The 2022 midterms remind us: The two-party system is doomed to fail.
With only a couple of exceptions, every national election this century has ended in a kind of frustrating stalemate between our two major political parties. Even when one party ends up with the White House and both houses of Congress, legislative rules like the filibuster, as well as the prospect that the other party will win control in just two years, cripple policymaking and quickly send us back into the Permanent Campaign.
Almost everyone is frustrated and angry because they want one party to finally achieve a decisive win and pull the country out of a polarization vortex, but it never happens. It didn’t happen again this week: In the midterm elections, Democrats lost where they almost always lose (Florida, Ohio, Texas), Republicans lost where they almost always lose (California, Illinois, New England) and results were agonizingly close where they are almost always close (Georgia, Wisconsin). There were very few upsets, sparse surprises and little incentive for either party to do better at appealing to voters.
Almost everyone is frustrated because they want one party to finally achieve a decisive win and pull the country out of a polarization vortex — but it never happens.
One conclusion is that our two-party political system does not work. This is, I know, the thesis of a thousand op-ed columns proposing centrist, elitist third parties (usually “conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues,” the least popular combination in the United States) and countless polls that merely confirm overall discontent with our political system. But it is an inescapable truth.
Complain about the two-party system and you will prompt eye rolls by lots of different people. Some have a self-interest in promoting one or both major parties (consulting contracts, fundraising firms, etc.), and others are aggressive “realists” who always say that change is impossible (and maybe they don’t want to be associated with the naïveté of Andrew Yang or of the Third Way movement).
There is also nostalgia for the recent period in which our two-party system seemed to work: roughly from the Great Depression until the end of the 20th century, when both U.S. parties shared broad goals (anti-communism, economic growth, even environmental protection) and when multiparty democracies elsewhere, like Italy, seemed dangerously unstable.
But a two-party system must always steer between two rocks that could rip through its hull.
One danger is that the two parties become too ideologically similar, leaving voters with no real choice at each election. Someone is always making this complaint, whether it is George Wallace in the 1960s saying there isn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between the Democrats and Republicans (both wanted to expand the powers of the federal government) or Ralph Nader in 2000 complaining that neither party would take on corporate interests. But there were clear differences between the two parties in the second half of the 20th century, with the Democrats consistently arguing for more government services and the Republicans consistently preferring lower taxes, and voters could try to calibrate public policy by moving between the two.
A two-party system must always steer between two rocks that could rip through its hull.
By contrast, differences between the two parties were harder to discern in the late 19th century, at least after the Republicans abandoned any aggressive push for civil rights (tariffs and the gold standard became big campaign issues instead). When both parties in a two-party system fail to respond to popular demands for change, politics can seem like a mere battle for patronage jobs and voters can lose interest in elections.
This is obviously not what is happening in the United States now. Instead, we are scraping the opposite rock, with two parties that are so polarized and antagonistic that many voters feel that neither one can represent their views. In a perfect political world, both the Democratic and Republican parties would be trying to expand their bases, but instead they are locked in a battle between two halves of the country, with elections decided by fear of the other rather than by debate and rational argument. The closeness of this battle means that control of the White House and Congress frequently goes back and forth between parties with radically different policies and priorities, making it impossible for the nation to enact long-term plans to address climate change, immigration, health care, economic development and other challenges.
As Annie Lowery wrote in the Atlantic on Election Day, “Our coin-toss elections are not the result of having two parties competing for an engaged and persuadable electorate. They are at least in part a product of our political stasis and extreme polarization. They mean that when either party wins, it does so without much of a mandate. They also mean that neither party is ever forced to regroup and reform after a humiliating defeat.”
For the past few years, the Democrats have been vainly hoping to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Trump-led Republican Party, accurately pointing out that Mr. Trump has shattered small-d democratic norms, has encouraged cruelty and mendacity in political discourse, and has threatened our system of government by telling his supporters not to accept valid election results. But “you have no choice but to vote for us in order to save your right to vote for whoever you want” is too contradictory a message to really work. (Andrew Sullivan recently called it “electoral blackmail” by a party that has “made heroic efforts to affront and insult working-class voters.”)
In a multiparty system, an alliance of parties across the ideological spectrum might be able to win a resounding majority against one party that threatens democratic norms or advocates authoritarianism. But in the United States, there is no way to oppose one party without lending support to the candidates and policies of the only other party. A broader and more ideologically diverse Democratic Party could theoretically do this, but right now too many Democrats would prefer a narrow win driven by its left wing—even if such a narrow win would also keep Trumpism alive.
There is no quick or easy way to fix our two-party system, but until we do, we may face more stalemate elections for years, or decades, to come.