The system under which we live is the greatest luxury a people has ever been afforded in all of recorded history.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday — in my opinion, the best — because it oftentimes brings together families who do not get to frequently see each other, and it does so over nothing more than the premise of giving thanks for that which with we have been blessed. Christmas has gifts, Independence Day has fireworks, and Halloween has candy — but Thanksgiving does it with solely food and family. Ronald Reagan once said that “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” As my family lounged around after stuffing ourselves silly, we began to discuss an array of issues including — but not limited to — the Philadelphia Eagles’ newfound success, old memories, and of course, politics. It was in the third category that the most interesting discussion of the holiday emerged.
The fairly obvious observation of American’s frustration with their government was made — and coupled with it was the notion that America is incredibly divided along ideological lines. Both observations hold more than their share of water. But what had caused this? The election of our President? Nope. Paul Ryan’s supposed gelatinous vertebral makeup (that my father loves to criticize)? Not that either. The conclusion a few family members arrived at was that the hyper-partisanship can be traced back to the epicenters of partisanship themselves: political parties. At that moment, George Washington’s corpse shifted in a motion as if to say “I told you so.”
Surely, this is not an unreasonable, if not correct conclusion to draw. However, the question was raised, is our two-party system to blame? Would we be better off with a multi-party or coalition-style government? It is an understandable alternative to pose. Who among us is not frustrated with the current state of our political parties? After all, both Republican and Democratic parties are in a state of panic. “Establishment” members worry that their respective party is being pulled too far towards extremity. Those finding themselves outside the dreaded “establishment” remain frustrated that the aforementioned bogeymen still rig the game in their favor (and that claim possesses at least some merit). If you really want to see a clown-show masquerading as a political party, take a gander at this video of a corpulent man prancing around naked on the stage at the Libertarian Party’s convention last year.
Back to the issue at hand: is the two-party system to blame? Perhaps, but let’s further our examination. First, the system itself was created so that congressional districts were winner-take-all. That in itself encourages big-tent politics. Coalition-building is only beneficial if it is under one name, in pursuit of electoral victory at least — governing is a different story. That fifty-plus-one framework drives voters into one of two camps. At first, it was the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Then, the Federalists were eventually replaced by the short-lived Whigs who were pitted against the Democrats. After decades of electoral dominance, the Democrats finally met their match when a man named Lincoln rose to national prominence with the Republican Party.
In Federalist 10, addressing the subject of the then-proposed constitutional republic and how it relates to parties (or factions as he called them), Madison said this:
“From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”
“A system with checks and balances on not only the various levels of government, but the political winds that shape them is one which can stand the test of time.”
As my colleague Cody Rizzuto mentioned in his article two weeks ago, factions presented an inescapable problem. Madison’s solution was to contain their effects. In creating an environment that cultivates a two-party, rather than multi-party system, was his solution.
Third parties have only existed for a short period of time and then floundered, or replaced one of the two prominent parties. That is the way in which our system operates. A multi-party system would require drastic systematic overhaul. I suppose that is possible, although incredibly difficult. But the Founders had reasoning behind this fifty-plus-one mentality. A big-tent system best protects against the fringes of each party gaining full control the decision-making authority. That is not the case in a parliamentary system. The Labour Party — akin to Bernie Sanders’ Democratic-Socialism — governed for a decade under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The price that accompanies it is that sects of each party may get the proverbial shaft in governing. But that happens in parliament as well. The Conservatives, who coalesced with the majority Tory Party, do not get everything they wish just as the conservative wing of the Republican Party remains unhappy with Obamacare still intact and an unsatisfactory Tax Reform bill sitting on life-support.
Madison went on to affirm this in Federalist 10, “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.” It is the dispersion of power that provides the greatest barrier to factional takeover.
Our government was designed to breed gridlock. Governing is difficult and requires many concessions. Yet a system with checks and balances on not only the various levels of government, but the political winds that shape them is one which can stand the test of time. No system is foolproof, and our parties reflect their electorates. But let’s not cast out the baby with the bathwater when attempting to address the hyper-partisanship plaguing America today. Concerns of those who might prefer a different system are oftentimes valid, and their solutions understandable. But to forgo the design the Founders instituted would soon be realized a detriment to future generations who would not be afforded the privilege of living under the greatest system of government ever conceived. Life would go on, but it would not be the same.
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