Note: Please bear in mind that the political explanations below are simplified for brevity. I would be glad to go into further detail in the blog section to answer additional questions.
What type of government do we have in the United States?
You might want to say a democracy. That’s certainly the right buzzword, right? After all, we talk about foreign democracies all the time, and use the phrase “western democracy.
But, you would be wrong.
America is not a democracy. It’s a Republic. Why does this distinction matter?
For one thing, it actually sets the stage for the problem. The founding fathers chose to create a republic, rather than a democracy, to solve some of the practical and ideological problems that would come about in a democracy. At the risk of sounding pedantic (a self fulfilling statement if there ever was one!), I’d like to give the quick comparison and contrast. In a democracy, the citizens really do form the government in a direct way. Every government decision, from budgets and bonds to new criminal laws and military decisions, are made by the population as a whole. But this gets cumbersome very quickly; for one thing, who has time? People are busy enough living their lives without having to invest time every day to deal with the society’s problems. (Many political activists still face this problem.) Not only that, but how well equipped is the average citizen to make these decisions? How do you neutrally frame the questions so that people can vote fairly? (For instance, do you propose “a bill to protect a woman’s right to choose” or “a bill to allow doctors to kill fetuses”?)
Because of all of these issues and more, the framers of the Constitution, particularly James Madison, elected instead to set up a representative government. We the people choose representatives to go to Congress and the White House, and we trust those individuals to represent our will and do a good job of making wise decisions, perhaps wiser decisions than we ourselves could make. This is a great idea.
Except when its not.
The founders envisioned a representative system that would allow us, as citizens of the country and each state, to choose representatives that well, represent us. But it didn’t take long for a system of formalized factions to form. Various parties shared power in different ways prior to the 20th century, but by the time of Theodore Roosevelt, Congress was solidly shared between only two parties: the democrats, and the republicans. In the past century, no other party has enjoyed more than nominal representation in the House of Representatives, and the few “independents” in the Senate have tended to act as a member of one party or the other.
A system with few political parties inherently results in a less-representative set of representatives.
Each party tries to be a “big tent” and accommodate people with a somewhat diverse set of beliefs. For instance, the Republican party seeks to incorporate people who are “conservative.” But “conservative” by their definition starts with both fiscal and social conservatism, by a certain definition. But there are actually a number of different belief sets within conservatism. Today we see the “Tea Party” groups alongside “Big Business” conservatives, libertarians, and religious fundamentalists. These groups actually have nearly opposite interests, yet, by virtue of the bipartisan system, are lumped together.
The same is the case on the left: social liberals, pacifists, feminists, environmentalists, and even “real” socialists are lumped together in the Democratic party.
In fact, on both sides of the aisle, there are actually existing parties that would do a much better job than The Two Parties of representing each of these groups of people. The Libertarian Party, the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Right to Life party, and the Socialist party- and that’s just off the top of my head.
So, that’s part one of the problem: the two parties simply do a poor job of representing the diverse views of Americans.
The second part is probably more severe, and simply put, it is the tyranny of the majority.
At the time of this writing, in March of 2011, the House of Republicans is heavily dominated by the Republican party. Some of the bills that have been proposed and passed by this house are, frankly, extreme representations of partisan views. When one party has even a simple majority, that party can, in essence, do whatever they want. (Yes, there are checks and balances through the bicameral legislature and the separation of powers. That is an issue for a lengthier discussion.) The current Republican majority in Congress, for instance, has passed several bills that can easily be categorized as partisan, such as HR 43, a bill to “roll back” non-security spending to 2008 levels. Every Republican voted the same way (aye) clearly demonstrating the party’s power to enact its own views without regard to the consensus of well, anyone else. HR 9, ”Instructing certain committees to report legislation replacing the job-killing health care law” actually includes in its title words intended to actually make fun of a previously successful initiative of the other party.
This may just come across as legislative bickering to some, but it’s not hard to see grievously harmful examples. Some feel that the 2009 health care bill and the New Deal represent such examples; others may also regard certain military authorizations in the same way. The “Bush tax cuts” are another clear example; while such a controversial definition is, by definition, favored by some, there is no clear understanding as to whether this legislation really does serve the common good.
The party which holds the majority of the House of Representatives runs that house. That makes a two party system into a one party system.
A one party system is no Republic. It is a very far cry from democracy. And thus, the tyranny of the majority is the key problem with the the two-party system.