Although the two-party system may seem like a permanent, built-in feature of our political economy, there is nothing in the Constitution that comes close to mandating it. The extreme politicization of the Covid-19 pandemic and virtually every other consequential issue is evidence that its time has come and gone. Without paying heed to a fundamental tenet of America governance—of the people, by the people, for the people—our great nation is on the road to perishing. Lincoln was surely thinking about all the people. All too real in this pandemic where the deaths due to the virus have already exceeded 20,000 and the number of cases has exceeded half a million.
Our Federal government, as a result of the enormous amount of money spent to influence the outcome of elections primarily represents the interests of powerful corporate and wealthy individuals. Elections have become zero-sum two-party games. They have been for some time even as politicians put on a more moralistic face, but now there is no shame involved. In early 2017, Senate majority leader McConnell said, “[W]inners make policy and losers go home.”
His words echo those of Senator William Marcy who said in a debate in the Senate chamber in 1831, “[T]o the victor belong the spoils.” He was referring to the many positions that could be filled with followers of the victorious party. Now, 189 years later, it has taken on a much more general thrust.
Third-parties have arisen and become embedded in the system, but have left the dichotomous arrangement in place. It might be argued that the two-party lines up properly with the two primary threads of political ideologies, conservatives and liberals, and is all that is needed. But the political spectrum of ends and means is much more nuanced than that.
In earlier times, the two parties were able to put aside their difference and cooperate in finding ways to cope with the great issues that faced the nations. Lincoln’s Band of Rivals and the bipartisanship that arose during the Great depression and WWII are some of the very few examples.
The last few years have seen an increased polarization along the political spectrum with the center disappearing. Serious Congressional deliberation and law-making has all but ground to a halt. Partisan cooperation has been missing during both Democratic and Republican administrations. Only the massive impact of the corona virus has forced the two parties to join in measures to deal with its horrific economic consequences. The President’s primary re-election strategy is to demonize the opposition. Not unheard of, but being taken to a new level.
While some politicization of actions is inevitable, this present oppositional stance is wreaking havoc. Corona virus affects all Americans; it is not a party matter. The Constitution is not a party document. It established the frame for governing all Americans. The President is the president of all Americans, regardless of party.
The issues that need to be faced and dealt with in today’s highly interconnected, unstable complex world are not amenable to simple, ideologically driven solutions. They require approaches that transcend the narrow philosophies and theories that characterize either party. They depend upon accessing the wisdom, as well as the political belief, of legislators and administrators. As we head into what seems to be a certain period of economic malaise, we need remember the lessons brought by the Great Depression, that is takes pragmatism to discover solutions to problems that ideologies cannot fathom.
But pragmatism requires careful observation and deliberation. It requires putting one’s well entranced beliefs aside for the moment. And it requires a diverse group, sharing a dedication to finding the way out of the mess. The zero-sum nature of the two-party system works in opposition to those requirements. The losers are sent back home, politically and intellectually.
Now, imagine a multiparty system where the parties are more closely aligned with a narrower, well defined set of beliefs and philosophies, that more closely adhere to the distribution among the electorate. The US electorate is not simply Republican or Democrat. Their political and social views are more highly varied. I lack data about this, but am willing to guess that no single party would find a majority to support it,
With no single party to dictate the outcomes, the players would need to converse and deliberate. Compromise is not only a political tactic; it is akin to a pragmatic agreement. Arguments designed to form a winning coalition would have to be based on fact and sound arguments. Would there be hardball played? Of course, but the chances of reaching conclusions based on fact and honest inquiry would jump from the present base of zero to something more favorable for the whole polity.
The multi-party idea is not without its problems. Arguments against it have included the always present possibility that no agreements among the players will be reached, resulting in stalemate and inaction. Perhaps, but would that be any worse than the present stalemate. The President would have to reach out to the opposition interests to press his or her program and policies.
I am not a political scientist and am largely unaware of the already existing, surely very large, body of knowledge on this subject. Maybe the virus isolation is getting to me and scrambling my brain, but my pragmatic self screams at me that the system is broke and needs fixing. It’s not that we lack ideas; that’s part of the problem. We lack a pragmatic means of finding the better solutions, never the right ones or the best ones. The cooperation forced by the virus won’t persist. The President can only see what is happening in a partisan, politicized way.
There may be light at the end of the virus tunnel, but it will be shining on an unstable, fractured, brittle system with no real mechanism to hold the pieces together. If a zero-sum game goes on too long with one player always losing, sooner or later, that player will leave the game, prepared to act out the hurt, the anger, and the unfairness that the rules have created. New rules might avoid that.