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In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama discussed at length the importance of reform on the issues of gun control, immigration and the minimum wage. Backtrack one year to the 2013 State of the Union, and it reads like the same speech — Obama called for urgent action on all three of these legislative topics. So what is the state of this union? “Stuck” is one word that leaps to mind.
Obama’s tenure as president has been one characterized by immobility. From the unfulfilled promise of closing Guantanamo years ago, to the stagnant state of many of his climate change proposals made last June, President Obama has hardly been able to accomplish anything during his time in office. Blocking his way is a gridlocked Congress, consisting of a Democrat-led Senate and a predominantly Republican House of Representatives, who both refuse to cooperate.
Even conservatives who oppose his politics should not respond with glee at Obama’s inability to institute meaningful changes. This complete lack of productivity is due in large part to a flawed system — one that is severely lacking in terms of representativeness and efficiency: the two-party system, by which only a Democrat or Republican has a real chance for election.
In America, the options to which a citizen can meaningfully lend their political support are severely limited. The Democrats and Republicans can be traced back as the two dominant parties since the Civil War, and so most Americans view their personal politics to be one of the two options. If you are liberal, you support the Democrats. If you are conservative, you support the Republicans. When election season comes, you vote along party lines.
While the existence of third parties can certainly be considered common knowledge, most Americans have little to say about them. The Libertarian approach to government has gained some traction lately, due in large part to the unrelenting worship by Ron Paul’s followers during the 2012 presidential race. Paul ran as a Republican, though, and the actual Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, garnered less than one percent of the popular vote. Most Americans have at least heard of the Green Party, but likely can’t name a notable member without the last name Nader. Third parties sit on the edge of obscurity in this country, and the brave soul who chooses to vote for one must brace themselves for the inevitable: “Oh, so you throw your vote away?”
The prospects for a rise to power by a third party are undeniably grim, due to the self-perpetuating nature of a two-party structure. The winner-take-all format through which we elect both congressmen and presidents means that only the winning candidates’ party is provided representation. Strategically, this forces voters to only support parties they believe have an actual chance of capturing the majority, as to not “throw away their vote.” When voters are painted into this corner, minority parties are not considered viable options, and receive less and less support. Meanwhile, majority parties win representation, and therefore control legislation for the voting procedures that would need to change in order for this endless cycle to stop repeating.
The issues we trust our politicians to resolve are highly complicated and heavily nuanced. Yet, when it comes time to vote, we are asked to cram all of our political views into one of two ends of a spectrum. When discussing politics, we are encouraged to pick a team (what could be simpler than “red or blue?”) and then follow the script they provide. This is problematic for obvious reasons: it stifles our ability to think for ourselves, and promotes the entrenchment in a single approach to government. It tells us that America is polarized; it divides us and encourages the combative. Who wins? The political parties do, as wealthy donors throw billions of dollars their way in hopes of victory. Who loses? We do.
We lose because once the self-absorbed infants we elect to office get there, they refuse to work together. Earlier this year, the government literally shut down because Republicans refused to pass a spending bill until Democrats amended the healthcare bill that had already been passed. Like children on a playground, when the Republicans lost, they threatened to quit the whole game unless the score was changed. Democrats, don’t bother being smug; both parties are guilty of throwing fits.
While no political structure is flawless, it is not as if there are no feasible alternatives for electing officials. Countries that employ “proportional representation” are one intriguing example. By proportional representation, any party receiving a certain baseline percentage of the total votes is allocated that portion of the seats in their congress or parliament. Germany, for example, uses a version of this proportional system to elect their federal governing body. Currently, four political parties hold a meaningful number of seats in the German Bundestag. While there are two parties considered more dominant than the others, minority parties still play an important role, because they can form coalitions with larger parties, deeply impacting the power struggle in parliament. This is not to say Germany is the shining example of an ideal political climate; it is just a reminder that there are other large countries which function on a federal level with more than two parties.
Imagine implementing such a system in the States. Suddenly, minority parties are a viable option for congressional voters. While their rise wouldn’t be instant, the idea that a vote for the Libertarian party, for example, could actually lead to Libertarian seats in Congress, would certainly generate interest. With interest comes votes, and with votes comes funding from the political players with the power to catapult a party into representation. Suddenly the conversation changes in Washington. Compromises must be made in order to win over a minority party’s support, and new voices are added to the discussion. Maybe the government could even, you know, start doing its job.
The road to an upheaval of two-party dominance in American politics is a long and uncertain one. It may even be unattainable. But one thing we currently have control over is our mindset. We have the power to register independent. We have the power to make our own decisions. We can remain open to alternative views of government. We can mix and match different concepts from different parties, and form unique and thoughtful opinions. If we stop playing the game, we can change the tone of the politicians who rely on us for our votes. If we stand together against partisan bickering, we can push our politicians towards compromise and progress, and create a government that actually works for us. We deserve as much.
Matthew Meyer is a second-year political science major.