The Journey of 1000 Miles and the Single Step

Reflecting on George Washington's Farewell Address, and his warning against the spirit of faction, smijer of Tete-a-Tete-Tete argues that the two-party system lies at the root of a number of problems plaguing US politics:
1) The fact of the two party system. The economics of power prevent the entry of a third or fourth party until an existing party fails . . .

2) Unaccountability . . . The actual will of the people is – or should be – bigger than any two platforms can contain or express . . . The worst that can happen to a bad political party is that its equally bad mirror image will get a short turn in the driver’s seat. There is no risk of actually losing the stranglehold it has gained on power.

3) The polarization of agenda and obstruction . . . As often as “bipartisanship” and “compromise” and “gangs of ‘centrists’ ” are touted in the media, it is a rarity that there is any level of sophistication in terms of advancing the common interests of disparate groups in the process . . .

4) The Universal Echo Chamber . . . The ideal is a variety of interest groups, with a variety of concerns and a variety of well-informed opinions having a national conversation in an effort to enlighten everyone and reach an outcome of a rising tide that lifts all boats. Instead, there are precisely two national conversations, predictable in theme, engineered to appeal to the least common denominator and to encourage ignorance.
Smijer concludes that the appropriate course of action is thus to develop a "multiplicity of parties" to provide accountability in government, nuance in the national conversation, and to foster compromise and collaboration in the passage of legislation. However, he closes with the following line: "Doing that requires changing the electoral system. And that means changing 50 state constitutions and/or one federal one." This position is held by many independent and third party activists and it is certainly a worthy goal. Arguably, however, to set oneself such a monumental task is to put the cart before the horse. Yet the first step toward achieving it lies squarely within the realm of possibility: breaking open the two-party system – from town to town, district to district, and state to state.


Dale Sheldon said...

Most of it wouldn't require constitutional changes. Towns in Vermont and California have passed into law alternative voting systems (sadly they went with IRV, but it proves the principle) and even the federal law requiring representatives be from single-winner districts (which prevents proportional representation in the US house) can be changed with a "simple" change of law, no constitutional changes required.

Thomas Jefferson was a contemporary of the Marquis de Condorcet, so his ideas were certainly something Jefferson was aware of, and left the door open for.

smijer said...

Thanks for the link. I agree that the task as I put it is monumental, and perversely so, and I agree with the spirit of making the goals of first steps realistic. I'm not sure what it means to "break open" the two-party system from town to town, etc... If you mean putting people on city councils and working up to state legislatures, that's a worthy goal. But in my mind, the first step is getting people dissatisfied with the system as it stands, convincing them that there is a real alternative, and getting them to commit - to the point of "wasting votes" - to get reform it. I am leery of the notion of stacking local government until a third party advances to the national stage. It's great for individual third parties - the libertarians or greens would be well advised to take that approach. But, I would be afraid to invest too much in it knowing that one possible outcome is that it becomes a victim of its own success in terms of the two-party system. It doesn't matter if the two parties are federalists and republican-democrats or greens and libertarians. The advance of one "third party" cannot serve my purpose if it simply replaces one of the two dominant parties.

Dale - yes, IRV can be done on the local/state level without amending constitutions. Proportional representation, on the other hand, is going to require constitutional changes. I think there is a place for both approaches, but eventually - if PR isn't achieved, the goals I have in mind probably won't be achieved.

d.eris said...

One thing I was trying to get at is that there seems to be a kind of chicken/egg question here: what comes first, electing advocates of independent and third party issues, or, reforming the system to facilitate the election of such advocates? But really, these two goals are not mutually exclusive, are likely rather mutually reinforcing, and should be pursued simultaneously.

Dale, you make a good point, I would add only that efforts at voting system reform would be greatly helped along if there were elected officials who had a direct interest in their implementation, which is obviously not the case for Republicans and Democrats.

Smijer, you write: "the first step is getting people dissatisfied with the system as it stands, convincing them that there is a real alternative, and getting them to commit - to the point of "wasting votes" - to get reform it." I agree almost entirely, and would quibble only that people are already dissatisfied with the system as it stands! The work, imo, is making a case that there are real alternatives, as you put it, that are worth supporting.

This is a good discussion, thanks.