Would you rather cut off an arm or cut off a leg?
This kind of question brings me back to days of long car trips and hypothetical games of “Would you rather.” Always the choice between two undesirable things, you were left to consider how to best mitigate for two bad choices.
If you didn’t understand the 2016 election, consider that most swing voters likely felt this way. If you are reading this and you loved your candidate, great. That’s your right in a free and fair election. But it’s important to understand that not everyone did. Instead, it was a game of “would you rather” with some very effective fearmongering on both sides.
This kind of situation means that the parties are being led idealistically from the edge, and anyone who trends in the middle as far as beliefs may feel like no party meets their needs.
What are the downsides of a two-party system?
Essentially, we are looking at the biggest issue. Deadlock and blame. The only thing this country does quickly at this point, and well, is disaster relief. That’s because there is nobody on the other side to blame in order to withhold funds or stall implementation and nobody gets a win for doing what is considered right and decent by almost all of the country. It is just what you do.
However, for the rest of the issues, here is a look at the risks of having just two parties with most of the power:
· Deadlock becomes about avoiding a win for the other party. Obstructionism reigns and good ideas get shelved to keep voters angry at the party in power and get them ousted next election.
· Bad ideas can get hidden more easily in bills as riders as incentives to get needed party-line votes.
· Groups with unique viewpoints get diluted into either red or blue. If your loyalty is assumed, it’s unlikely that your needs will get met quickly. If you’re in the center, you may need to prioritize your ideals and issues to choose a side.
· Lobbyists with cash for election campaigns have a stronger voice (especially in tight races) than voters/constituents who have different needs.
· Anything good accomplished by the party in power get undone when the next party takes power. Thus, nothing ever happens.
What could a centrist third party accomplish?
The biggest benefit of having a third party is eliminating party majorities. In order to pass a policy, a party must work with a second party and consider their needs in order to get a piece of legislation passed. In other words, party line votes would no longer be enough, and bills would seem fairer.
As an example, suppose you wanted the long-awaited infrastructure bill to finally go through. There is already bipartisan support. The centrists, at 30 percent of the House, would need to be on board with the bill in order for it to pass. Which means that if either Democrats or Republicans were to put out a bill, it would need to be reasonable enough for centrists to want it.
The need to work together would change, fundamentally, what we are hearing about the way that congress functions now. Justifying the reason to vote against a good bill where your party is being pressured to obstruct it is hard, and we, the people suffer for it at the expense of party power. This would return a lot of the power to the hands of the populace.
Can a third party with any power happen?
Unfortunately, creating a third party is not an easy thing to do. This is particularly true in a system where all the funding and the power belongs to two parties who won’t want to cede it easily. As an optimist, however, I also believe that there are more centrists than voter registries and election results suggest.
It would take a lot of work, an organized group spearheading the charge, and a large enough set of voters to change a system that has been standard since Teddy Roosevelt tried this with the Bull Moose party and lost control of the White House for Republicans.
This has been tried with parties who are not in the middle. Libertarians and the Green Party, in particular, have name recognition and a following. But their ideas don’t get at the basic needs that aren’t getting met due to two-party tug of war.
It would be hard. It would require an inspired group of people willing to work tirelessly and a large enough faction of politicians willing to break from their parties to something more in line with their own ideals. It would require the right skill sets to make sure the centrists got the ballot positions, debate slots and ad time to matter.
Like the parties now, there would not be a perfect alignment of ideas. Fiscal conservatives with socially liberal beliefs would need to find a way to work with Christian environmentalists and veterans for universal health care. It would require the tolerance, listening, and self-examination that is not happening now.
But perhaps when we have gotten to where enough people are tired of the status quo, there will be enough people brave enough to try.