The New Republic looked at Why America Is Stuck With Only Two Parties:

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time in American politics when it was relatively easy to jump-start a new political party and get it into the mainstream. That was how the Republican Party—the only third party in American history to become a major party—displaced the Whigs (along with several smaller parties) between 1854, when it was founded, and 1860, when it propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.

It took three things to create a party back then: people, money, and ballots. Parties were responsible not only for recruiting and nominating candidates for office, but they also printed and distributed their own ballots (typically with the help of partisan newspaper publishers). Thus, there were very few barriers to entry: Candidates didn’t have to petition to appear on a ballot, and new parties were free to endorse candidates from the more major parties, so their nominees ran less risk of being labeled spoilers. Essentially, parties could contest for power just as soon as they had backers and supporters. This was what happened to the Liberty and Free Soil parties in the nineteenth century: Starting in the mid-1840s, as the two dominant parties—the Whigs and Democrats—hewed to the pro-slavery forces in their ranks, these new formations sprouted quickly and began gathering anti-slavery advocates.

In 1848, Free Soil nominated former President Martin van Buren after the Whigs supported slave owner Zachary Taylor for president, and got 10 percent of the national vote. Crucially, they were able to do this after the Whig convention that summer because there were no legal obstacles to getting him on the ballot. Six years later, in July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention and swept the Michigan statehouse and executive branch that very same year. By 1856, its presidential candidate John Fremont won a third of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes.

That’s no longer possible: Today, third parties can’t mount their own presidential bids after they learn whom the two major parties have nominated—there simply isn’t enough time between the end of primary season and the general election to gain meaningful ballot access in enough states to win an Electoral College victory. Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who ran for President in 2016 as an anti-Trump alternative to Hillary Clinton, was only able to get on the ballot in 11 states because he entered the race so late. It would’ve been easier in the 1800s: McMullin wouldn’t have had to collect millions of petition signatures and hire expensive lawyers to get on the ballot.

The article went on to how the two major parties use ballot access to make it difficult for third parties to compete. The two major parties also conspire to prevent competition in other ways, including restricting access to the debates. While true that these are major obstacles, knowledge of how the major parties maintain their monopoly also presents strategies to work at to achieve change.

Ultimately bigger changes such as rank order voting would be helpful. This would enable voters to choose more than one candidate, with their vote transferring to their second choice if their first choice is eliminated. The idea is to allow people to vote for a third party without feeling like they are wasting their vote. Voters might vote for a Green Party candidate first, and then have their vote go to the Democrat next. This pattern might often be seen, but in  2016 I probably would have voted for Jill Stein and then Gary Johnson, only voting for candidates opposed to our pattern of perpetual warfare. It is also hoped that with ranked order voting more people would vote third party, leading to better third party candidates, with them ultimately being able to win.

There are no doubt major obstacles to third parties actually challenging the major parties. It is debatable as to whether this is a better or worse strategy than to try to reform the major parties, but the two strategies are not mutually exclusive. Despite the major obstacles, we are closer to changing the system than at many times in the past. Dissatisfaction with the major parties is at a new high, with many young voters having no affiliation with either. The internet changes the rules, both for fund raising and campaigning, reducing traditional needs for the old party structures. The internet has the potential to alter politics as it has altered a lot of commercial activity.

Even if a third party does not become a major party, third parties have historically had their value in influencing the major parties, which desire their votes. Seeing the loss of votes to a third party could keep the Democrats from continuing to move to the right. On the other hand, people practicing lesser-evilism voting it makes it easier for the major parties to continue on their current path–which led to a choice as terrible as Trump v. Clinton.

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