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The Failure of America's Two-Party System

By Ryan Lee
On October 24, 2013


Among world democracies, there are two types of government styles: that of the United States, and that of every other democratic state.  Our American government is known as a presidential form of government, in which executive power is invested in only one individual.  This person functions as the head of state, as well as the chief executive of the government.  In contrast, countries like Great Britain, Germany, Israel, France (although tenuous), and many others have one head of state, who serves as a figure head, and a chief executive, who runs the government.  In Great Britain, for example, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the chief executive.  

Another major difference between presidential and parliamentary types of government is the structure of the legislature.  Parliamentary systems usually have a unicameral legislature, meaning "one body," while our presidential system has a bicameral legislature, with the House of Representatives and the Senate forming the two separate bodies.  In the United States, we have a two-party system, with the Democrats comprising the left flank of the political spectrum, and the Republicans comprising the right flank.  However, parliamentary systems could have several small but prominent parties, all of whom vie for power within the government.  Usually, when a new government is formed in a parliamentary system, each party receives the percentage of seats that it wins during elections, allowing for diversity of opinion among the parties.  The winning party must create a coalition government, in which the head of the party, known as the "prime minister," must aggregate enough parties together to give his own party overarching power in the government.  This process often becomes very difficult, with the prime minister's party having to compromise on its platforms in order to appease the parties it hopes to entice.  And this is what truly separates the presidential from the parliamentary form of government, that in parliamentary governments, compromise is necessary.         

In a comedy routine several years ago, Lewis Black made a very astute observation about America's governmental structure:  "Our two-party system is a bowl of [insert expletive here], looking in the mirror at itself."  In light of the events of the past few weeks, during which the American government shut down, Black's assertion has renewed relevance.  Among the many heated arguments that permeated Congress prior to the eventual shutdown was the fate of the Affordable Care Act, labeled "Obamacare," which came into effect just prior to the shutdown.  The Republican Party equated Obamacare to their normal complaint that the Democrats spend too much, and the Democratic Party platform as a whole refused to compromise.  Essentially, the deadlock was instigated by the excessive polarization on both sides, with party loyalty coming to outweigh what is best for America.  I have no desire of delving into the specifics of who specifically was at fault for the government shutdown, as I believe that the problem was systemic, not the result of the people themselves.  

I blame the government shutdown on our two-party system.  Having two such all-encompassing parties dominate the political scene is bound to be problematic, considering that each party will be tempted ultimately to define itself in terms of its disagreements with the other party, as opposed to what the party itself advocates.  The government shutdown illustrated this rather well, with the Republicans disagreeing with the implementation of Obamacare but failing to decide upon a viable approach to replacing it.  Furthermore, the existence of only two parties will tend to drive the ideologies of both sides to the flanks, which could be a major inhibitor to those Americans who identify themselves as "moderate," or falling in between liberal (lowercase "l") and conservative (lowercase "c").  Because the radical ends of the spectrum are more clearly-defined in terms of ideology, it is unsurprising that the Republicans and Democrats have steadily shifted their beliefs further apart from one another.  The definition of the ideologies of the flanks allows for more fluid arguments between the parties.  If the space between the parties were less, on the other hand, it would be more difficult for each party to define itself.  

And this argument leads me to my final point.  I fundamentally believe that the existence of a third party would serve to ameliorate the current political situation.  Some may rebutt, "What about the Tea Party?  Aren't they a third party?"  Well, for now, the Tea Party appears to be aligning itself with the Republican Party, comprising the extreme right of the party, which is actually exacerbating the problem rather than improving it.  What I suggest is the formation of a party that falls right in the middle of liberal and conservative ideals.  Hypothetically speaking, I would venture to suggest that the existence of a truly moderate party would provide a much needed "check" on the extremity of the Republican and Democratic Parties, mitigating at least some of the crass behavior that has come to define partisan politics.  Although partisan politics are necessary for the existence of a vibrant democracy, those involved must be willing to compromise and to admit that the "truth" is illusory.  Neither party's ideals are necessarily correct and must be subject to the ultimate desire to improve the standing of American society.     

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