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

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. Never really was. Donald Trump is not a Republican. Not in any meaningful sense. But we have a duopoly, so …

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.
Photo credits: Sanders: REUTERS/Rick Wilking; Trump: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.