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The Two-Party System: A Catastrophic Failure

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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 caused 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. 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.

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Despite these early statements against partisanship, opposing factions emerged at the end of the 1700s representing two different opinions about the role of the federal government. 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. 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 found himself in 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; their members agreed on most moral, economic, social, and foreign policy issues such as slavery, domestic trade, the family, 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 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 slaves for cheap labor. After Republican president Abraham Lincoln waged the Civil War, declared emancipation, and reunited the South, 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 support 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 Black 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 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 guidelines 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.

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We can learn important lessons from this condensed review of American partisan history. One of the reasons for the constant switching back and forth between parties appears to be that the country has different needs at different times. The American people chose Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln because of his firm stand against slavery during a critical time in the nation's history. They selected Democratic runner Franklin D. Roosevelt and his increased government spending to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. In 1980, they chose Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in reaction to economic stagnation and moral decline. And in 1992, American voters picked the Democratic contender Bill Clinton as a result of economic recession.

But though our country has different needs at different times, political parties are not the proper instrument 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 alternation, 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 represents some of the 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 marketplace; limited government; a strong (but not bloated) national defense; secure borders; fiscal responsibility; and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The Democratic Party traditionally stands for the right of the poor to government assistance; the rights of ethnic and religious minorities to an equal place in our society; regulation of big business and trade; protection of the environment; multilateral nuclear disarmament; and increased foreign economic aid to impoverished countries. However, the US really needs both sets of policies. We need pro-life laws and multilateral nuclear disarmament, tax cuts and deficit reduction, a free market and social security nets, 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 "Average Joe" Schriner, Dr. Ron Paul and Sam Brownback. 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, well-defined groups of American voters across the map of the United States continue to choose congressional and presidential candidates along party lines because no viable alternatives are in sight. 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 the cities) tend to vote Democratic. These choices are based largely on the economic and moral policies that the parties stand for and on the hope that new candidates will do a better job than their predecessors. It is true that some Republicans and Democrats in Congress keep their campaign promises and actually work hard to deliver significant pro-life victories or greater socioeconomic equality, and it is those few exceptions that keep hope alive.

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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.

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Justin Soutar is a Catholic researcher and author. His articles about faith, the Pope & his message, pro-life and religious liberty issues, American politics and elections, terrorism, the Middle East, and other topics appear in a wide variety (more...)

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