Is our two party political system now more of a hindrance than a help? Sitting and reading the comments right here at Hot Air, it would be hard to argue the fact that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and a reluctance (to put it mildly) to simply toe the line and pledge allegiance to “whoever the party nominee” winds up being. To a lesser extent we’re seeing some rumblings of that on the Left with the rise of malcontents backing Bernie Sanders. So would things be better if there were more viable parties to choose from that got onto the ballot in all fifty states and could be truly competitive? (I add those qualifiers because there are, in reality, any number of other political parties already, but not one of them has the resources and campaign infrastructure to seriously challenge the Democrats and Republicans. Ross Perot was an anomaly, not a harbinger of imminent change.)
Dick Meyer penned an editorial this weekend in which he describes the current social climate as existing in an age of disruption. This atmosphere, he argues, provides fertile ground for dissatisfied upstarts to splinter the current system and offer more options. (via The Seattle Times)
The American economy right now worships “disruption.” Cable TV disrupted the networks; the Internet disrupted everything; Uber disrupted taxis; Airbnb disrupted hotels. If such transformations — such improvements — are possible in business, why not in politics? Democrats and Republicans are the last, best monopolists.
The political market wants it. In September 2014, Gallup asked Americans, “In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third party is needed?” A clear majority, 58 percent, wanted a third party. That’s been true since 2006.
Also, there is no incumbent in 2016. There have never been more independent voters. The parties’ favorability ratings have never been worse. Trust in government is at an all-time low.
On the surface I wouldn’t argue with any of the bullet points which Meyer cites in making his argument. There’s been a revolution against the established system going on as long as I’ve been alive, but it really seems to be accelerating of late, particularly among all of these gosh darned millennials (get off my lawn) with their newfangled ways. The internet and the hailstorm of mobile devices it spawned have essentially destroyed a fairly functional society and now we’re in the process of building something new among the ruins. Why not our political system?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. While there may indeed be an app for that, it’s going to take a lot more than a significant Twitter following to challenge the donkeys and the elephants. The first, most obvious reason is the money. Meyer convincingly cites the facts that in the post-Citizens United era the spigots are open and people like Donald Trump can fund their own races, while well moneyed groups like the Koch brothers can fund a national effort with little outside help. That’s all true, but both of these examples tend to fall down a bit if you try to force fit them onto the current reality. The Kochs can certainly channel a lot of cash, but they channel it to Republicans for a reason. There’s a lot of other infrastructure behind the party which makes them more like providers of icing on the cake than actual bakers. As to maverick rich people running as an independents next year, I wouldn’t give Donald Trump any more of a chance than Perot had. He could tip over the apple cart for sure (likely handing the election to the Democrats in the process) but it’s still difficult to envision him getting anywhere near a plurality, say nothing of a majority in the Electoral College.
But even if we ignore the money, there is a bigger barrier to entry in national politics. It’s a hugely complicated system and there is little doubt that it has grown that way by design. A pile of money doesn’t replace the armies of people you need in districts across the nation, each versed in the local election laws and the individual power brokers you need on your side to start flipping vote totals.
Beyond that there is the simple fact of inertia. Once something has grown as large and sedentary as our two party system, it takes a lot of energy to put it into motion again. Working on the side of the Republicans and the Democrats is the overriding fear of losing power. This matters because it’s just a given that any strong, independent challenger will draw more heavily from one party than the other. Even if that’s not true, the perception of it is strong enough to keep many potential wild mustangs inside the corral. If Trump runs third party, he sinks the GOP nominee. If Sanders went off on his own he could well tank the Democrats. This fear factor will tend to wither the prospects of any upstarts looking to lure away the party faithful from either side.
There may be more parties which rise up in the future, but I think Meyer is 180 degrees out of sync when he specifically argues for a “top down” revolution. It just doesn’t look like something which can be forced (or purchased) from above. It needs to grow up from a collection of angry peasants waving their scythes in the fields. In the old, pre-internet era that would have been essentially impossible. But now, for all the mischief that it has created, the social networking infrastructure can link up those dissidents like never before. But it’s going to take time. And a lot of money.