We Need More Parties

[ Posted Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 – 16:39 UTC ]

While that may seem a rather redundant headline the day before a world-wide party is scheduled, it was actually less provocative than my original concept of selling the theme that America needs more than two viable political parties, which was: "Party! Party! Party! Party!" But then I noticed I had already used one exclamation point in a headline this week; so I realized if I ran my original choice, I would be jeopardizing my standing among the Professional Journalists And Wannabes Who Play One On The Web Guild (the beloved PJAWWPOOTWG, pronounced like... um... well, it's best not to try to pronounce the acronym until you've got at least three stiff drinks under your belt). Where was I? Oh, right, party headlines.

While my generation was the first to use the word "party" as a verb (known technically as "verbalizing" it... no, wait, that can't be right... "verbizing" it perhaps?), we were not the first to heartily endorse the concept. When I was growing up, friends of my parents had a sign in their den, over the built-in bar: "I support the two-party system. One party a week is not enough!" Showing that, while the language may indeed change, the party instinct is as old as mankind. Or at least as old as my childhood neighbors (who seemed pretty old to me at the time).

Seriously, though (I do seem to be easily distracted today, sorry), since it is the end of the year and we're all in a bit of a silly mood, I thought I'd posit a scenario that has long been a dream of many voters in America: that we have more than two realistic choices on the ballot when we vote. And while in my own time I've seen many nascent "third" parties grow, bloom, and (inevitably) die; it seems to me that we could be on the cusp of our two-party system doubling itself, amoeba-like, within the next year. I don't make any statement as to the probability of this actually happening, but will instead just throw the idea out there for discussion and debate. Call it "party talk."

The strength of the American two-party political system is that any attempt to grow it into three results largely in one party becoming weaker by the split, and one party staying together -- and getting stronger, since their opposition vote is split. After a disastrous election cycle or two, the third-party hotheads sigh dejectedly, and rejoin the party from whence they came, and the system falls back into two-party equilibrium once again.

But what if both parties split at the same time? What if we ended up with four parties instead of two? This could avoid the zero-sum nature of attempting only a "third" party.

The seeds for the splits are obvious to see, on both sides. Let's take Republicans first ("take my Republicans... please!" flits through my mind, I have to admit, so here's a bow to Henny Youngman). The Tea Party movement, while fractious, is a lot stronger than many are willing to admit. A recent poll showed more people self-identifying as Tea Partiers than as Republicans. The problem is, the bigwigs in the Republican Party control the money and the party machine. By "party machine" I speak of all the infrastructure that a national political party enjoys which is so hard for any third-party movement to put together from scratch. These two groups -- Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans -- are headed on a violent collision course in the primary season next year. Mainstream Republicans know the way the game of politics is played on a national scale, and try to argue for candidates that will have some sort of broad appeal in the electorate, in an effort to retake the independents in the middle. Tea Partiers are concerned with only one thing: purity, above all else. The problem for the Tea Partiers is that they're largely (at this point) a one-issue movement, with no broader agenda than: "No taxes. Ever." This leaves them wide open to hijacking by other single-issue Republican subcultures, so it will be interesting to see what sort of stand Tea Partiers take (if they do -- the smartest thing they could do is not take a stand at all) on issues like abortion or gay rights, to name just two.

But in the clash in the primaries, either the Tea Partiers will win the day, or the Republican establishment will eke out a victory. If the Republican establishment candidate wins, the Tea Party folks will have a choice to make. Either slink back into the Republican Party with their tails between their legs; or, as Sarah Palin would put it, "go rogue" by entering the general election as a third-party candidate. If this happened in four or five Senate races (Florida, Kentucky, California, etc.), and if the Tea Party candidate started beating the Republican candidate (see: this year's NY-23 congressional election), I could see a general split in the party at large, with elected Republican officials suddenly proclaiming that they, too, are now Tea Partiers, and not Republicans.

In this case, the name "Republican" would stay with the national party organization. The new party already has their own name, and would likely want to distance themselves from Republicanism anyway. What would happen, in this scenario, to the Republicans who were left is an open question. They could become the "social conservative" party, devoted to all the hot button religious issues afoot, or they could become the "pro-war" party which advocated the neo-conservative agenda. Or they could become the "we're the adults here" party, and portray themselves as serious and worthy of office, as opposed to the lunatics in the Tea Party.

Over on the left side of the aisle, we have the current situation in the Democratic Party. The Progressives are about an inch away from considering a similar exodus from the party at large. They feel betrayed by Barack Obama, and by the corporate-owned "New Democrat" wing of the Democratic Party. Progressives also feel that they are the core of the Democratic Party, being stymied by the corporatist fringe within. The building frustration among Progressives could lead to an eventual split, with a caucus of House and Senate Democrats proclaiming a new Progressive Party. If enough of them jumped ship simultaneously, they could form a bigger caucus than the remaining Democrats. And, like the Tea Partiers, they would likely bar entry to their party to anyone seen as insufficiently pure -- no corporate lackeys in Congress need apply. Which would leave the Democratic Party the "corporate-approved," pro-business, socially-liberal party. It would also leave them, like the Republicans, with the party name and the nationwide party apparatus.

This could lead to elections in which you, as a voter, weighed the Democratic candidate against the Progressive, and the Tea Party candidate against the Republican. Four choices instead of two, in other words. It would free up the true believers on both sides of the political divide to back whomever they wished, without being told by the national party what their only choice is.

Now, as I said at the beginning, the odds of this actually playing out in such a fashion are long, at best. What is much more likely (looking at recent history) is that these groups will make a big point, and, by doing so, pull the national party in their direction as a whole. Republicans seem rather terrified of the Tea Party movement within their ranks, and will likely fall all over themselves signing "pledges of purity" with the Tea Party folks next year. They are scared because such a mob mentality is notoriously fickle, and they've already set up some epic battles in Senate primaries next year. "Mob" has a long history politically, since the word is nothing more than a shortening of "mobile" -- as in a "mobile party" that votes with its feet. And the Tea Party folks look like they may be mobbing in a new direction next year. The Republicans may face the choice of going with the mob, or splitting off from them and disavowing them.

Democrats face a similar situation, although the Progressives are not as organized or "mobilized" as the Tea Partiers. But some Progressives are just as angry as the Tea Party folks, and for similar reasons -- they feel like their own party is selling them out at every opportunity. Democrats' own mob is not as cohesive -- yet -- as the Tea Partiers, but that could indeed change, because the feelings are just as raw.

What would this mean, besides more choices on the ballot? It would mean a coalition approach to government, as most parliamentary systems use. On some issues, Progressives would caucus with Democrats to get legislation passed. Both parties could get concessions for their support, with the weight of their voting bloc behind them. On other issues, Democrats and Republicans may caucus together (call it the Big Business Caucus). Progressives and Tea Partiers may find themselves in agreement on, for instance, taking on Wall Street. The sands of alliance would shift, issue by issue.

Of course, this could be a giant prescription for total and utter gridlock in Congress. The possibility certainly exists that absolutely nothing would get done under a four-party system, because no one party would dominate on any particular issue. And even if there were splits among Republicans and Democrats, it may lead to the death of one of the major parties themselves, as Republicans all rush to become Tea Partiers, or Democrats belatedly proclaim themselves Progressives.

But what interests me is that the possibility of such splits exists on both sides at the same time. The trite "America is divided and polarized politically as a nation" line that journalists love to trot out is even more true than they have noticed. Because not only are we divided in two, across the unbridgeable gap yawning wider every year between Republicans and Democrats, but on each side of the chasm, cracks are appearing within, between two major subgroups. We're really splitting into four in American politics, in other words, not just two. And whether that results in a formal split which creates two new parties, or whether it winds up just being intraparty feuds that eventually get resolved remains to be seen.

Speaking on a personal level, as a politics-watcher, nothing would make my job more interesting than some new players on the field. Speaking as an American, I have no idea whether a four-party system would be any better or worse for the country, or whether it could even work. But it certainly would be fascinating to watch.

OK, that's it. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled party program. Everyone with me?

Party! Party! Party! Party!


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “We Need More Parties”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, Parker Griffith's recent party switch is causing one of those tea party-versus-party apparatus fights right now in my home district.

    Alabama politics just got a lot more interesting!

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Chris, Parker Griffith's recent party switch is causing one of those tea party-versus-party apparatus fights right now in my home district.

    That's interesting that you would comment on the Party switch without examining the reasons for the switch.

    Considering all the Dems retiring instead of running and other Dems mulling a Party switch of their own, it's just one more indication of the massacre that Dems face in the upcoming midterm elections.

    It's gonna be a wild time.. :D


  3. [3] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    The problem with moving away from the two party system with out a constitutional amendment is there is a very good chance the house will decide who becomes president rather than the people.

    I think the back door to a multiparty system would be to challenge in the courts the constitutionality of mutual exclusion of political parties. As I understand it we get the political party framework from the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government. Why then can one group prevent me from assembling with another group while still belonging to the first group?

    What I envision with the ridding of mutual exclusion is that one can belong and vote in multiple parties and candidates can get endorsements from multiple parties. The tea party can split off but all the members can still belong to the main Republican party while pushing the tea party agenda. Or one can push for less government with classic republicanism while at the same time pushing for conservation by belonging to the green party. If a candidate thinks enough people want both those goals they can try to get endorsements from both groups by creating a agenda that covers said goals. It would also allow the major and minor parties to streamline what they stand for. Much of what both parties push for seem much more related to courting groups of voters to their ranks or blanket opposing those groups rather than it being a base part of the party platform.

  4. [4] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Hmm, European Parliamentary History has shown that 4 parties would divide into 6 or 8 ad infinitum
    resulting in a sort of static chaos in which not much can be accomplished.

    Madison's "Federalist Paper #10 faced this, asserting that "factions" seem inevitable (this was before modern electronic communications) due to the "nature of man." Seeing the semi-anarchy of the Articles of Confederation and soon after the complete anarchy of the French "Reign of Terror"
    they sought the balance inherent in our current system.

    If your scenario does play out, how could the opposite dangers be avoided? i.e. either a static,
    ineffectual government of eternally feuding factions or wilder & wilder swings eventually prompting a "Strong Man" takeover, cf. much of Latin America's history ??

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