July 30, 2022

Is Our Two-Party System A Failing Paradigm?

by Hal Gershowitz

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Everyone who believes our two main political parties are serving the country well, please signify by shouting “Aye!” Everyone who disagrees, please signify by shouting “Nay!”

It seems the “Nays” have it.

American political parties used to set competing agendas for the nation. A party’s presidential candidate was chosen because the party’s leaders believed a given candidate could best deliver on the party’s stated agenda. Those were the days, my friend, but those days are long gone. Today’s political conventions are little more than nationally televised publicity stunts. Party leaders and strategists no longer select a party’s presidential candidate at a nominating convention. Today, presidential candidates are chosen through fifty state primaries (or caucuses), and some, including this writer, long for the proverbial smoke-filled convention rooms in which responsible party leaders selected their standard- bearers.

Presidential primary elections, which took hold in the 70s, are runway performances that attract relatively small audiences (voters) who often simply go for a gift-of-gab contender and sometimes just for plain poke ’em-in-the-eye contrarians. It’s incredibly troubling because these very low turnout contests ultimately determine who will lead us, thereby setting the standard for much of the world. Consider this: in the 2020 presidential primaries, no state, not one, produced even a 50% voter turnout. Forty-seven states failed to turn out even 40% of eligible voters, and eight states couldn’t get even 10% of eligible voters to the polls to pick the candidates, one of whom would become our President. And that was considered a record-turnout primary season. So, no surprise, the most exercised, sometimes the angriest, and often the most radical voters turn out on primary day.

As a result, our presidential primaries are driving America to the political extremes where little that is good happens. The center appears largely vacant or voiceless. The danger of this rush away from political comity and cooperation is that a lot of something no sane person should want will frequently emerge from the nether reaches of the American political landscape. Voters who turn out for primary elections are disproportionately courting the extremes, and, as a result, both parties are in danger of self-destruction.

Primaries have been around since the Progressive era, over a hundred years ago, but they were advisory and never deterministic of who would lead the country. As recently as 1968, only thirteen states held Democratic Party primaries and anti-war candidates prevailed in all of them. Nonetheless, at the infamous Chicago nominating convention, the party selected vice president Hubert Humphrey who supported the war in Viet Nam. Primaries have pretty much co-opted the presidential selection process ever since.

 The primary dilemma plays out in both parties. Just as the Tea Party took control of the Republican Party in 2009 with candidates who won with 12% to 15% of their party’s primary turnout, ultra-progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wound up in Congress, following an 11% primary turnout in New York’s 14th congressional district. 

Gerrymandering every ten years worsens the problem because the practice produces safe seats, making low-turnout primaries a bonanza for entrenched politicians. Today, fringe voters disproportionately populate the voting booths on primary day in America. Candidates who do not cater to the fringe in their party are simply toast because the fringe dominates Primary Day throughout the country. Consider this, the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 was selected by less than 5% of the U.S. electorate. 

The country is constantly being pulled away from the center, and the ramifications are terrible. Arguably, the future might lie with the MAGA crowd on the far right or, conversely, with the woke brand of progressivism on the far left. Either way, we would be done.

Either extreme in control of our destiny would signal the end of the American experiment as Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and other founders envisioned it. We will not have evolved to their best hope, but, instead, we will have devolved into their worst fear. The American experiment really would be done.   Franklin prayed we could make the new republic work but seriously feared we couldn’t. Maybe he was right. The better angels he and later Abraham Lincoln depended on seem to be far and few in between.

According to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll, only 13 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. A recent Gallop Poll determined that two out of three Americans believe the country needs a new political party. Independents now far outnumber either Democrats or Republicans. These are very telling statistics but not very surprising trends.

Here’s another query: everyone raise your hand if you feel reassured when Mitch McConnell rises to speak for the Republicans. How about when Chuck Schumer rises to speak for the Democrats? You get the picture. We’re experiencing a schizophrenic American moment. We watch the MAGA crowd, the law and order folks, pummeling police at the Capitol last year while the far left calls for defunding the police and looks the other way at urban disorder. The time seems quite ripe to make something of the perennial partisan cry, “time for a change.”

Enter Forward, the new political party, the formation of which was announced this week. Forward is Co-chaired by Republican Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and later Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Democrat Andrew Yang. Whitman was a fine and dedicated public servant. Andrew Yang is energetic, likable, and intelligent but a twice failed contender for elected office. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and for Mayor of New York last year.

What Whitman and Yang are endeavoring to accomplish is admirable. Still, third parties don’t win in America, and it is highly questionable whether Forward will do much better than Ralph Nader’s Green Party, Ross Perot’s United We Stand, George Wallace’s American Independent Party, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose Party, or William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party. And that just scratches the surface of failed third-party attempts to lead.

So, the question is, how essential are political parties as they are constituted today, compared to, say, alternative candidate tickets? Would qualified candidates who chose to run but not as party candidates have a chance? After all, the available data strongly suggest that most Americans are fed up with our two main political parties, and third parties never seem to gain much traction.

George Washington did not belong to a political party and dreaded their inevitable formation. He understood that political parties would have agendas other than orderly and responsible governance. Parties, Washington understood, would be little more than factions struggling for control; those who saw the future in population centers and commerce (think Hamilton) versus those who saw the future in an agrarian, less transactional world (think Jefferson). Before leaving office, Washington warned that political parties would allow “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men to subvert the power of the people.” Washington lamented, in his farewell address to the nation, “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Rather omniscient, the father of our country.

Washington’s warning over two hundred years ago doesn’t seem like fear-mongering today. After all,147 Republican members of Congress were perfectly willing to overturn, without a shred of justification, the results of the last presidential election because their party leader demanded it of them. Those who balked were ridiculed and driven from party leadership. The nation will remain at risk of severe factionalism until the American electorate recognizes that presidential primaries are equally as important as general elections, and we must turn out for these contests as though the country’s future depended on it—because it does.

Our political parties aren’t what they used to be. That needs to change…and fast.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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24 responses to “Is Our Two-Party System A Failing Paradigm?”

  1. Jerry Mathews says:

    Hal, a very poignant and timely analysis! One of your best.

  2. Perry says:

    We are failing as a nation if one realizes the inept make up of today’s cabinet and the current
    POTUS. We as a nation were founded under the three branches of Government , Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Today one must realize that with Unions in Government and basically an Arm of the Democrat Party, and a fawning, complicit press aided in part by Big Tech we have 5 branches of Government. All controlled by the Democrat except the Supreme Court. Checks and Balances is completely gone from due process.

    Many of us are disillusioned with the power yielded in Washington D.C. and feel disenfranchised. We believe in States Rights strongly and individual thought.

    Today we are being force fed and manipulated by the power yielded by D.C. and we feel
    trapped into losing so many previously enjoyed freedoms. #1 of course
    is the ability to express differing opinions as to our sincere differing opinions on issues without rancor or being silenced. The culture and history is being changed and maligned
    without fair debate.

    Both parties have and always will nominate and select candidates that are neither their best
    nor best for the country. Too many voters vote for single issues and or candidates that look
    and talk well rather than the one’s with leadership skills and dedication to their profession.

    Washington D.C. today is now the number one place for getting rich rather than public
    service. Harry Truman had the best quote on that.
    PS Andrew Yang and Whitman have as much chance of success as a snowball in a fire.
    The voters are for the most part ill informed and manipulated or “Gas Lighted”.

  3. Steve says:

    I believe this is one of the most insightful essays you’ve done. Social media seems to have replaced the “smoke filled rooms” of old with algorithms corrupting the information process, so that decisions are being made by relatively small and manipulated mobs rather than reasonably well informed nominators. While I’m not sure it was your intended result, I’m for the old way.

  4. I agree with much of what you say. You are just speaking of the wrong party and the wrong culprits. Or maybe I should say both parties are guilty. Industry and big business have their finger in the pie also. As for free debate, I am all for it if you are not using outright lies to do it. Have you actually read the writings from the founders of this country. Even then there was two ways of thought and they found a way to make it work. Too bad we cannot do the same now. We all have rights and we all count.

  5. Ray Siebert says:

    Well said.

    It’s time the extremists on both ends of the spectrum were relegated to the status their actual low numbers dictate.

    The fixes are all doable. No primaries. No gerrymandering. Term limits. A UK style election process — i.e., no more than 90 days of campaigning and all elections publicly financed. Identical ballot requirements for all office seekers.

    More complicated, because of constitutional considerations would be elimination of the Electoral College. But that’s both doable and common sense.

    Lastly, end all dark money. Not just for campaigns, but also all K Street lobbying. (That requires legislation that conforms to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.)

    The Republic has been threatened twice by monied interests. We survived the Civil War, but we may not survive this insidious disintegration into a kleptocratic oligarchy. We in the vast center need to rise up and act — fast.

    Ray Siebert

    • sheila says:

      Ray Siebert, you are spot on in your comments. But we’ll need the next Congress to implement legislative changes at a national level – and the way things are looking, it isn’t going to happen by November of this year– Entrenched politicians (at least on the Republican side) will never sign off formally on their own destruction to benefit the country.

  6. Paula Pierce says:

    I mostly agree but take exception to your reference that Democrats
    Want to defund the police. I don’t know who started that lie but the
    Proof the Democrats support
    The police is in the amount of money that has been provided by President Biden for police departments and training. I also want to add that when the Supreme Court allowed citizens United corporations and billionaires began funding whichever candidate would pass their specific agenda

    • Reply to Paula Pierce:
      Actually, I wrote that “the far left” (not the Democrats) call for defunding the police. Most democrats do not call for defunding the police. Nor are all Republicans allied with the MAGA crowd.

      • Susan Hull says:

        I just wrote an op-ed piece for my small-town rural weekly newspaper describing the ways that the extremes of both parties leave those of us in the center homeless – and suggest a first step for voters to become Independent so they can broaden their ability to influence elections.

  7. Peggy says:

    Wow, the breadth of your knowledge and your communication skills are amazing. Your essay is spot on. I would love to see this column in the WSJ or NYT. Thank you.

  8. sheila says:

    I have to admit that I raise my hand for Schumer every time over Mitch McConnell. That said, I agree that we are being pulled from the center and that it is tragic that the extremes have hijacked the banner of each philosophy such that the center has been almost completely buried. I think the idea of a third party is encouraging – but I agree that 3rd parties in our country have failed miserably. I’m not sure how your suggestion of alternative candidate tickets would differ in impact from a 3rd party candidate. I don’t know the answer to the dilemma – but it might become more clear if a really viable candidate were to emerge who could win on a Constitutional Democracy platform without losing his/her soul or playing to the extremes.

    At the end of the day, I agree with Paula Pierce — I think if Citizens United were repealed, we might see a different landscape for our political battles. Citizens United was among the worst decisions ever made by the Supreme Court in my lifetime. It changed political life as we know it in this country.

    • Gary L Borger says:

      I was shocked when the Supreme Court issued its Citzens United ruling and foresaw its impact. That was the day the Court decided that corporations and dark money have the right to select our leaders and run our country.

  9. Margie says:

    One of your best! The situation is impossible and you have made that extraordinarily clear. Voters must attempt to jump out of Party voting and find a way to see the middle

  10. Stuart Goldfine says:

    Today, neither major party can be believed or trusted by the average voter. Just after Trump was elected, the Democratic agenda for 4 years was to impeach Trump. Now after two such failures, the current witch-hunt is to either indict or impeach Trump again. None of this will help the Democrats in November nor will this heal our nation.

    Real issues today are high gasoline prices, inflation, shortage of goods, open border with Mexico, China, Ukraine, and high crime rate in major cities. Democrats refuse to deal with any of these problems and the party that promises (not necessarily deliver) will win.

    It is sad that so few Americans vote. Are they simply apathetic, not trusting of either party, or do they trust Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any other stupid platforms? Young people believe in their I-phones, not TV or newspaper news.

    Instead of Black History Month or some other idiotic holidays, we should have Election Day as a holiday and then the voters have no excuses. If they do not vote, penalize that person with an increase of their personal taxes (unless their excuse is valid), make them attend a class of American history or civics before voting again, or some type of penalty. We should strive for a 75% voting record in America.

  11. Rick Gordon says:

    Thank you for this essay. I believe that it may well represent the majority of our citizens. It will be interesting to see how or if the ‘Forward’ party gains any traction. Given the options (2016 and 2020) I have voted 3rd party – but such a minority that it did not/could not impact the 2 national parties. I see many groups writing about centrist (nolabels, braverangels, newcenter, commonsenseamerican, thecentersquare) desires to make real national progress. Perhaps they can coalesce into something representing the majority.

  12. LWY says:

    One of the reasons why so many people don’t vote, is because they feel their vote does not count. If you live in LA, NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. do you think your vote other than for a Democrat would make a difference? Likewise if you live in the Deep South, do think our vote other than for a Republican would make a difference?

    In addition, the Democrats this year are reinforcing your message. They are spending millions of dollars trying to vote for far right Republicans so they can run against weak Republican candidates. Is this how the system is supposed to work?

  13. Ben Rinkey says:

    Hal, This May the best of your terrific articles. I love your historical perspectives. We need to somehow drive informed voters. I have low expectations, but we need to keep trying.

  14. An excellant analysis of what happens when voter apathy combined with a failure of el-hi schools to teach the importance of the primary vote.

  15. Rosemarie Buntrock says:

    Good job. A real bi-patrician essay that approaches all the issues that drag us deeper into an America that wasn’t the reason why our Grandparents left their country to work on railroads, then denounced their governments to come to a free country.

  16. Raymond James Thibault says:

    Today I believe we desperately need a third party. I served int the Army from 1972 thru 1994. This is no longer the America I served to protect. It’s a shame. Restore True History to schools and wake people up. Socialism and Communism are dictatorships.

  17. Jerry Kaufman says:

    Not a word about us Libertarians, who are what the Republican Party used to be on fiscal issues and what the Democratic Party used to be on social issues. Neither of these parties can be relied on to protect its former platform. Yet, although a great number of people agree with the Libertarian principles, they do not consider themselves Libertarian. We don’t “desperately need a third party,” we have one. Still, those in power do their best to keep this third party off the ballot.

  18. Mark Smith says:

    For as long as I can remember (I’m 70), primary voters have been more ideologically driven than general election voters, and primary elections have drawn far fewer voters than general elections. To single out the 2016 GOP presidential primary that resulted in Trump’s nomination implies it is an outlier. But that’s not true.

    In 2008, McCain received 9.9 million votes, 4.9% of the total US electorate. In 2012, Romney received 10 million votes, 5% of the US electorate. In 2016, Trump received 14 million votes, 6.6% of the US electorate. In 2020, Trump (running essentially unopposed for reelection) won 18 million votes, 8.4% of the US electorate. By comparison, Obama won just 6.1 million primary votes on his way to reelection. So it’s not one party or the other – it’s both. (I’m using total registered voters as the national electorate, not eligible voters. Roughly 80% of eligible voters are registered.)

    Anyone concerned about the health of US democracy should realize that third parties face roadblocks to ballot access and debate participation that render them irrelevant. The major parties will continue to hamper the participation of third parties simply because they can do it, and it’s in their interest to do so. To focus on so-called “violations” of or “restrictions” on voting rights (voter ID requirements, limitations on mail-in ballots, etc.) misses the bigger picture of actual repression of third parties by the Democratic and Republican organizations at both the federal and state levels.

    But the biggest hurdle to any kind of third party breakthrough is a structural one that has been in place for the entire history of the US, and that is single-member legislative districts. If there’s only one winner and no “prize” for coming in second, then there’s no viability for a third choice based on the “wasted vote” fallacy.

    This is something that could be fixed at the state level, but don’t hold your breath. For example, instead of electing one representative per legislative district (at any level – local, state or congressional), make the districts twice as large and elect two representatives per district, or three times as large and elect three representatives per district, etc., up to simply electing the total number of representatives in an at-large election with no legislative district boundaries. Each voter would have as many votes as there are legislative seats up for election, and could cast them in any combination. A third party suddenly becomes competitive in this scenario, where its supporters could “block vote” for the third party candidates. To the objection that representatives should reflect their constituency, I would counter with the question, “Do they now?” And today’s communications and media tools remove geographic considerations that may have made this idea impractical in earlier times.

    You say, “Well, that still doesn’t fix the problem of third-party irrelevance in presidential elections.” And, at the moment, you’re right. But as soon as third parties start achieving electoral success, form legislative caucuses. get bills passed (or form coalitions to secure passage of legislation), and – importantly – remove the restrictions that currently limit the participation and effectiveness of third-party presidential candidates, voters may take more seriously those parties’ presidential candidates.

  19. Renee J Mayer says:

    Please send this to the major papers. It is truly one of your best.!

  20. Carroll Asseo says:

    If the Democrats were far-left they would have nominated Bernie Sanders instead of Joe Biden. He’s fairly center on most issues. The Republicans went as far right as you can go with Trump and his MAGA followers.

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