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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

The two-party system is collapsing.  What’s next?



 

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!


Note, long read! You can always come back to finish.


Both the Democratic and Republican parties are riven with internal conflict. They are struggling to keep members inside the tent, and to engage young voters who increasingly want nothing to do with either of them.  They are losing power and relevance, and the decline is accelerating.

 

In 2023, just 4 percent of Americans said the political system was working extremely or very well, according to Pew Research Center.   Politico pinpoints the financial crisis that hit around 2006-2008 as the moment when party registration really started to tank.

 

Our political system is built on a two-party scaffold.  At the moment, the system is propping up those parties.  But in addition to voters leaving the parties in droves, people across the political spectrum are attacking the scaffold itself with different electoral reforms.  The scaffold will hold – until it doesn’t.

 

We’ll discuss what a better system would be, what is happening that could help us get there (or not), and how progressives might navigate the collapse and steer the country toward a better future.

 

How To Break The Two-Party System

 

A piece in Al Jazeera by Christopher Rhodes laid it out quite succinctly: “The only hope that politicians and voters have to break the two-party system is to change the way America conducts elections.”

 

He goes on to say:  “Making this happen is possible not through throwing support behind third party candidates in the existing system, but by convincing or compelling those politicians already in power – generally representing the two established parties – to change the rules of how we elect candidates.” 

 

The Vision Of A Better Future

 

Rhodes describes what that alternate America would look like. “In a United States with a different voting system, [AOC] could run as a Social Democrat, as the equivalent party is known in a number of countries.

 

“Similarly, fiscally conservative but secular libertarians and socially conservative Evangelicals would be able to maintain separate parties instead of sitting under the umbrella of the GOP.  Environmentalists, pro-labour voters, and other interest and advocacy groups could carve out their own parties.” 


The parties get seats in the legislature based on their percentage of votes.  Then the leading party works with smaller but like-minded parties to form a ruling coalition.  In various forms, this is how it works in most places around the world. 

 

People challenging the Democrat and Republican hegemony are not fighting for a multi-party system like that at present.  We can’t get there in one step from the two-party system we have now.

 

There is a danger that Americans will get so angry that they just tear down the system we have, without a plan for what should take its place.  That would leave us open to chaos and a “shock doctrine” authoritarian government.  We need to figure out what steps we could take to make progress and hold things together in the short and medium term, and ultimately get us to the promised land.

 

Moving Toward A Tipping Point

 

 

A recent story in Politico tells the story of an independent candidate becoming the first non-GOP candidate ever to be elected mayor in conservative Colorado Springs, CO, to illustrate how the collapse is manifesting right now.

 

The mayor, a Nigerian-born former preacher named Yemi Mobolade (pictured), predicts a “tipping point” for America’s two parties sometime in the next 50 years, when they would lose their hold on the American political system.  Some people place the timeline at more like 20 years.  I believe it could be even less.

 

How Colorado Parties Are Relating To Voters Now

 

Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist, told Politico that Mobolade’s election and the surge of voters disaffiliating from party registration had sent “shockwaves” through the ranks of political professionals in the state.

 

Mischa Smith, the chair of the county Democratic party in Colorado Springs, described Mobolade’s election as an independent as “a win for us because we did not elect a Republican.” But fewer than 20% of voters in the county are registered as Democrats.

 

When the party undertakes a voter outreach effort this summer, it will include unaffiliated women and younger voters — the party’s first concerted, widespread effort to target unaffiliated voters, Smith said.  And though the party will be encouraging them to vote for Democratic candidates, Smith said, they will not be pushing people at the doors to affiliate with the party.  Why?  “People hate parties,” she said. 

  

How The Parties Are Fracturing

 

The GOP

 

There are pitched battles between the MAGA people and the “mainstream” conservatives.  MAGA people have taken control of many state parties and lower-level entities.  They have been able to ram very extreme legislation through some statehouses in the past few years. 

 

NYT has a good example of this from Michelle Goldberg,  In Indiana, the MAGA revolution eats its own.   Goldberg notes ominously, “The divide within the Republican Party, in Indiana as elsewhere, isn’t really between moderates and conservatives, because almost everyone involved is very right-wing. It is, rather, between people who know how to work within the existing system, and outsiders who want to overturn it.”

 

The challenge to the party is not only from the right. There actually are an increasing number of conservatives, generally the more moderate ones, who are organizing around things like electoral reform, bipartisanship, and even action on climate change.  I’ll be talking more about them in a future post.

 

Though a lot of “old money” and established leadership is still with the “mainstream” conservatives, sometimes it doesn’t matter, as we saw with Nikki Haley’s campaign.  Longtime voters have left the party and electeds have been primaried out.

 

The Democrats

 

The MAGA element may be dominating the GOP right now, but the mainstream is still in charge of the Democrats. 

 

The Democrats have lost a lot of people who see the party as captured by elites and corporate interests.  Some have gone to Trump, some to the progressive left.  Some mainstream Democrats are unhappy with progressives, especially our left flank, which they see as too “woke.” In some cases, they are trying to keep the left out of office and out of power in the party.

 

Despite that, the progressive left has elected Democrats to city and state governments as well as Congressional seats across the country.  They have dethroned a number of powerful mainstream elected officials.  The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) includes the full spectrum of progressives, including the eight or so Squad members of the House. 

 

Left-leaning proto-parties DSA and Working Families Party (WFP) have had success and are, in some ways, increasingly ambitious.  They have a presence around the country, including some red states and areas, though many states are not there yet.   They have to run as Democrats at present. 

 

Politico captured the importance of a recent development that shows how the winds of change are accelerating.  As they put it:  An ‘atomic bomb’ just fell on one of America’s most powerful party bosses [George Norcross, indicted by the state AG on corruption charges].  As New Jersey’s notoriously boss-driven political system faces peril, a crop of younger Democrats are ready to dance on its grave.”

 

So that is more complicated than what is going on in the GOP.  Both parties, to be sure, are fracturing. 

 

What the near future holds: Open Primaries/Final Five

 

As I wrote about earlier this year, open or “jungle” primaries are a direct challenge to the parties’ ability to control who gets on the general election ballot.  Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent, if you’re among the top vote getters in the one primary for all comers, you will move on to the general.  The plus for voters is that independents could vote in primaries without having to choose a party or party ballot. 


There aren’t many states that use them yet, but the idea is gaining currency. 

 

CA is the best known state to have a jungle primary.  However, limiting the primary winners to two, as they do, doesn’t really upset the apple cart much. 

 

Several states are taking on the newest variety, called Final Five (or Final Four).  Montana, Idaho, and Nevada either have ballot initiatives on the ballot or are awaiting the final signature count to get on.  Pennsylvania and Arizona are also considering versions of it.  In this iteration, the top four or five candidates in the open primary get onto the general election ballot, which is then decided by ranked choice voting. 

 

This is a real game-changer for candidates. They can both compete for the general population’s support in the primary, and work with like-minded candidates to get one of their own elected through RCV.

 

New Republican support is building.  For example, Democracy Found was created in part by Katherine Gehl, who authored a seminal study with a colleague from the Harvard Business School, The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.  Based in Wisconsin, their advisory board includes some of the state’s heaviest hitters in the business world, like Bud Selig, and they have a coalition that covers the political spectrum.  They are supporting a Final Five campaign in Wisconsin.

 

In Idaho, the list of Republicans for Open Primaries seemingly includes every prominent Republican in the state.

 

What the near future holds: Independent Candidates

 

There are not many of them elected to office now.  But those that are, tend to punch above their weight.  Currently there are four “indie” US Senators – Manchin and Sinema, who left the Democrats and are not running again, plus Bernie Sanders and Angus King.  Dan Osborn in Nebraska has a real chance to get elected in November. 

 

Imagine if we elected enough independents to be able to move something like ending the filibuster or fixing the Supreme Court.

 

What the near future holds: Ranked Choice Voting – Pro

 

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) alone doesn’t limit the power of parties like Final Five does.  However, it can mean that more people who support election reform could band together and get one of their own elected.  That matters because we MUST elect more supporters across the political spectrum, by hook or by crook, to ever have a chance to dramatically change our system.

 

Almost half the states use RCV for at least some elections in some of their municipalities, including our largest city, NYC, as well as Seattle.  Oregon is considering ranked choice voting for all state/Federal elections this fall.  Connecticut has appointed a commission to look into it. It has been growing steadily.

 

RCV has always had some bipartisan support, as shown in this op ed from The Hill,  “Why Ranked-Choice voting is a win for Republicans.”    

 

 

Ranked Choice Voting – Con

 

In another sign of how upside-down things are, warring groups of Republicans are on both sides of the RCV debate.  In Wisconsin, the state legislature tried to kill RCV around the same time that Final Five campaigners with strong GOP support were in the state capital.

 

Killing RCV is now one of ALEC’s top priorities.  Ten GOP-dominated states now ban RCV, including five who did it just this year.  Anti-RCV measures are on the ballot this fall in Alaska and Missouri.  One hopes that the GOP fracture on this will prevent some of the anti-RCV plans from coming to fruition.

 

An increasing flood of anti-RCV opinion is appearing as well, like this brain-twister.

 

What the near future holds: independent redistricting and ballot access

 

I covered a number of the other things we need to do, like create independent redistricting commissions and make it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballot by lowering ballot access requirements, here. 

 

Gerrymandering, or drawing election districts to favor the party in power, is an anti-democratic practice completely driven by the parties’ leadership.  This is a foundational aspect of parties’ control of our political system, and they know it. Recently the battles over this have become much more contested and public, even as dark money floods in.

 

ProPublica had a sobering piece on how poorly the battle to clean this up has been goingPolls do show a majority of the GOP rank and file supports independent districts.  Strong, long-term organizing and financial backup are really needed for this to ever get done.

 

Ballot access is another key way that party leaders get their preferred candidates on the ballot, and keep non-preferred candidates off.  Ballot access hurdles, especially for independent and “third party” candidates, are MUCH higher here than in other countries, though it varies considerably by state.

 

This one happens almost entirely under the radar, and growing a movement to fix it would be difficult.  It could be done federally, of course, but I think both parties would prefer it not see the light of day.

 

They had fairly open ballot access in New York, until outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a parting gift to the WFP who had opposed him, raised New York’s hurdles to among the worst in the nation.  I believe he tucked the rule change into a budget bill.

 

Let’s say we win these changes.  What could possibly go wrong?

 

These changes are all ways to create more chances for independent and insurgent candidates to challenge the two-party system – and win.  Getting more of these people into office is a necessary condition, to build the support needed to make more radical change to our political system.

 

As we’ve seen, many aspects of their control are crumbling anyway, due to our general political and economic situation, and discontent with what both parties represent. This collapse, you could say, is necessary – but not sufficient.

 

If we had a bunch of candidates running around without any party label or support, how would people really know who to vote for?   And if there wasn’t party leadership in legislatures, who would negotiate among conflicting interests to get legislation passed? 

 

It reminds me a bit of my ancestral home in the music business.  People hated record labels, their immense power and their exploitive practices.  But now that labels are relatively weak, having every artist out there on their own, trying to get attention and negotiate for themselves with big companies, hasn’t been better for them.

 

Do you support the party that’s for people over profits, or the one that’s profits over people (to oversimplify)?  Without the label, voters might need to do a lot of work to decide who to vote for, and the potential for deception from candidates would be high.

 

And how would we make real change, without a party infrastructure to elect candidates, pass policy legislation, and help staff regulatory agencies?

 

We need new parties.  We need a multi-party system, not a no-party system.

 

“New” parties could mean internal reforms for the Democrats or the GOP, so that a critical mass of people could feel more comfortable in supporting one of them. 


In other countries, there usually are two dominant centrist parties, plus a group of smaller ones across the spectrum, whose support all ebbs and flows.  So the Democrats and Republicans could survive, if they would just move over and make more room.

 

Multi-party systems aren’t new or untested – they’re the norm

 

Since every other country does it, we should be able to figure out how to do it here.  There are starting to be more books and op-eds out there, seriously chin-stratching about this.

 

I love to think about the parties we could have.  The Affordable Housing Party, anyone?  The Farmer/Labor Party?  (They have that in Minnesota in the DFL, but I think it’s mostly a label at this point.)  The Main Street Small Business Party? 

 

First, we do need to break the stranglehold the two parties and their powerful leaders have on our system, with the changes outlined above.  Working across the political spectrum is not an option here.  There IS support for change on both sides, and people are already figuring out how to work together.

 

Second, with a critical mass of support, we could win, let’s say, a national commission on how we could move to a multi-party system. 

 

Third, we would have to decide if we pursue a federal or state solution, or states first. With the state-by-state system we have now, it is already the case that some states are more friendly to independent candidates and “third parties” than others.  We could do research on how those states have fared.  We could also do research, and get support from, the many countries that use multi-party systems and the international organizations that study these things.


Fourth, I think, we would have to actually build, and/or build out, at least a couple of new parties.  I think they would come out of, either some key issue that motivates a lot of people, and/or a well-defined world view that resonates.  The American left has always been terrible at this.  But maybe we could get it together if we had a good incentive.  Again, other countries have well-defined left parties…it’s not impossible.

 

Concurrently, we could build a public education campaign.  We could use the obvious discontent with the status quo as a springboard to putting out ideas about what could come next.

 

The financing of our elections would have to change.  Most countries have more public financing, though they also have private money involved.  This would be a big pitched battle, of course.  Probably one of the last hurdles we’d have to overcome, once we had built up a head of steam.

 

I honestly think it could be done.  What do you think?

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