Continuing with my "Article Heritage" series begun last fall, installments of which appear every few months or so, I here present a second article from my early days as a writer. This one, originally written and published in 2007 and entitled "The Two-Party System: A Catastrophic Failure," became my most popular article published that year. It was accepted for publication on five different websites (some "conservative," some "liberal") and generated dozens of reader comments, most of which were positive, a few of which were negative. Furthermore, it was reprinted in its entirety without my permission on a website called "Nigeria Village Square" by a certain Dr. Gary K. Busch, who in addition inadvertently neglected to credit me as the author. When I contacted him to complain about this, he apologized for failing to properly credit me and put my name at the top of the webpage where he ran the article. He added that my article was well written and informative, and that he had re-published it to give it additional exposure. That mollified me somewhat, so I did not insist he remove it from the website. However, this experience did highlight my predicament as a starving writer (which I still am today), since I never received a penny for this article (ditto for most of my other articles).
This article expresses my honest opinions regarding the American two-party political system. In it, I contend that this system has inflicted and is continuing to inflict great harm on our nation by dividing the American people over fundamental moral issues on which our nation is built and on which we should be in agreement; by hampering clear and objective discourse on national issues through the excitement of emotional partisan fervor; and by corrupting politicians of both parties to support big business interests that have nothing to do with the common good of our nation. I point out that our nation's Founders objected with good reason to the establishment of a partisan political system, and argue that the two-party system must be abolished for the good of our country. Reading this article today, I find it still pertinent to our country's current situation, and even (if I may say so) a bit prophetic. Below is the article as originally written, albeit slightly revised to incorporate the emergence of the Tea Party and polished a bit to bring the style more in line with my current authorship standards. Your civil and constructive comments are most welcome.
The Two-Party System: A Catastrophic Failure
by Justin Soutar May 23, 2007
For a number of years now, respected pundits have lauded the American two-party political system as an excellent balance between the dictatorship of a one-party system and the instability of a multiparty system. Yet the two-party system has done and continues to do our country great harm. The Republican and Democratic parties have divided the American people over fundamental moral values; they have failed to rectify longstanding national problems; and their existence chiefly benefits special interest groups, politicians, and mega-corporate executives. Most unfortunately of all, however, the two-party setup does not represent the people of the United States.
Many people believe that political parties are essential in a democracy such as the United States. These individuals claim that since a democracy encourages dissent and disagreement, it is only natural that such differences of opinion will find expression in organized factions. But this strain of thought clashes with the judgment of our nation’s founders. In his Observations on History, Benjamin Franklin wrote that parties engender confusion. In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay warned against the evils to the general public that a “spirit of faction” would cause. And George Washington refused allegiance to any political party during his eight-year service as first president of the United States.
Despite this initial rejection of partisanship, opposing factions emerged at the end of the 1700s representing two different opinions about the role of the federal government. The emergence of these factions marked the beginning of a two-party system that would dominate American politics for the next two hundred-plus years. The Federalists urged a strong central administration that would dominate the states and ensure national unity, while the Republicans believed that the individual states should have more power than the central government. In fact, the form of government officially established by the Constitution was a federal republic, so these parties were emphasizing the importance of either national or state power. Alexander Hamilton became the leader of the Federalist camp, whereas Thomas Jefferson sided with the Republicans—although neither prominent national founder held the rigidly partisan or doctrinaire outlook typical of many American politicians today. Moreover, the chief disagreement of these early parties was over the distribution of power within the United States government. Members of both camps initially saw eye to eye on most moral, economic, social, and foreign policy matters such as slavery, domestic trade, traditional family values, and isolationism.
During the 1800s, the parties evolved and grew further apart, especially over the issue of slavery. Federalists changed their name to Republicans and opposed slavery and the secession of the South, while the heretofore Republicans became Democratic-Republicans and declared support for both slavery and secession. At this stage, one party was championing a grave injustice which most Americans instinctively understood was evil. The Democratic-Republicans received backing primarily from wealthy Southern landowners, who insisted on keeping Negro slaves for cheap labor. After Republican president Abraham Lincoln waged the Civil War, declared emancipation, and brought the South back into the Union, the Democratic Party remained the faction of Southern landlords’ continued rebellion against the North and repression of Black political rights. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Democrats also gained membership from blue-collar workers in Northern cities as the Industrial Revolution created a new underclass. Meanwhile, Republicans attracted backing from the new class of wealthy Northern capitalists and from supporters of African-American civil rights nationwide.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the importance of economic and foreign policy issues increased. The Republican Party came to stand for Northern farmers, retention of the gold standard, fiscally disciplined government, and isolationism, while the Democratic Party represented Southern landowners and Northern industrial laborers, a flexible money supply, growth of the federal government, and foreign engagement. During the Cold War, the two parties achieved a significant level of bipartisanship, agreeing on the necessity of confronting Communism and promoting freedom abroad. Another major change occurred in the 1960s, when Democratic president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. From then onward the Democratic Party took up the “liberal” causes of civil rights and urban workers, leading the “conservative” faction of farmers, limited government and big business—the Republican Party—to dominate the South.
Another element was added to the American political landscape with the social upheavals of the 1960s and the Supreme Court’s decision of Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion in 1973. When a number of Democrats who had favored the abandonment of traditional social and moral values came to realize the bitter failure of those upheavals, they converted into social “conservatives” and found a new home in the Republican Party. President Ronald Reagan emerged as the standard-bearer of these new Republicans, who established their party on the firm foundation of God’s Law and strove to restore our nation’s identity as a Christian country.
The end of the Cold War signaled the arrival of two more simultaneous factional changes. One was President Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats”, who championed unrestricted globalization and free market economics alongside social spending. The other change had been planted during the Reagan administration, hibernated under the Clinton administration, and blossomed fully after the events of September 11, 2001: the ascendancy of neoconservatives within the Republican Party. Led by President Bush, these individuals likewise championed unrestricted globalization and free market economics, but they also demanded an aggressive military response to “Islamic” terrorism with vast increases in military spending and in the size of the federal government, as well as cuts in social spending and foreign economic aid.
Towards the end of the Bush administration, public disapproval of neoconservative excesses and corruption fueled the rise of the Tea Party movement within Republican ranks. This no-holds-barred populist movement, led by Ron Paul and Sarah Palin, earnestly strove to return America to the Judeo-Christian religious and moral principles that made her great. Its platform, solidly grounded in those principles, included strict Constitutional government in line with the intent of the Framers; reversal of Roe v. Wade; drastic reduction in federal government size and spending; elimination of federal budget deficits and reduction of the overall national debt; abolition of the Federal Reserve and income taxes; and opposition to costly foreign wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. With its staunch Christian, pro-life and family values combined with an ethos of limited government, low taxes, fiscal responsibility, and a balanced budget, the Tea Party movement was essentially a reincarnation of the Reagan Republican Party of the 1980s, albeit adapted to the particular challenges facing a new generation of Americans. Tea Party Republicanism gained widespread support and respect from Republican and Democratic Americans alike due to the consistency of its political philosophy, the soundness of its clearly articulated positions, and above all the character and integrity of its leaders. In 2010, a growing wave of public discontent and anger with the recently elected Obama administration and corrupt Washington politicians in both parties swept more than a hundred Tea Party candidates to power in state governorships as well as in the U.S. House and Senate. However, despite strong public support, the Tea Party movement lost its bids for the presidency in both 2008 and 2012 because it allowed the corrupt Republican establishment to dictate the choice of its presidential nominee.
We can learn some important lessons from this condensed review of American partisan history. One reason for the pendulum dynamic of swinging back and forth between the parties is that the country has different needs at different times. After Democratic-Republican President James Buchanan (1857-1861), the American people swung to Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860 because of his firm stand against slavery and his leadership abilities during a critical time in the nation’s history. In 1932, after four years of Republican President Herbert Hoover, American voters swung to Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, opting for increased government spending and control of the economy to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. In 1980, the voters swung from Democratic President Jimmy Carter to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in reaction to economic stagnation and other domestic and foreign problems. In 1992, following twelve years of Republican presidential rule, economic recession influenced voters to swing to Democratic contender Bill Clinton. And in 2008, after eight years of Republican President George W. Bush, American voters swung to Democratic President Barack Obama to address the financial crisis as well as health care and immigration reform issues that the Bush administration had not adequately dealt with.
But though our country has different needs at different times, the two major political parties are not the proper instruments to satisfy these needs. According to George Washington, the constant alternation of two parties in the federal government would be a “frightful despotism.” The main reason for this pendulum dynamic, especially in the past few decades, is that neither party is adequately solving the key problems America faces.
Two factors explain this failure. First, each party stands for some of the values and policies America needs. For example, the Republican Party traditionally stands for the right to life of each human person from conception to natural death; a free market economy; limited government; low taxes; a balanced budget; a strong national defense; secure borders; and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The Democratic Party traditionally stands for the rights of the poor, disabled, and elderly to health care and financial assistance; the rights of ethnic and religious minorities to an equal place in our society; abolition of the death penalty and reform of our prison system; fair wages and decent working conditions for employees; common-sense regulation of the economy for the sake of the common good; protection of the environment; the development of clean renewable energy resources; increased economic aid to impoverished countries; and multilateral nuclear disarmament. However, the U.S. really needs both sets of values and policies. We need pro-life laws and prison reform, lower taxes and renewable energy, a free market economy with common-sense regulations—not one or the other.
The second factor explaining the failure of the two-party system is corruption. When a new president is elected, people anticipate that he will get things done. When he fails to meet even reasonable expectations and his administration becomes plagued by scandal (as has happened all too often in recent decades), people turn with hope to the other party, which generally does not improve matters much. This is because most members of both parties have been corrupted by special interests. Our last three presidents have been mega-corporate moguls whose ownership of major industries presented flagrant conflicts of interest. In addition, wealthy and vocal lobby groups have bullied our senators, representatives and president into enacting policies that benefit a few large companies at the expense of the average American citizen.
For example, President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 on a platform that featured tax cuts, economic growth for everyone, and an ambitious social welfare program. Although the economy did grow, Clinton broke other promises by instituting the largest tax raise in American history, keeping social spending to a minimum, and permitting corporations such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and McDonalds to reap the lion’s share of gains. Then in 2000 President George W. Bush was elected on a platform that featured the right to life, tax cuts, free-market economics, secure borders, and fiscal discipline. Although Bush has generally held to his pro-life pledge and did sign into law some token tax cuts, in September of 2006 he declared support for the Plan B contraceptive pills for minors. Furthermore, President Bush has allowed big businesses such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, McDonalds, Halliburton, Boeing, Verizon Wireless, and News Corporation to choke the “free” market; has pandered to illegal aliens; and ran up the largest federal budget deficits and national debt in American history. Both presidents ended up serving the interests of mega-corporations first and foremost.
The two-party political system does not accurately represent opposing viewpoints of the role of the federal government as it did in the young United States. Though it was a bad idea to begin with, since the latter part of the last century the system has become decrepit with corruption and has fallen sadly out of touch with the average American. Most of the Republican and Democratic candidates allege certain principles and make attractive promises during their campaigns, but upon entering office compromise overtakes principle like a weed and promises are thrown to the wind. Unfortunately, the current corrupt political climate is hostile to honest, traditionally-minded candidates with unwavering principles from Middle America such as Rand Paul, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. In general, only those individuals who habitually cater to—or are susceptible to manipulation by—hawkish pressure groups have a chance at federal public office.
Despite the manifest failure of the modern Republican and Democratic parties to deliver, however, most American voters across the map of the United States continue to choose congressional and presidential candidates along major party lines because no viable alternatives are in sight. They feel it is useless to vote for a third party or independent candidate because such a candidate has no real chance of making it into office. These dedicated factional adherents are stuck in the rut of the two-party system. Economics has long vied with fundamental moral convictions as a major factor determining political affiliation. In the US today, richer individuals (who generally dominate rural areas) tend to vote Republican, while poorer individuals (who generally dominate cities) tend to vote Democratic. These choices are based largely on the economic policies and moral positions that the parties stand for and on the hope that new candidates will do a better job than their predecessors. Some Republican and Democratic senators and representatives actually keep their campaign promises and work hard to protect innocent unborn children or help financially struggling Americans, or both, and it is those few exceptions that keep alive what little hope is left in the reigning system.
On the other hand, contented middle-class individuals (who generally dominate suburbs and small towns and comprise a significant minority of the American people) tend to hold a more independent, traditionally-minded outlook and are more likely to spread their votes around based on fundamental moral convictions as well as their common-sense perception of local and national needs. These are the “swing voters” to which enterprising candidates of both parties direct so much of their campaigning energy.
The degree of distinction between the two parties is a matter of controversy. To figure this out, it is helpful to distinguish between theory and practice. In theory, the Republican and Democratic factions are ideological opposites, with Republicans focusing on traditional values and responsibility while Democrats are grounded in progressive values and opportunity. But in practice, thanks to the endemic corruption of the system, there is little difference between parties. Republicans turn out to be not really Republican, and Democrats turn out to be not really Democrats: both sets of politicians operate together in a hazy and confused middle ground defined by special interest groups. This has been clearly demonstrated on a number of occasions, such as the overwhelming Congressional approval for war in Iraq in 2002, the Republicans’ passage of a bill that would have provided federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research involving abortions in 2006, and the refusal of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consider impeaching President Bush. All of these decisions were driven by mega-corporations, which stood to profit immensely from them. Even though President Bush vetoed the embryonic stem-cell act, soon afterward he accepted limited access to contraceptive pills for minors in order to mollify the big business executives.
Some might point to these occasions of crossing party lines as examples of bipartisanship. However, selling one’s fundamental principles to money-hungry American firms does not make for true bipartisanship. Real bipartisanship involves consistent agreement on fundamental, non-negotiable moral values such as the right to life and frequent compromise on the wide range of negotiable issues such as national security, economic policy, environmental protection, domestic poverty relief, and foreign aid. But instead of the way things should be, the pressure of the unrestricted free-market ideology has inverted values. Republicans and Democrats treat the negotiable issues as the most crucial of all and generally are absolutely unbending on them, whereas the fundamental moral values elicit disgraceful compromises and persistent disagreement. After all, big business tycoons do not like to have their enormous profits curtailed by the Ten Commandments, and they demand a totally unregulated market in order to reap those profits.
The two-party setup in the United States has severely divided our nation. Having names and labels for different political persuasions can be helpful, but they have too often led to pigeonholing and name-calling which hampers a free exchange of ideas. “Republican” and “Democrat”, “conservative” and “liberal”, “right” and “left” have degenerated into terms used to ostracize and vilify the opposition and to stifle discussion of topics deemed politically incorrect. A private citizen or political candidate who opposes US involvement in foreign wars should not be dubbed a “radical leftist” any more than a private citizen or political candidate who advocates illegalizing abortion should be denounced as a “right-winger”.
Moreover, the true meanings of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have been obscured. In modern parlance, a “conservative” is someone who defends fundamental moral values and wishes to preserve traditional national ideals, and a “liberal” is someone who disputes fundamental moral values and wishes to radically change our country around. But these meanings are inadequate. The words originally referred to political approaches, not to a person’s moral values or lack thereof. “Conservative” basically means someone who applauds the status quo, while “liberal” means someone who wishes to effect change. Neither conservatism not liberalism is good or evil per se; it depends on what specific policy you wish to maintain or to alter. Continuing a bad policy such as torture of terrorist suspects is just as detrimental to our national well-being as changing a good policy such as the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research involving abortion would be. Beneficial policies need to be maintained and harmful policies need to be changed. Thus in the original sense of the words, few if any human beings could be described as completely conservative or completely liberal.
Political factions tend to be driven by ideologies that, in their members’ pursuit of particular goals, obscure rather than clarify the truth. Indeed, truth itself has been politicized. Inconvenient truths (such as the inability of embryonic stem-cells to cure diseases) are derided as falsehood, while falsehoods that make a few people rich (such as the impossibility of conducting a dialogue with terrorists) are glorified as absolute truth. Nowhere are these destructive elements of partisan politics more evident than in the meteoric rise of the neoconservative ideology following the terrorist attacks of September 11. This intolerant, extremist, and totalitarian belief system seems to have become a religion for many people, yet it is a deception that worships the false gods of national security and an unfettered free market. It was cunningly crafted by a handful of rich American tycoons to justify an aggressive foreign policy that enables them to engage in the age-old practice of war profiteering, to expand their globalized business operations across the world, and to exploit more and more human beings without hindrance. In contravention of history, it insists that terrorism is an act of war rather than a criminal tactic employed to draw a government’s attention to real grievances, and that only all-out armed force can “defeat” terrorism. Its view of the terrorist threat is based on mistaken assumptions, numerous fallacies, and blanket denials of many important facts that contradict their view.
Although it masquerades as patriotic, the neoconservative ideology and its loyal adherents have done tremendous harm to the American political landscape. Neoconservatives have viciously attacked their opponents, twisted moral values, and used false guilt to silence opposition. They are utilizing the ancient strategy of divide and conquer to destroy American public debate and ultimately to dominate the world. Their ability to find common ground with Americans of other opinions on negotiable issues is nil. In the pursuit of greed and power, they are willing to exacerbate partisan divisions among the American people and make them forget their nonpartisan heritage.
According to our nation’s founders, it would be better to have no political parties at all. Individuals should form their opinion on each individual negotiable matter through a careful review of all the relevant facts and without pressure from a corporate-controlled media, comfortable politicians, wealthy pundits, celebrities, or mega-corporate leaders. If that were to happen, if Americans were to discard ideologies and agree on the fundamental moral values, they would find much common ground on the negotiable issues. Instead of constant bickering and division, we would begin to experience true reconciliation and unity.
With each Congressional partisan victory and each new presidential administration, the newly elected have vowed to make a fresh start precisely because the previous faction led America to a dead end. The Democratic Party is now taking advantage of the myriad failures of the Bush administration and of Congressional Republicans to shore up their image as the faction that America desperately needs, the party that will rescue Americans from the clutches of right-wing insanity and deliver than a brighter future in 2009. For Americans weary of Republican mistakes and desirous of substantial changes in many political areas, the carrot held out by Democratic candidates looks tempting. It would be easy to accept this carrot and elect Democrats to Congress and the presidency alike. But if Americans choose this easy route next year, they will find that it leads to a dead end. A Democratic triumph next year will simply turn out to be a repetition of recent political history. How long will Americans dance to the tune of this dishonest and corrupt two-party scheme? Choosing the easy route will not get us anywhere. Instead, we should make known loudly and clearly our intense desire for candidates whose integrity is unsullied by a web of political connections and whose records are unsullied by corruption (such as “Average Joe” Schriner, Mick Huckabee or Sam Brownback for president), and then write the name of one of those candidates on the ballot in state primary elections and again in the November 2008 election. Otherwise, Americans eight years from now will again be whining about the dishonesty, corruption and ineffectiveness of Washington, D.C.
The “frightful dictatorship” and corrupt farce that is our two-party system should be dismantled. Parties give us temptations to attack opponents, become demagogues, and garner followers, distracting us from seeking the true good of the country. If we nevertheless wish to belong to a particular group of Americans with a clear identity, let us unite with all Americans of good will. Instead of saying, “I am a Republican” or “I am a Democrat”, let us rediscover the heritage bequeathed to us by our wise and farsighted national founders and try to grasp what it really means to say, “I am an American.” The United States was established by our founders as a nation that is too great to be defined by just two colors. Interestingly, the American flag contains some red and some blue, but the color most evenly spread throughout the flag is white. White can be thought of as a mixture of all political shades, and thus as a symbol of unity. Unity on the basis of the fundamental, universal moral truths enshrined in the hearts of all Americans and willingness to compromise on negotiable issues is what America needs now more than ever.
Copyright © 2007 by Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.