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The U.S.: a four- or five-party country jammed into a two-party system

Photo credits: Sanders: REUTERS/Rick Wilking; Trump: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. Never really was. Never really claimed to be. Donald Trump is not a Republican. Not in any meaningful sense.

Years ago, when Boris Yeltsin came to town, I had a chance to ask him one question. Through a translator, I asked this: “You call yourself a Communist, but you disagree with the Communist Party’s ideology on most subjects. What makes you a Communist?” He replied: “Party card.”

By the time Yeltsin became president, opposition parties were still banned. But being a Communist didn’t require you to believe anything in particular. Yet the system still required you to be a card-carrying Communist to run for office. I don’t favor a one-party system.

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. Never really was. Never really claimed to be.

Donald Trump is not a Republican. Not in any meaningful sense.

But in America, since the Dem-Repub duopoly took over our system in 1856, if you want to be president, you have to be the nominee of one of the two major parties.

System holds politics hostage

America is a four- or five-party country jammed into a two-party system. The two-party system has worked well at times in our history, works very poorly at present, but nonetheless holds the nation’s politics hostage.

Among the world’s democracies there are many, probably most, that are much more hospitable to third, fourth and fifth parties. Personally, I believe there are advantages to some of their features.

During the early 1970s, Sanders ran for governor or senator four times as the nominee of a socialist Vermont-only leftist party called the Liberty Union Party of Vermont. The best he ever did was 6 percent of the vote and mostly much worse. The party still exists.

Although Sanders still considers himself some form of socialist, he began running as an independent, became mayor of Burlington, and has now won 10 straight elections to the U.S. House or Senate. He caucuses with the Dems in the Senate, which is necessary to get good committee assignments. In order to make a serious run for president, he decided to seek the Democratic nomination, and, although he may once or twice have referred to himself as a Democrat (I’m not sure), he preferred saying more ambiguous things like, “I’m running for president as a Democrat” or “I’m seeking the Democratic nomination for president,” which were non-answers but not lies.

Sanders will again call himself an independent

On Tuesday he confirmed that when he returns to the Senate, where he still has two years in his current term, he will continue to call himself an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Donald Trump is not a Republican. During his adult life he has called himself a Democrat and a Republican. He has donated — non-ideologically and seeking only to buy influence, which he freely admits — to candidates of both parties. If you asked him to describe his journey from one party to the other, his answer would be about how great he is and how stupid someone else is, who was on top of his bad list at the moment.

He rejects a large number of positions traditionally held by the Republican Party. He claims no adherence to the party platform. His policy positions are an incoherent mish-mash of non-positions that don’t bear much interrogation, and he makes little secret of the fact that believing in those kinds of things is not what he does. He used to be pro-choice. Now he’s pro-life. He had Hillary Clinton as a guest to one of his weddings. Now he reviles her.  

Hillary Rodham was a Young Republican, but since college she has long been an actual, practicing Democrat, to the degree that that term has much meaning. As an adult, she has mostly been what I would call a centrist Democrat or a slightly left-leaning pragmatist — what she likes to call “a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Platform concessions

In the effort to heal the Sanders-Clinton rift in the party, her representatives agreed to many changes in the party platform that moved that document pretty far to the left. In other systems, where party ideologies are clearer, party platforms are more meaningful statements of what each party would like to do. In our system, they are just campaign documents. In this case, the exigencies of the campaign required the Clintonites to give a lot of fairly empty platform concessions to Sanders in hopes of unifying the party, and it seems to be working.

The Framers of the Constitution were not particularly trying to create a two-party straitjacket. The Electoral College system, for example, as evolved, is one of the elements of the straitjacket. But that wasn’t its original intention. The Framers came up with that crazy contraption to deal with a situation in which there were no national parties, no national media, and most Americans knew very little of any political leaders outside of their states.

That situation immediately disappeared as national parties appeared. No candidacy outside of the duopoly has ever received more than 88 electoral votes, and that was Teddy Roosevelt in the bizarre three-way race of 1912. Since then, the best was 39 votes for Strom Thurmond running as a Dixiecrat protest candidate in 1948. It takes 270 electoral votes to win and if you don’t get 270, you pretty much get nothing.

But, because of the duopoly, anyone who wants to vote for a candidate other than one of the two major party nominees must accept that their vote is unlikely to affect the outcome. It’s often called the “wasted vote” syndrome. A strong supporter of the Libertarian or Green Party ticket will have that option in most states this year. But, as things are currently organized, those parties mostly have the possibility of hurting the major party ticket with which they have the most agreement.

The five parties

I said above that America is a four- or five-party country jammed into a two-party system. At present, I would parse that about like this:

The leftmost party might be a coalition of Bernie Backers and the Green Party. They are not afraid to be called socialists or social democrats. They want to leverage the power of the national government to tax the rich, help the poor, rein in corporate power, revive the power of organized unions, expand various kinds of welfare programs and are drawn to much stronger environmental regulation. They view Clintonism as too moderate. They want strong medicine, including things like single-payer health care.

The center left party is much of the current Democratic Party. They have a lot of the same general goals as the Bernie backers, but are more satisfied with incremental change, captured by Clinton’s “progressive who likes to get things done” bit.

Members of the existing Republican Party, at least before this year, are also split between a hard right and a center right. The hard right would include many of today’s Libertarians, who believe that less government is always better, although my typology gets messed up around some of the social issues that separate real libertarians from Republican defenders of what they like to call traditional values. In my imaginary new coherent party system, I’m not sure where those “social conservatives” belong. Maybe they need their own party.

The other element of today’s right-of-center coalition are the party of business and the wealthy. They are funded by the rich; their main goal is to prevent the masses from leveraging the power of democracy to tax away their wealth or regulate their business activities.

The last of my five parties would be the party of Trump. Before this year, I wouldn’t have thought of such a thing, but at the moment it can’t be ignored. It is a party of angry whites, mostly men, not college-educated, who are enraged by the feeling, which Trump stokes brilliantly, that the good life to which they feel entitled has been undermined by non-whites, political correctness, an infiltration of Mexicans and Muslims. And they are suckers for an authoritarian demagogue who promises to restore their lost status, perhaps so drawn to such a candidate that they think it might be a good idea to encourage Vladimir Putin to hack into Clinton’s emails.

Other systems

As I mentioned at the top, there are other systems, mostly in the parliamentary category, that allow this kind of multiparty system to function. In such systems, it’s often the case that no one party wins a majority, so then there have to be negotiations to form a majority coalition to run the country. In that kind of a deal, the Sanders-oriented lefties and the moderate Clintonian liberals might, for example, be able to form a majority coalition, but in negotiating that deal each side would have a clearer idea of what they were getting and what they were giving up. Instead of non-binding concessions in platform language. For example, the Left/Green Party would be assured that certain concrete programs from their platform would actually be enacted, and the coalition would be able to deliver. And if it didn’t deliver, the betrayed party could break up the coalition.

Of course, this kind of change would require a fundamental overhaul of our system, which is essentially impossible considering the impracticality of trying to assemble the massive super majorities necessary to amend the Constitution. Not gonna happen. But perhaps there’s some value in occasionally noting that – without over-romanticizing them — such systems do exist.

Ways to shake up the system

At the level of smaller-scale but more imaginable changes, there are voting reforms that might shake up the duopoly. Take ranked-choice voting, for example. In the last three presidential elections, the Dem and Repub tickets received a combined 99 percent of the popular vote every time. The Greens, Libertarians and a few other tickets divided the other 1 percent. It’s absurd, to me, to think that this reflects the true enthusiasm of 99 percent of the country. There may be millions who would like to vote for a smaller party but don’t want to “waste” their vote. It’s a perfectly rational choice.

But if we had ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, supporters of smaller parties could express their support, and it would be measured and counted and might even lead to some growth in those parties going forward until someday they could be more meaningful players. But the Green Party voter could rank the Dem ticket second and it would still count in the final runoff between the two leading contenders.

I know that most Americans are so devoted to the system they were raised to revere that they are reluctant to blame the system for various current dysfunctions. But my mind is open.

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Comments (21)

Amen

What we've seen in recent years is that divided government is dysfunctional government, which gets little or nothing done of the business the public elected that government to do. Most other industrial societies that at least pretend to be governed by the will of the people actually make sure that the people elected are able to turn their party agenda/platform into actual legislation. If they can't, there's another election and a new group/coalition comes into power with a mandate to do 'x.' If that doesn't happen, yet another election is held until whatever coalition is put into power actually gets something done. In theory – and often, but not always, in practice – UNdivided government is far more responsive to the public will than our system. That cuts both ways, of course, and there are times when the public will leans more toward hysteria. In those circumstances, a "more responsive" government may not be altogether a good thing. Humans have yet to devise a perfect system. Nonetheless, I continue to believe that we can do better than what we currently have here in the U.S.

Yes but doesn't get to the root.

The foundation for a viable nation-state that has the consent of the governed is a consensus as to fundamental values and a framework of government consistent with those values. With that in place, there then can and should be vigorous debate about the laws that best carry forward and ramify those values into the lived lives of the citizenry, and multiple parties may be the thing.

What some have observed for some time, and what the viability of Trump crystallizes, is that our nation does not have this consensus. A majority subscribe to fundamental values of self-determination, equality of opportunity and community support for those who suffer the vicissitudes of fate. But a substantial minority, intolerant of existential uncertainty, prefer to forego self-governance in favor of the security, or the illusion of security, that authoritarian structures of power and governance offer. This gap can’t be bridged by compromise or “reaching across the aisle.”

In other words, a proliferation of parties will not cure what ails us. But an amicable divorce and two resulting nation-states might.

Third Party Mistakes

The big mistake that the proponents of third (or fourth or fifth) parties make is that they tend to start at the top of the ticket, and then wonder why the "movement" is a flash in the pan. Jesse Ventura got elected Governor by a plurality of votes, but the Independence Party never caught on? Why? Could it be that they were concentrating on running candidates for Governor and Senator, and paying little attention to the less-attention getting down ticket races? The push should have been to get candidates elected to those offices--the Legislature, county commissions, city councils with partisan labels, etc. This shows that a party has more to it than being a celebrity showcase, or a bunch of people with a grievance. Get in the trenches, do the real work, and show you're serious.

Doing that would, however, require that the parties have an organization. That would require having some reasonably coherent ideology ("We aren't Democrats, and we aren't Republicans" is not a coherent ideology). Spend some time vetting and cultivating candidates. If you give the endorsement to anyone with a pulse and the minimum constitutional requirements for an office who is willing to wear your label, you're ultimately going to go nowhere.

Slight correction

George Wallace received 46 electoral votes in 1968.

Parliamentary Systems

It's worth noting that in parliamentary systems, small parties often have outsized power when they're needed to create what is essentially an artificial majority. Which creates it's own set of problems.

Two Parties?

Yes, in terms of dominance, not ballot reality. Our ballots list more than several party designations; but Big Blue and rather Big Red hold sway, every year and every day. Unless Eric can devise some sort of political party trust-busting legislation, that's pretty much the way it was, is now and perhaps forever shall be. Unless we change to a parliamentary model with many parties of representation, that's pretty much the way it goes. There is little point in that, however. One might argue our system affords better policy continuity, if not more accountability.

We must recognize that our European friends rule by parliamentary organization of various parties with differing philosophies on their edges, if not at their cores. If there may be some public benefit in that, it likely comes from the fact that very often one or two major parties must build a coalition of these smaller groups to gain majority for rule. Let's take a cursory look.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Germany
Germany: "Coalitions in the Bundestag and state legislators are often described by party colors. Party colors are the Social Democratic Party being red, the Alliance '90/The Greens green, the Free Democratic Party yellow, the Left dark red, red or purple, and the CDU/CSU black or blue." Angela Merkel came uncomfortably close to losing her position. Shecontinues to rule since 2013 only due to a "grand coalition" formed to give her majority.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_Ki...

UK: PM David Cameron (Tory) initially held the House of Commons through coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In his second term, Cameron prevailed without the Lib Dems, which began to lose seats. In the recent shakeup over "Brexit," Cameron lost his personal/political stature when the "Leave" vote won the referendum to exit the EU. An internal coup of sorts forced his resignation earlier this month, elevating Theresa May to Prime Minister. Although she also stood for "Remain," she has promised to uphold the initiative to "Leave" the European Union. Theresa May is the second woman to become Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher having been the first. An intriguing feature of UK rule regards national elections. Similar to the U.S., Britain has regularly scheduled elections; however, the PM may call "early elections," as well.
Think of that power granted to our Speaker of the House, or most likely the President in our case.
Very interesting concept, yes?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_France

France: "France has a multi-party political system, that is to say one in which the number of competing political parties is sufficiently large as to make it almost inevitable that in order to participate in the exercise of power any single party must be prepared to negotiate with one or more others with a view to forming electoral alliances and/or coalition agreements."
France is likely the most enduring example of ruling by coalition. Some believe that makes France a better example of democratic government with respect to other EU members. It also seems to make France a very independent force in terms of international issues, as well. (Perhaps France simply has far more independent citizens than the rest of us do.)

So, does a parliamentary system bring government closer and more responsive to the electorate? Are we less agile, or more stable, with our form of organization?
What would change if various current caucus groups were separate parties with clear constituencies?
What might change with respect to voter interest, representation, leverage?

Couple things

I would just offer a few refinements.

First, I'm kind of surprised that Eric doesn't talk about independents who would reject most of these parties. According the polls independents are now the largest single bloc of voters. For instance when looking at the Sanders vote it's important to remember that a number of voters, I don't think anyone really knows how many, are choosing between Sanders and Trump, those voters don't fit any of these categories very well.

I don't think center right or center left parties actually exist at the moment, I think they're comforting stories that offer the illusion of moderation and the possibility of bipartisan incrementalism.

"Center Left" democrats actually occupy a space to the right of center, I call it "tepid liberalism" in the sense that people in this category have liberal personality traits, but their political judgement and ambitions are actually moderate conservative. Such people claim to "incrementalist" but in practice they are simply averse to anything that could disrupt a system that services the elite. I'm sorry but if you really think that single payer or living wages are some kind of big giant step that's beyond our reach you're simply not the "liberal" you like to think you are. You're an Eisenhower republican. Incrementalism would suggest some (albeit slow) progress with liberal initiatives. In fact with few exceptions the liberal agenda has been stalled and rolled back over the last three decades. Again, if you don't see that, you're not the liberal you like to think you are. Seriously, there's nothing even remotely "radical" about single payer, living wages, environmentalism, or labor unions. These initiatives represent basic liberal principles and if you don't think they're "realistic" then you are not...

Likewise the "center right" is doesn't really exist at this point in time. The center right would be represented by folks like Arne Carlson, but folks like that are nearly impossible to find within the republican party on a republican ballot. This wasn't a "split" it was a purge. This is why Bloomberg is talking to the democrats instead of the republicans.

In other words I think Eric's "spectrum" might outmoded, these are the kind of parties one would have described in the late 1980s. This looks a lot like the political spectrum the "New" democrats and neo-liberals were describing back then, this spectrum was the basis for Clinton's claims of "centrism".

The problem with "centrism" is that it actually makes more sense to distribute our political spectrum from top to bottom rather than left to right. When you look at so called "centrist" policies like incrementalism you can see pretty clearly that "centrism" is actually a pseudonym for "elitism" which is distributed from top to bottom rather than left to right. Elitism transcends left to right spectrums in the sense that both left and right elitists share some very basic interests and political control. This is why the donor list for ALEC records the Koch brothers AND Bill Gates. It's also why Hillary has soooooo much trouble distancing herself from her ties to Wall Street.

Populism is rarely a reaction to the left or the right, it's a response to elitism. The thing about Trump, being the confidence scam that his is, is that he's managed to position himself outside the elite which is why so many people are torn between Trump and Sanders. Sanders is clearly outside the elite.

It was nice for a while, the middle class actually thought they were members of the elite until the recession crushed that illusion mercilessly. Now we're talking about the duopoly again because people have realized that both the parties have been working on behalf of the elite... the REAL elite- for decades. Health care, education, and economic policies organized around the desires of the elite rather than needs of majority have failed, as they always do.

Independents

As one who really does have a foot planted firmly on either side of the political dividing line, allow me to add some extra seasoning here.

While an "Independence Party" officially appears on ballots, most of us likely do not subscribe. The nature of an independent thinker/voter is, well, independent. Supporting the product line of any party, especially one built with bicycle chains and front fender mirrors, is not in our chemistry. We follow candidates, meaning we sometimes lean a little Left, other times a bit Right, depending on how harshly the winds blow from those directions. We may be more prone to vote against rather than for someone, I imagine. Perhaps more so than partisan voters, we tend to scrutinize down ballot races closely. It may be a safe assumption we also represent the protest voter more than the partisan. The Parties really don't like us...and I rather like that.

If any contest represents our tendency to shun either presidential candidate, 2016 is likely the one. Sometimes our aggregate voice swings an election one way or the other. Gender support may be more evident this time, maybe not. Independents may be more likely to stay home, certainly more so than partisan voters. I have no idea what may happen this Fall..
I always vote, not necessarily for all positions, sometimes increasing the "under vote" stats.

I should clarify

When speak of "independents" I'm not talking about the independent "Party", I'm talking about voters who don't affiliate with any party. The Independent Party was never more than an attempt at a moderate wing of the republican party.

Sanders's as a democrat

Sanders's decision to run as a democrat instead of a third party candidate was brilliant. He must have sensed an opening there the same way Trump sensed an opening in the republican party. The difference is that democrats were able to suppress their populist while the republicans failed.

OR

The Republicans had no viable mainstream candidate, so Trump was able to hijack the party.
The Democrats did have a viable candidate, so while Sanders was able to make a strong run, he was ultimately a niche candidate who lacked broad support across the demographic spectrum of the Democratic party.
Narrow base of support is not the same as suppression. If Sanders had become a Democrat ten or twenty years earlier things might have been different.
And it's hard to regard an elitist self-styled 'billionaire' as a populist.

The Democrats did not suppress Bernie Sanders.

They absorbed him and the majority of his ideas, in a typically American pre-election-style coalition of related ideological camps. Read the platform. Check the changes in Hillary Clinton's positions. Coalition.

What we have is a fairly conservative, cautious and pragmatic "Doer" in Hillary Clinton, combining forces with traditional liberals and the farther-left camps of the Sanders anti-elitists/populists who really do want more socialist policies. All of them work with the Brookings Institute and other left-wing think tanks, who are busy developing policy proposals that can move social and economic problems forward to solution.

What the Republicans have been unable to do, on their side, is manage any pre-election coalition with a man who is untethered to any ideology, who basically has the idea that he can rule this country, all by himself (he has a dictatorial mentality, including thin-skinned vindictiveness,which is why he likes Putin). There is no possibility of adjusting a political program to include a dicy, slippery dictatorial mentality in the presidential candidate with any kind of program that could address problems of the country, from the right or even far right.

The part of the Republican party that believes in American values cannot vote for Trump. they're out there, they're not independents but Republicans. And when push comes to shove, they'll vote for Hillary Clinton whose only failure was a misguided attempt to protect her privacy in emails.

Maybe

I think Constance is talking about the party platform, but we should all know that platforms are non-binding opiates for the masses. What I actually see is elite democrats already distancing themselves from those progressive promises and returning to station as moderate republicans. Democrats always sound liberal at the convention, but when the time comes to pursue those agendas they suddenly find other priorities.

Now apply this (over)generalization

to the agenda and priorities (other than preventing the passage of legislation) shown by the Republican party.

Sanders Plank?

Wasn't this Bernie's smaller platform? Seems to me he was pretty vocal and specific while followers rallied around his anti-DNC/HRC establishment rhetoric. Some "Red-blooded" group will certainly recall much of his exposition for us this Fall, particularly some of his slash and burn stuff regarding HRC.

Bernie may now be walking in shadows, but many groups will not let his words go quietly into the night...for sure.

I think ultimately

Democrats will have to embrace and champion the Sanders platform or they'll face the same crises the republicans are currently facing. They won't do it in this election cycle and we can just hope that that failure doesn't cost them the election. But ultimately rule of the elite, by the elite, for the elite, is doomed.

Pre-election coalitions

These are a hallmark of American politics. They enable the dominant party or faction to appear to embrace another group's ideas. But once the "coalition" is elected, the strong tendency is to ignore or suppress the minority ideas and govern with mostly or only the majority's policies.

In most other democracies that have parliamentary legislatures (most of which also have more representative proportional representation elections), coalitions form only after elections. The governing bloc must incorporate policies from each party that comprises it. The largest party, the one that leads the government, ignores smaller parties' policies at the peril of the coalition -- and the government -- disintegrating.

So after the DNC and the platform that supposedly bent Clinton's positions toward Sanders's, if Hillary wins, there'll be no penalty on her or the Democrats in reverting and ignoring Bernie's policies. That's what happens with pre-election coalitions. I expect it to happen if she wins.

If Bernie is not a Democrat ...

.. neither was FDR. The "democratic party" pivoted away from what FDR and Bernie Sanders believe in, pivoted away from working people, unions, the poor .... in order to kiss up to Wall Street, led by "New Democrat" Bill Clinton. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton is a New Democrat as well, with very little evidence of progressive policy tastes in her political quiver. No real progressive takes fistfuls of money from Wall Street in fees and political contributions. Hillary has. So .... Bernie won't call himself a Democrat, because the New Democratic Party has shown itself to still be corrupted by big money, by donations from the very wealthy, by political tactics that violate it's own internal rules .... it is nothing like what Democrats used to be, nor will be once again when actual Democrats nudge the New Democrats out of power over time.Meanwhile, it could be a real mess of an election this Fall, one constructed brick by brick by the Republican Party and Democratic Party, as though they really prefer political chaos to responsible policy formation and governing.

Exactly

This gets back to my point about "liberals". If you don't recognize the fact that Sanders is actually a New Deal democrat, and if you think New Deal initiatives are unrealistic or if you reject New Deal initiatives out of hand... your're simply not the liberal you like to think you are. The fact that so many democrats and American "liberals" rejected basic New Deal initiatives almost instinctively tells us how far to the right American liberalism has drifted.

The democratic party may be more liberal than the republican party, but it's by no means actually liberal. Democrats and liberals may have liberal personalities, they may endorse certain liberal beliefs, but when it comes to political and economic policy they're trickle down elitists who choose to keep liberal policy initiatives off the table more often than not.

Lots of us are New Deal Democrats.

Perhaps you're damning the whole Democratic Party with Bill Clinton's Arkansan-style New Democrats' positions in the middle, but I'll just say that there are lots and lots of folks out here in the Democratic Party who still support New Deal programs and the safety-net concerns they speak to. And we can support both Bernie Sanders--as I did, early on, too--and Hillary Clinton, as Democrats.

We forget today, how big and wide a tent the Democratic party has built and maintained, in contrast to the shrinking narrowness of Tea-Party ideological exclusions from membership in the Republican Party. The GOP drummed out any sanity, in terms of potential to govern, that used to exist in their party. I have voted for some sane Republicans in my day, but they don't exist in most of the USA today.

Bernie Sanders folks worked hard to lock into the national platform their farther-left goals, and they will not abandon it as we go forward. Hillary Clinton has had to be pushed leftward in this campaign by the Sanders challenge, but she did move leftward, people! She, unlike the slippery, traitorous eel the GOP has put forward for President, does not constantly go back on her word. She's better than that, and better than the cynicism about America I see in this MinnPost thread.

I hope you're right Constance

I hope your right, but I doubt it. I've been watching the democrats for decades and since the New Democrats pushed the New Dealers out in the late 80s I've never seen anyone push the party to the left. The platform is meaningless and the elite that governs the party is obsessed with an imaginary "center".

I am damning the whole party in the sense that the party elite determine policy, and those policies pretend that moderate republicans are "centrists" in our political spectrum.

Sure, there are a lot of liberal democratic voters, but as long as they support the elite the party itself remains at the service of the wealthy elite.

I think the only way to change this is to transform the party into a liberal party by replacing the New Democrats with New Deal democrats, but as we've seen in the primary cycle the elite will block progressive candidates.

On the other hand, this has been the strongest and most serious progressive challenge in the last 50 years, and it will survive this election cycle one way or another.