Thinking beyond the two party system

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I’m not going to pull any punches here.  I detest the two party system.  I believe that it undermines representative government.  It makes our government more responsive to corporations than to citizens.  It decreases the chances of progress and it results in many good ideas being shut out of the national political debate.

This piece was written as part of GreenChange Blog Action Day.  Learn more here.

The limits imposed on this nation by the two party system are slowly leading to its demise.  Partisan gridlock in Washington, outright corruption, the absurd difficulty of kicking out incumbents, corporate control of Washington, and the infamous backwardness of many local governments (among many things) are all symptoms of this same disease.  And I do not use that language lightly.

Many have said that there is no difference between the two major parties.  This is obviously false.  However, they can accurately be described as two sides of the same corporatist coin.  On one side of the coin, Republicans give away billions to the “defense” industry and appoint lobbyists to head government agencies and are just blatantly corrupt.  And when you flip it over, Democrats…well, give away billions to the “defense” industry and appoint lobbyists to head government agencies and are just blatantly corrupt.  Sure, there are many differences, too – Republicans generally support less regulation, Democrats tend to be pro-choice, Democrats are generally more supportive of health care reform attempts, and Republicans have recently turned into the party of Oppose Anything That Would Vindicate Obama.  In the words of Bill Maher,

We have a center-right party and a crazy party.  Over the last 30 years, the Democrats have moved to the right, and the Republicans have moved into a mental hospital.

These are not great choices.  And that’s the essence of the duopoly on politics:  it limits voters’ choices to the point of them not having a very representative government.  When they want climate change legislation, they get nothing.  When they want single payer, they get nothing.  When they want to end the war in Iraq, they get an increase of military contractors.

This limitation of choice is not a coincidence.  And that brings me to my first bullet point…


Incumbent politicians – and their parties – are looking out for their own interests, not yours!

Basically what I’m saying here is that the two party system is not as much of a naturally occurring phenomenon as many people believe it is.  There are many laws and practices in place that create a vicious cycle of third party failure.  As election law expert Richard Winger points out,

The U.S. voter has less choice for whom to vote than his great-grandfather did.

Although the U.S. has made great strides during the 20th century in enfranchising citizens who formerly were denied the right to vote (women, blacks, poor people), we have been losing ground on the parallel problem of what choice a voter has, once he gets a ballot.

In the 1896 general election, every single congressional district in the nation had at least two candidates on the ballot. The average district had 3.1 candidates on the ballot.

In the 1912 general election, the average election ballot had 4.1 candidates for Congress. But in 1984, there were only 2.3 candidates for Congress on the typical general election ballot, and one-ninth of the districts (49 out of 435) had only one candidate on the ballot.

The modern-day voter’s choice is even more limited in state legislative races. In 1984 6,881 seats were at stake. An astounding 2,815 (41 percent) had only one candidate per position on the ballot.

In some important states, such as Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida, over half of the legislators were elected with no one on the ballot against them.

The blame for the declining number of choices on our ballots can be laid squarely at the feet of state legislators. Many of them have made it far too difficult for candidates to get on the ballot.

These laws and practices include, but are not limited to:

Ballot access laws.  These are laws that set up varying benchmarks that a candidate must meet in order to appear on the ballot.  They differ from state to state and from office to office and are harshest against third party candidates.  Other than a cursory rule for candidates to register for the ballot, it’s unclear what the purpose of these laws are, other than restricting competition and keeping incumbents safe.  As Daily Kos user Big Tex states (I highly encourage you to read the whole piece),

The ballot access barrier isn’t the only tool that the Republican/Democratic duopoly has used to maintain its hold on political power, but it has been one of the most important and effective tools in their arsenal. And their control over the workings of the American political system has had an observable degrading effect on democracy in this country: what was once a relatively robust political system with viable minor parties has devolved into a dysfunctional mess plagued by low voter turnout, low turnover, and gridlock. Contrast this with the situation in other democracies, where ballot access thresholds are set much lower and minor parties are a much bigger variable in the political equation. In the UK, for example, where three major political parties and several minor parties have all been able to seat members of parliament, parties don’t have to petition to get on the ballot, and are only required to complete a relatively (in comparison with America) simple registration process with the nation’s Electoral Commission. The threshold for party ballot access is low enough that there are nearly 400 registered parties in the UK. And individual candidates for parliament in the UK are only required to submit the signatures of 10 registered voters and a £500 deposit.

In fact, these incumbent protection laws are so absurdly stringent that Richard Winger claims they potentially violate an an international agreement.

In reality, America’s ballot-access laws are so stringent, and third parties are repressed to such a degree, that the U.S. is probably in violation of the Copenhagen Meeting Document, an international agreement the U.S. signed in 1990 that requires nations to:

   “Respect the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on the basis of equal treatment before the law and the authorities.”

How does the U.S. violate this agreement? Suppose that a new party were founded in 1994, with popular support that equaled that of the Democratic or Republican Party. In order to contest all the executive and legislative offices up for election on November 8th, 1994, it would need to collect about 4,454,579 valid signatures. And some of these signatures would need to be collected ten months before the election. By contrast, the Democratic and Republican parties would not need to submit any signatures to get themselves on the ballots, and their candidates would need only to collect about 882,484 valid signatures to place themselves on primary ballots.

In another piece, Richard Winger reminds us what is fundamentally wrong about ballot access laws.  It is the politicians who are looking after their own interest who are deciding who gets a chance to win the election, not the voters.

We must go back to basics, and re-think the question, “What are ballots for?” Ballots are to permit the voters to vote for the candidates of their choice. If there are voters who wish to vote for a candidate, and that candidate is omitted (against his or her will) from the ballot, then the ballot is faulty. It isn’t doing its job. The purpose of ballots is to facilitate the wishes of voters, NOT to control whom they vote for.

Gerrymandering.  Now, this isn’t necessarily a product of the two party system, but the two party system does a wonderful job of reinforcing it.  I have seen many progressives use the argument that if Democrats don’t gerrymander then they won’t be competitive with Republicans.  Unfortunately, because of the nature of the two party system, that may very well be true in today’s world.  In the words of Steven Hill, in his eye-opening book “Fixing Elections,”

At its best, then, the redistricting process is hardly an innocent one, nor are its outcomes best for American democracy or national policy, despite the claims of the professional political class.  In fact, when closely examining the redistricting process…the last thing on anyone’s mind, even that of noted political scientists, is the impact of redistricting on voters, on representation, on our democracy – indeed, on our national future.  One of the most corrosive effects of…the gerrymandering of legislative districts is its understated impact on the psyche of voters, and whether each individual voter is imbued with an internalized sense that their vote is powerful.  During the redistricting process most voters are plunked into safe, one-party districts, and at that moment their vote becomes either superfluous…or impotent…the act of voting becomes a waste of time, and a cruel hoax to their democratic aspirations.

In this case, competition on the ballot isn’t the only thing that’s harmed.  By making the races uncompetitive and guaranteeing that either the incumbent or the incumbent party will have a certain reelection, voters are systematically dis-empowered, and the foundation of republic starts to rot.

And the idea of one party districts brings me to my next point.


We live in a one-party nation.

Once again, don’t get the idea that I think we live under the rule of the Warfare Party or the Demopublican Party.  I mean that large swaths of the country literally have only one major party.  For instance, if Massachusetts had ballot access laws as strict as Pennsylvania’s, then the Republican Party would not be qualified for the ballot there.  And in 2008, every single county of Oklahoma went to John McCain.  In major cities across the United States, there are unbelievably Democratic – that’s a big “D” for sure – governments.

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.


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.”


So what does a successful third party look like?  And what will it take to get there?

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.


    To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control…

    In a two-party system, if both parties ignore public opinion, there is no place voters can turn.

–Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States”


Skip to comment form

    • rossl on February 15, 2010 at 19:47

    So, what do you think?

    • RiaD on February 15, 2010 at 20:07

    i agree.

    & i wanted to show you this link youffraita showed me….

    it ties in.

    we must do better than we are.

    two-party is NO choice.

  1. This system of ours sucks.  There is NOTHING democratic in our process.  Choosing the lesser of two evils.

    SCOTUS has done the very opposite of what needed to be done.  

    We need a dollar limit across the board for each and every candidate, equal media and air time, etc.  We need to have run-off voting.  

    The entire system must be changed or it simply remain a continuum of what we have now.

    I want to re-read this a little later.  

    Thank you for this tremendous effort!

    (P.S.  I left you a comment here, one I thought you would be interested to note.)

  2. I cant believe youre so young. Can we clone you?

    Wont have time to digest this til tomorrow.

  3. What would you say to hard left types like myself who don’t agree with the Green party/ VPP attitude of submission to power in favor of some imagined electoral victory?

    I grew up in the shadow of my family, die hard Irish Republicans all who, though not while engaging directly in paramilitary activities, fought hard for political status of “Irish terrorists” who now form the largest part in Stormont (northern Irish assembly).

    This was a long time coming in my family..

    I had a great grandmother tortured by British paramilitaries in the 1920’s and a relative killed during Bloody Sunday as well as another cousin wrongfully imprisoned and tortured by the fucking British Special Branch.

    So…what I am telling you is that I may agree with the Green party on policy, I am other like minded hard leftists will never sign on to the weak kneed, submissive ideology of the Green party..

    we need a tougher third party…

    One that will attract the left-libertarians..

    because the greens won’t do it.

  4. Good work, man. Thanks for this.

    • rossl on February 16, 2010 at 03:30

    I worked hard on this piece and I’m proud of it.

  5. And do you have any thoughts on how it can be improved?  I’ve been to an awful lot of Green Party meetings which were a waste of time.

  6. Our country will be ruined by the time a third [arty gets established. Public financed elections would take the pressure off Democrats to be corporatists. It would also save us tens of billions a year in corporate giveaways, while costing a small fraction of that to publicly finance an election.

  7. Bravo!

    Here’s a quote more people should read:


    The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can “throw the rascals out” at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy.

       – Carrol Quigley, Tragedy and Hope

  8. … strategic, because,

    one, that’s where the electoral laws are made. Gain a balance of power, even briefly, in one chamber of the State Legislature, enact second preference voting, and then the door is open.

    second, that’s where a lot of single party contests take place, and single party contests are a an opportunity to build a regular voting base without the “LOTE” deployed to undermine the third party

    third, that’s where the real action is in building a possibly sustainable economy rather than an obsolete economy that is on a physical dead end – the present kamikaze economy is build on a mountain of local development subsidies and zoning regulations, which establishes the “norm” that federal policy either reinforces or conflicts with

    • Big Tex on February 16, 2010 at 22:34

    Wish I had been here to rec it yesterday when you originally posted it.

    I’m actually doing a few articles on proportional representation this week over at my blog – I posted an introductory article yesterday, and I’m planning on posting one tomorrow on how I think we could implement PR in this country at the federal level in a way that removes some of the obstacles to getting it passed. Was going to post it today, but life intervened before I was able to finish writing. 🙁

    One thing to remember is that, even though minor parties haven’t been able to knock the two-headed monster off its pedestal since the emergence of the Republican Party, they have nonetheless been effective in nudging the parties in their direction on the issues. We shouldn’t listen to the naysaying of those who tell us that any effort to create viable third parties is futile and will split our side of the political continuum, because if nothing else, they can be a useful tool in nudging the Overton windown in our direction. And it may take years to achieve a fully open political system, but if our efforts lead to a more progressive Democratic party in the short term, they will have been worth it. That shouldn’t be all we’re willing to settle for, but it would be a nice outcome in the interim.

  9. one of my absolute favorites, Jonathan Turley, Professor of International Law, at George Washington University Law School, sorts through our broken system and comes up with answers so akin to yours and those here:

    February 15, 2010

    For decades, political reform in the United States has largely meant campaign finance reform. It is a focus the political mainstream prefers, despite the fact that it is akin to addressing an engine with a design defect by regulating the fuel.

    Many of our current problems are either caused or magnified by the stranglehold the two parties have on our political system. Democrats and Republicans, despite their uniformly low popularity with voters, continue to exercise a virtual monopoly, and they have no intention of relinquishing control. The result is that “change” is often limited to one party handing power over to the other party. Like Henry Ford’s customers, who were promised any color car so long as it was black, voters are effectively allowed to pick any candidate they want, so long as he or she is a Democrat or Republican.

    Both parties (and the media) reinforce this pathetic notion by continually emphasizing the blue state/red state divide. The fact is that the placement of members on the blue or red team is often arbitrary, with neither side showing consistent principles or values.

    The Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down restrictions on corporate campaign giving has prompted some members of Congress to call for a constitutional amendment to reinstate the restrictions. But that would merely return us to the same status (and corrupted process) of a month ago.

    We can reform our flawed system, but we have to think more broadly about the current political failure. Here are a few ideas for change that would matter:

    *Remove barriers to third parties. Independent and third-party candidates currently face an array of barriers, including registration rules and petition requirements, that should be removed. Moreover, we should require a federally funded electronic forum for qualified federal candidates to post their positions and material for voters. And in races for national office, all candidates on the ballot in the general election should submit to a minimum of three (for Congress) or five (for the presidency) debates that would be funded and made publicly available by the government. . . . .

    Worth reading!

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