On the Naturalization of the Two-Party State

In response to calls for third party and independent political activism, apologists of the two-party state and duopoly system of government will often seek to naturalize the system they support to inoculate it against criticism and critique.  On this view, the Democrat-Republican two-party state is not seen as a contingent historical-political formation, but rather the "natural" and necessary result of a metaphysical dyad inherent to American political philosophy, or an "organic" development from the structure of the political system itself, and so on.  What is lacking in such accounts is any mention of the agency of the interested parties themselves, as if the reigning two-party state were somehow born whole from the head of Zeus.  In this way, the monopolization and consolidation of all political power in the hands of two narrow, top-down, factionalist groups is made to appear self-evident, immutable, unquestionable.  We can see something similar at work in a post at Crank Crank Revolution, articulated from a position that is not unsympathetic to third party activism.  It begins:
Much has always been made about the "broken" two-party system in this nation. The arguments tend to fall into two alternating categories of "I'm sick of all the polarizing partisanship" and "There's not a dime's worth of difference between them," both of which represent completely different sentiments and occur at reasonably equal regularity depending on one's preconceived ideology and the current state of the parties in question.

The solution is--always--some sort of mystical messianic third party. I'm not against third parties in general--like I mentioned yesterday, they bring fresh, innovative ideas to the political marketplace--but they rarely, if ever, have a genuine chance at gaining power. And, despite what most people believe, this isn't because the Republicans and Democrats have constructed a biased system that inherently perpetuates the current party system.
It is indeed true that the election of third party and independent candidates will not result in the magical solution of myriad political problems.  But, today, the election of Republicans and Democrats only serves to ensure that those problems will simply be reproduced and exacerbated.  The funny thing on this score is that it is Democrats and Republicans who fall prey, time and again, to the messianic political impulse, in which the Republican savior will deliver us from the Democratic demon or the Democratic messiah will deliver us from the Republican rogue.  (For more on this, see the "messianism" category here at Poli-Tea.) 

The post at CCR goes on to argue that the two-party state has naturally resulted from the structure of the American political system, beginning from the assumption that Republicans and Democrats have not consciously constructed a biased system that perpetuates the two-party state and duopoly system of government, and hence their strangle-hold on political power and representation.  The latter is, of course, demonstrably false.  Republicans and Democrats have in fact constructed an elaborate and highly discriminatory system aimed precisely at perpetuating the two-party state and duopoly system of government.   One might point to any number of this system's multifarious aspects:  district rigging and gerrymandering to benefit Democratic and Republican incumbents, a highly restrictive ballot access regime which puts onerous burdens on third party and independent candidates while lowering the bar for Republican and Democratic candidates, the public subsidization of the primary elections for Republican and Democratic candidates, the refusal to include third party and independent candidates in public forums and debates, and so on. 

Supporters of the two-party state often argue that the US two-party system results from the fact that coalition building happens before elections take place in the US, whereas in multi-party parliamentary systems coalition building happens after the fact.  The CCR post continues:

Unlike most other democracies, the United States isn't run as a parliament. In, say, a European system, there are usually four or five parties, all across the political spectrum. After an election, various parties will form coalitions and govern. In the United States, we've simply skipped that coalition-forming step.

Pretty much throughout the history of our nation, we've always had multiple parties. They just aren't organized as separate entities . . . Republicans generally represent a coalition of religious evangelicals, suburbanites, businessmen, and the military, while the Democrats have a coalition of laborers, progressives, cities, Catholics, and environmentalists.
The pre-election coalition-building argument is not especially convincing as an account of the genesis of the two-party state, at the very least because coalitions are sometimes formed almost on a vote-by-vote basis in the US House and Senate.  It is true though that "we've always had multiple parties."  There is a long history of third party and independent political activism in the United States.  The argument here, however, is that the two-party state effectively amounts to a multi-party system because there are discrete factions within the Republican and Democratic parties:

What might be a Green Party in, say, France, or Germany--which also generally represents far-left sentiments--is simply a faction within the American Democratic party. Likewise, what would be a nationalist party in Europe would be a faction within the GOP.
Actually, the US Green Party is not a faction of the Democratic party.  It is in fact a separate entity.  Similarly, the US National Party and the American Nationalist Party are separate entities from the GOP.  If anything, the wide array of third party and independent political organizations in the United States demonstrates the breadth and depth of the public's discontent with the two-party state and duopoly system of government.  Few Americans think that they are well-represented by Democrat-Republican party government.  A new Rasmussen survey, for instance, finds that just 16% of likely voters think the country would be better off if most incumbents were re-elected.  Only 40% believe their own representative should be re-elected.  The reason for this is not difficult to discern.  The Democratic and Republican parties do not represent the people of the United States.  They represent the interests of the Democratic and Republican parties.  


Anonymous said...

In ticking off the 'system's multifarious aspects,' I'm surprised you didn't mention the overarching cause of the duopoly: single-member plurality districts.

d.eris said...

That's a good point Anon. But I would argue that though, according to Duverger's "Law", SMDP tends toward political duopoly, the existence of SMDP cannot account for the fact that the two duopoly parties in question here happen to be the Democrats and Republicans.

Anonymous said...

Me again, d.eris. First, thanks for your blog ... just discovered it.

I think the fact that we haven't had a nation-rending upheaval, along geographic lines, since the 1850s is what accounts for these particular parties being in place. I don't see another such upheaval in the cards anytime soon, at least not one that could result in one of the major parties being replaced.

Either way, no US third party will ever rise to prominence, as a third party, until our electoral system is changed. The Dems and Repubs will just keep adjusting to the electorate. They appear to be fast enough to adjust to any emerging threats to their duopoly - witness the co-option/absorption of the Tea Party by the Republicans.

One caveat: I cannot fully explain the rise of the Liberal Democrats in Britain. It might have something to do with the elimination of SMP districts for the European Parliament in the late 90s, but the Liberal Democrats had their first substantial showings (if I recall correctly) in the election before Britain was forced to abandon SMP districts for MEP elections.

Also, Britain does have much more distinct regional differences, politically, than the US does.

But all in all, I do acknowledge that until I can find a truly adequate explanation, the Liberal Democrats serve as a strong counter-example to Duverger.