Monday, July 11, 2011

What two-party stranglehold?

Commentator Bruce Maiman asks in the Sacramento Bee: "Is it time to break the stranglehold of Republicans and Democrats in American politics?" Maiman argues against the two-party system of America, claiming that it is radicalizing the democracy.

I myself often bemoaning the lack of a viable "third" option (or fourth, or fifth,...) in the American electorate so the argument should strike a chord with me.

But it doesn't. Because, for all their visibility, the two main political parties in the United States do not dominate the political process as much as one would think.

For starters, unlike notable parliamentary democracies where the "majority party" gets invited to form a government, America's system of separation of powers ensures that the chief executive officer will be elected even if no political parties exist. Indeed, it is theoretically possible for an independent/third-party candidate to be elected as president even as the legislature stays under the domination of the two major parties.

Secondly, the system of primaries for nominating party candidates in state and national elections opens another major pathway for non-conformist candidates to win nomination. This also speaks a lot for local independence, a major break from some other electoral systems where party headquarters patronizingly nominate candidates. A recent manifestation of the success of this system was when numerous Tea Party candidates dislodged well-entrenched Republican candidates to win nominations and elections. Indeed, my candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination - Ron Paul - is far from your stereotypical Republican, but he is still a legitimate runner for the party nomination.

Lastly, observe how legislators in US states and federal governments vote. While contentious issues are sometimes sharply split along party lines, voting on many other issues is not. Because candidates do get elected without the patronage of the centralized party bureaucracy, the system of "party whip" is much weaker here.

So, while Mr. Maiman's outrage at the "stranglehold" of the two main parties is rightly placed, there is nothing that needs to be done. A few minor tweaks like discontinuing public sponsorship of party primaries and banishing the use of partisan titles in state and national legislatures (e.g. "Democratic leader" or "minority leader") would be nice. But besides that, the apparent domination of political dialogue by the two parties is as fickle as Justin Bieber being wildly popular. Nobody can do anything about it, but there's no harm coming out of it either.

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