Our nation has become politically polarized. Despite President Biden’s promise to unify the country, millions of voters in the middle of the political spectrum are watching in dismay as extreme elements of both major parties battle it out for control of our government.
Recently there has been talk of forming a third party by people who are displeased with both the Republican and the Democrat parties.
While we are often described as a two-party system, that is not quite accurate. We have many small political parties, but they are largely irrelevant and serve mainly as a proxy for “I did my civic duty and voted, but not for either of the two major party candidates.”
The reason our political process is dominated by two major parties is that our Founding Fathers did not want to establish a parliamentary form of government such as the one that exists in Europe, where the head of state — the prime minister — is appointed by the general assembly (equivalent to our Congress). The Founding Fathers feared it would be too easy for one person to consolidate power. So they set up a presidential system in which the president is elected, not appointed by the Legislature.
But they did not want the president to be directly elected by the people, because they feared it would give the president a mandate superior to that of Congress. So they created the Electoral College, which few Americans understand or are even aware of.
One major difference between our system and parliamentary systems is that nearly all parliamentary systems use some form of proportional representation. This means seats in the parliament are distributed to the political parties based on the percentage of the vote they received in the general election. For example, if a political party received 5 percent of the vote in the general election, it would get 5 percent of the seats in the legislature — that would be about 22 seats in our Congress — and a political party that received 20 percent of the vote would get 20 percent of the seats (about 87 votes in our Congress). After the general election, the prime minister is chosen by a majority vote in the parliament, which generally requires a coalition of parties to get to 51 percent. It is in these coalitions that the minor parties can get the power and influence to push their agendas.
But in the United States there is no provision for proportional representation. We have a winner-take-all system, and there is no value in getting 5 or 10 percent of the vote. There is no prize for second place. Thus, groups with an intensive special interest must align themselves with one of the two major parties and hope to get a plank in their platform at the party’s national convention when the party selects the issues on which their candidates will run.
The only time in our history when a new party successfully challenged and replaced a major party was in 1852, when the Republican party was founded and put together a coalition of interest groups that won the presidential election in 1860. At that time, the major Whig party fell apart.
Since the Civil War, we have seen many third parties emerge, generally centered on one or two big issues. But they have all faded away as their key issues were co-opted by one of the two major parties.
The Populist Party was formed in 1891 to advocate for a silver-backed currency; it carried five western states with 22 electoral votes in the 1892 election, but disappeared after William Jennings Bryant delivered his famous “Cross-of-Gold” speech at the Democrats’ convention in 1896 and silver-back currency became a key plank in that party’s platform.
Teddy Roosevelt formed the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party that carried six states with 88 electoral votes in the 1912 election. But it disappeared as many of its issues were adopted by the major parties.
In 1948, Strom Thurmond carried four states with 39 electoral votes on a segregationist platform under the banner of the State’s Rights Party. But he returned to the Democrat party in 1952.
In 1968, George Wallace carried five states with 45 electoral votes as a member of the American Independent Party. And in the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot ran a strong race as an independent on the issue of growing federal debt. But when he then formed the Reform Party and ran on an anti-NAFTA platform in 1996, his candidacy was a flop and quickly faded away.
The lesson from all this is that minor parties can be an effective means of forcing a major party to champion a specific issue. But unless they can put together a broad coalition of interest groups, as the Republicans did in 1852, they are not likely to endure.
The biggest problem dividing the United States right now is not a specific issue, but geographic representation. Donald Trump’s base tends to live in rural areas, while traditional Republicans generally live in the suburbs. The Democrats’ base tends to live in the larger urban areas populated with ethnic minorities plagued by pollution, unemployment, low income, crime and drugs, and in industrial areas like the rust belt that have seen many high-paying union jobs lost to technology, automation and imports delivered by global supply chains.
With just two major parties, half the country fears it will be locked out of government and at the mercy of the other half, which has vastly different problems and priorities. Forming new political parties is not likely to solve this situation, because the changes will just evolve back to two dominant parties.
Perhaps it is time for the United States to consider breaking up the duopolistic two-party system that many voters consider corrupt and unresponsive to their needs and replace it with proportional representation. Congress rarely receives more than a 20 per approval rating in polls on Real Clear Politics. Proportional representation would foster competition among numerous smaller parties, reduce the influence of powerful special interests and reduce geographic disparities in which one political party can totally dominate the other.
Such a change would require a constitutional amendment ratified by three fourths (38) of the states, which is very difficult. But our current two-party system is failing us.