What do you do in a 2-party system when one party goes off the rails?
Americans tend to view European multi-party systems with incomprehension, if not disdain; how do the representatives of different parties form coalitions to support particular policies? Isn’t the electoral competition of multiple parties an invitation to chaos? We Americans prefer our Manichean dualism, the “either/or” of “right or wrong” (or actually, the tribalism of “us versus them.”)
It’s time to recognize that two-party systems have considerable downsides, too.
In reality, our two major parties have always been collections of not-necessarily-consistent factions. They haven’t always been really big tents, but each party has historically encompassed a variety of philosophies. When I was much younger, the complaint was that the tents were too commodious–that having to choose between Republican and Democrat didn’t really provide the voter with a way to declare a clear policy preference, the way a Brit voter for the Green Party could, for example.
As the GOP has become far, far more monolithic, we can see the downside of that once-desired clarity. For one thing, there’s currently no political home for sane, principled conservatives, many of whom are appalled by what has become of a once-traditional party. (Remember when many Republicans were “fiscal conservatives and social liberals”?)
To the extent that some of those homeless conservatives have reluctantly become Democrats, the Democratic Party faces a huge challenge.
Democrats have always had a bigger tent than Republicans, and have accordingly had trouble enforcing anything that looks like party discipline. (What was that old saying? I don’t belong to an organized political party–I’m a Democrat.) With the addition of disaffected former Republicans, Democratic strategists find themselves trying to herd cats–trying to achieve something approaching consensus among legislators and voters who come from very different places on the political spectrum.
It’s one thing to note that the devolution of the GOP into a conspiracist cult is a huge headache for the Democrats. A much bigger worry is what that devolution means for American democracy. As Jennifer Rubin has written,
A new survey from Bright Line Watch, an organization that monitors democratic practices, provides some interesting insights but little solace about Republicans’ commitment to democracy. They might say they support democratic principles (e.g., “All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights”), but they fail to embrace the most fundamental democratic principle: acceptance of election results and the peaceful transfer of power.
The most basic disconnect from reality (and democratic values) remains the 2020 presidential winner. The survey reports, “94% of Democrats say [President] Biden is the rightful winner compared to just 26% of Republicans — a split that has also remained remarkably stable since Biden took office.” As a result, only 42 percent of Republicans have confidence in the outcome of elections compared to 80 percent of Democrats. That raises a question that was so prominent throughout the Senate runoffs in Georgia: Why vote if you think the whole thing is rigged?
Rubin notes that political scientists “are especially alarmed” by the number of GOP candidates who do not accept the results of the 2020 election–not just those running for Congress, but at least 10 GOP candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states. Putting partisans who endorse Trump’s “Big Lie” in charge of administering elections poses a huge threat to election integrity from within.
The transformation of one major party into an illiberal, authoritarian movement is the greatest threat to democracy we face. It manifests itself in the “anti-fraud” measures (when there is no fraud) to restrict access to the ballot and to put partisans in charge of election administration; in the GOP’s decision to rally around House members who spout virulent racism and depict violence against Democrats; and in the real potential that the John Eastman memo becomes the 2024 post-election game plan for Republicans.
Unless and until all 50 Democratic senators realize that “bipartisanship” on voting and democracy reforms is impossible with a party infected with anti-democratic impulses, they will fail to install the guardrails needed to protect the country from these authoritarian forces.
In multi-party systems, members of a Green Party can find common ground with legislators from a Labor Party or a Conservative party on a number of issues. In today’s U.S., however,”bipartisanship” requires lawmakers who are trying to enact reasonable policies to work with people who are steeped in racist conspiracy theories and are clearly untethered to reality.
Research confirms that there are many more sane voters than the Trumpers who control today’s GOP, but they need to vote and those votes need to be accurately counted. When the Whigs disappeared, they hadn’t gerrymandered themselves into positions of power disproportionate to their numbers. Today’s Republicans have.
Note: like most of you, I am watching–with fear and disbelief–the Russian assault on Ukraine. I have no foreign policy expertise, and there are numerous sources of genuinely informed news available, so I don’t intend (at this point, at least) to post about it. That said, I will make two observations: first, President Biden has spent much of his career immersed in foreign policy, and I have confidence in his leadership at this very perilous moment; second, the Trump party’s reflexive support for Putin isn’t simply on the wrong side of history, it is reminiscent of the Americans who sided with Hitler and the Nazis at the outset of WWII.