First of all, why is this a problem? Well, it means that there is no competition. The nominee of the ruling party is the general election winner nine out of ten times. Make no mistake - this is a symptom of the two party system. The voters become unimportant, because they are offered a choice of "the same old" or "possibly worse" and they pick "the same old." This lack of competition breeds corruption, incompetence, and neglect of the voters' sentiments. There is something fundamentally wrong about a republic that has no competition - it defeats the purpose of being a republic!
But there is potentially a silver lining to this one party rule. It generally means that voters crave a new political voice (I mean, a vast majority of voters want some new parties anyway!). And that new political voice could be a successful, viable third party, as has been in the case in cities like San Francisco and Burlington.
A few months ago I spoke to Terry Bouricius over the phone about the Progressive Party's success in Vermont. Terry is rare, politically. He was actually a successful third party politician, elected to ten years on the Burlington City Council and five terms in the Vermont House of Representatives. He ran as an independent, and then later as a Progressive. Now, the Vermont Progressive Party is the most successful third party in the nation. Terry told me that one of the three most significant factors in that success was that when it started in Burlington, the city was filled to the brim with Democrats and no one else. Voters wanted choices, and they were sick of the comfortable Democrats not listening to their demands. So the Progressives stood up and successfully filled that gap. They now hold the mayoralty of Burlington, along with two city council seats there, five seats in the state House of Representatives, and one seat in the state Senate. Not to mention, although he's not officially affiliated, US Senator Bernie Sanders is closely associated with them. They are a political force in Vermont.
Something similar, albeit not as dramatic, is going on in San Francisco and nearby areas. Although its membership is currently on the wane, the Green Party has developed something of a base in the city. It has elected multiple city supervisors, it almost elected a mayor, and it has produced some very successful Green politicians. Nearby Richmond, with over 100,000 residents, is actually the largest city in US history to have a Green mayor. As can be seen from Green San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's scuffles with San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, having a second party in a big city can provide some much needed political competition.
However, this one party effect is not felt only in a geographic sense. In some cases, there is a social context to it, as well. Take, for instance, African Americans. They tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And that's no surprise, when Republicans are calling for a return to literacy tests for voting and resorting to cheap racial shots at the President. So, in our two party system, African Americans are faced with a choice: do you want the party that creates much of its success from race baiting or do you want the other party? Unappealing choices like that result in widespread disillusionment (although that's obviously not the only problem with minorities and voting) and result in the same things as a geographical one party system. Just take a look at a New York Times article from Sunday highlighting the juggernaut of corporate fundraising that is the Congressional Black Caucus:
From 2004 to 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus's political and charitable wings took in at least $55 million in corporate and union contributions, according to an analysis by The New York Times, an impressive amount even by the standards of a Washington awash in cash. Only $1 million of that went to the caucus's political action committee; the rest poured into the largely unregulated nonprofit network.
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In 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation spent more on the caterer for its signature legislative dinner and conference -- nearly $700,000 for an event one organizer called "Hollywood on the Potomac" -- than it gave out in scholarships, federal tax records show.
"The claim that this is a truly philanthropic motive is bogus -- it's beyond credulity," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, a nonpartisan group that monitors campaign finance and ethics issues. "Members of Congress should not be allowed to have these links. They provide another pocket, and a very deep pocket, for special-interest money that is intended to benefit and influence officeholders."
In a broad sense, there are two routes one could take toward creating a successful third party (using either a brand new party or an existing one). One is that the party could take a very long term approach. That is, wait for or work toward election reform that makes elections more competitive. This is an area that certainly needs work in our country. As mentioned before, practices like gerrymandering and ballot access reinforce the two party system, and nations like Canada and Britain show that a more vibrant electoral system emerges if these barriers are removed. Another fundamental flaw in how most of our elections are conducted is the "winner take all" (aka first past the post and plurality) method of voting that is employed in a vast majority of US elections. This system is only fair when there are only two choices in an election, thereby creating an incentive for the two party system to exist, and creating the problem of "the spoiler effect" when more than two candidates are in a race. Instant runoff voting for single winner elections is attracting a lot of attention and is being implemented in many cities. Range voting is a system that I personally find interesting. And proportional representation, as seen in a vast majority of representative democracies throughout the world, can be a much more effective system for electing legislatures than the one we have in America. Once some or all of these changes are implemented, it will indeed be much easier for third parties to succeed.
The other route is to take a shot at success in today's political and electoral environment. The way to do that, in my opinion, is to follow the model of the aforementioned Vermont Progressive Party. Although I am young, from what I have seen in the third party world, the key to success seems to be perseverance, having reasonable goals, and - as with any political mission - a bit of luck.
The idea of reasonable goals deserves some consideration. Many people tend to think of third parties in terms of Ross Perot or Ralph Nader and the glamor of the presidency. But that is not where third parties will have their success. If you look throughout history and at modern politics, you inevitably come to the conclusion that third parties must focus on the local and possibly the state level in order to have success. Before a Green Party or Progressive Party or whatever party candidate wins a gubernatorial election, it makes a lot of sense for them to prove themselves politically, build a base, and build "political capital" by winning lower offices throughout that state. The Progressive Party has already proven that this strategy works. If implemented intelligently, I believe that it can work in countless places throughout the United States.