The Root Cause of America’s Political Dysfunction | Columns

As Joe Biden and Donald Trump are now officially set to square off—again—for the presidency, many Americans are asking the same question: Why?

Why are these two men—both historically old and deeply unpopular—the finalists for America’s most important and demanding job? 

The answer is America’s two-party political system. While third parties occasionally make some noise, they never threaten the Democrat-Republican duopoly. 

Just as America’s founders feared. In his Farewell Address to the country upon leaving the presidency, George Washington warned against having only two political parties: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” According to Washington, rival political parties “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.” John Adams, for his part, considered a two-party system a significant threat to the republic: “a division of the republic into two great parties . . . is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”

Indeed, the fewer tribes there are, the more extreme tribalism gets. And in America the two political tribes battle each other—and only each other—every single day. This myopic rivalry amplifies bias, warps the marketplace of ideas, shunts policy platforms, stifles compromise and negotiation, and leads to subpar and underqualified government officials. 

A deeply backward approach now predominates: hating the other side even more than you like your own. An October 2020 study published in Science Magazine titled Political Sectarianism in America, highlighted this new paradigm: “Democrats and Republicans—the 85% of U.S. citizens who do not identify as pure independents—have grown more contemptuous of opposing partisans for decades, and at similar rates.” Recently, the study continued, “this aversion exceeded their affection for copartisans.”

Indeed, when you hate Trump viscerally it makes his opponent, Biden, seem like a better candidate than he really is. And vice versa. 

The two-party system has made things a lot worse over the last fifteen years. Lee Drutman, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, explained in 2020 that while “America’s two-party system goes back centuries, the threat today is new and different because the two parties are now truly distinct, a development that I date to the 2010 midterms. Until then the two parties contained enough overlapping multitudes within them that the sort of bargaining and coalition-building natural to multiparty democracy could work inside the two-party system. No more.”

A more diverse set of political parties would invigorate mainstream political discourse with additional points of view, as today many important ideas aren’t championed by either side. The introduction of new ideas and coalitions would reduce rigid partisanship, calm bias and tribalism, and provide incentives for government officials to respect empirical reality and not just reflexively appease their constituencies. As Drutman put it, a multi-party system would be “more fluid and responsive to Americans’ political preferences” and help “dissolve our binary partisanship.”

Additional major political parties wouldn’t solve everything, to be sure. The new parties’ specific policy platforms would be centrally important. There would still be some gridlock in Congress. Tribalism and social-media echo chambers wouldn’t simply disappear. And other defects in the political system would hang around. 

But a vibrant multi-party system would squarely address and materially reduce the biggest problems in US politics: tribal rivalry and irrational partisanship. A more diverse and rational political system would make elections more about individual merit and less about party loyalty. And this would likely lead to talented and energetic presidential candidates who are a good fit for the job—in stark contrast to what we have now. 

William Cooper is an attorney, national columnist, and award-winning author. He has penned “How America Works … and Why It Doesn’t.’

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