Two Party (one party) system origin?

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    Today we seem to have an illusory two-party system where both parties tend to put forward weak, watered down candidates that are mostly pro-statism. They seem to be calculated to as nearly identical as possible on most issues, vocalize strong opposition over a few minor points with which to differentiate themselves, and almost never stick to those few points of difference once elected. Thus we see Obama who carries on a policy almost indistinguishable from Bush the Lesser’s, who didn’t vary much from the Clintonian, and so forth. The only “real” candidates discernable are running as third parties, but we are told that we are throwing away our vote if we choose to vote for one or the other.

    This makes sense when you step back and realize that the same corporate interests invest in both candidates heavily, apparently have a controlling interest in both, and therefore both major party candidates are going to have similar policies as dictated by their corporatist masters. And the majority of Americans cannot grasp that. Both major parties are driving the nation off a cliff and they’re arguing over which radio station is playing.

    So the question is, when did it get this way?

    It seems to me that, once upon a time, the President and the Vice President were voted for separately and that they didn’t have to be from the same party. In fact, it seems like it was preferable to have one from opposing parties in each position such that the VP was chomping at the heels of the President, just waiting for him or her to screw up. At the same time, it seems that impeachment was perceived as an actual check on the power of the various branches, (the Executive, for example) and that it should be used regularly and with gusto when in violation of their office.

    At some point, somewhere, we started getting the President and Vice President running together on the same ticket. You couldn’t vote for one without voting for the other.

    At some point, the Democratic and Republican Parties became the official parties of the State and even get taxpayer money to put on their grand National Conventions whereas, as I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong), none of the other third parties get such generous terms.

    It seems that the right to vote has been converted into a charade of representative government. Just let me pick the candidates, and you can vote as much as you want, as often as you want.

    How the heck did we get here? Was it really that easy to fool almost all of the people all of the time? In all good comic book characters, hero and villain, there’s always an “origin story.” I’m curious about this one and how it may serve as a caution to others who may be designing a new government. Is it even possible to avoid this trap?


    It happened over time.

    1) The way the U.S. electoral system is structured, two parties is the “equilibrium point” (to use a flawed concept). Factions that in other countries, with other systems, would be in their own party end up as part of a big coalition party (not that I endorse a multiparty system; most of these are even worse, though for other reasons) because everything is set up around having a majority and winning the presidency: it’s a binary system so it produces a binary dynamic.

    The most that can happen is what happened a couple times early on: the rise of a new party causes the collapse of one of the older ones (or, conversely, the collapse of one of the older ones opens up space for a new one to rise). Creating new parties is hard, and is made harder all the time (see below), so usually now people/groups who want a party simply take over one of the existing ones; this method first happened in 1896, with the takeover of the old Democratic Party by Bryanite radical populist-progressives, who shifted from the Republican Party (and, conversely, this takeover caused groups that were formerly Democrats to shift into the Republican party) (a switch described by Rothbard in one of these lectures here, though now I forget if it is most fully detailed in “The Decline of Laissez Faire” or “The Rise and Fall of Monopolies,” or “Tarrifs, Inflation, Anti-Trust” – all I do remember is that though “Pietism and the Power Brokers” is really good, as I remember, the 1896 party realignment is detailed most fully in one of the other lectures).

    Anyhow, two-parties is basically the product of how the U.S. electoral system is set up, and it is possible to avoid that particular trap, but not without falling into another (such as establishing a system that is more conducive to multiparties, the product of which usually is endless coalitions, usually made up of the same parties that form a coalition, with small single-focus parties then demanding, as a price of their participation in the coalition, significant control over their pet issue, and the position they hold on that pet issue may be one where 80% of the rest of the electorate opposes them, but they get their way anyhow. Another usual dynamic of seriously multiparty systems is that because either the coalitions are eternally “stable,” you basically get the same policies no matter who you vote for OR they’re eternally “unstable” – that is, swings are so wild and coalitions so fragile that the “governments” (that is, the elective aspects of them) collapse frequently; in either case, bureaucracies end up having even more control – and I bet you didn’t think this was possible, but it is – over policy than under our system. Such multiparty states are controlled almost entirely by the Permanent Party of Government, despite any riotous political activity in the streets).


    Handling this point separately:

    Today we seem to have an illusory two-party system where both parties tend to put forward weak, watered down candidates that are mostly pro-statism. They seem to be calculated to as nearly identical as possible on most issues, vocalize strong opposition over a few minor points with which to differentiate themselves, and almost never stick to those few points of difference once elected.

    Political scientists in general have a theory, a flawed but still useful one, for why this happens.

    Imagine the political spectrum as a line, running from 0 – 100. People (the electorate) have some distribution across this line, but for definitional purposes “50” is the exact middle of the electorate (if the views of the electorate shift, so too does the location of the magic “50” number. That is, the spectrum always remains, as an abstraction, 0-100 with 50 as its middle regardless of beliefs).

    Each party’s “bases” are distributed somewhere along this spectrum, we’ll say the average “Donkeycrat” voter is at 25, and the typical “Eliphublican” voter is at 75. We’ll also say that voters – people who have already decided they are going to waste their time going to vote* are, by and large and for the most part,** going to vote for the party whose views are closest to their own.

    The logic of this is that a party can gain more votes – and, theoretically, lose none (remember, we’re considering here only voters who have already decided to vote, and to vote for one of the parties with a chance of winning) – by shifting towards the center. If Party D remains at 25 (the center of it’s “base,”) then party E can gain votes by shifting from 75 to, say, 60: they now capture all their old votes, plus some of the people near the middle who would otherwise have voted for D. They are teh winrar! But, hey, not so fast, dood – Party D can play this game, too! They also shift, but they decide to shift moar; they move from 25 all the way to 48! Now they are teh winrar! Only, not so fast…E moves again…

    And soon you end up with two parties each trying to crowd the middle as closely as possible, while still throwing red meat to their bases (to keep them interested in voting at all), and each trying to portray the other as “out of the mainstream”/”fringe kooks.”

    *Political scientists still have not – and they openly admit this – come up with a satisfactory explanation for why people bother to vote in the first place, since it is such a low-value use of time.

    **Spending your vote on a party which is guaranteed to have no chance of winning – any “fringe” party in a two-party system – is, in the sense of winning, irrational. At least according to political scientists. Now people may have rational reasons for voting that way anyhow, some are willing to concede, but these reasons have nothing to do with winning elections and thus determining what policies get implemented, so these votes are “safely ignored” in this model.


    Of course, both of those explainations just get into the electoral dynamics and do not even begin to touch the ways in which the parties collude together when in power.

    Which then comes to your point about why the deck is stacked in their favor: each party is full of people who belong to the Party of Incumbency, over time they form, in essence, a cartel, and are able to use the fact that they write the laws and they enforce them (as executives) and their appointees (judges) rule on them to stack the deck even further in their favor and against potential competitors; they set up campaign finance laws that finance each other, ballot access laws that restrict potential “outsiders” from gaining a toehold, and so on.

    plus of course since each Party is basically pushed towards being near identical under this system, they end up drawing from similar donor groups; big donors give to the parties not so much on the basis of ideas (though some do that as well), but to have and maintain “access” no matter who wins (or loses), so the same influential people end up having disproportionate influence no matter which side wins (think Goldman Sachs executives who end up in the Treasury or wherever; no matter which Party wins, there is always some Goldman guy. And so on).


    The other thing that emerges out of this system is that people who do want to influence elections ideologically primarily do it by organizing or funding interest groups outside the party structure (though often tied to interests within it), and only secondarily within the party structures.

    They then attempt to mobilize people to share/who share their views in “get out the vote” efforts, which, if successful, have the effect of shifting the ideology of the actual electorate (if more people who believe x vote, the “50” moves in that direction).

    The other thing activism does is shape the perception politicians have of where that “50” is (letter-writing campaigns, protests, and other schemes to make a group seem numerous or at least intensely interested – and voter intensity often matters, out of the numbers involved. Intensely interested minorities can often get their way on issues of interest to them, because it matters more to them than to the average voter).

    Then there’s the ultimate way of shifting the electorate, which is not directly done by parties at all: managing “public opinion” (Chomsky often highlights the concept of “manufacturing consent,” and Lippmann, but without noting that at the time Lipmann wrote that, Walter was a left-progressive social democrat. This is their method, though now it’s also attempted, with less success, by the right), capturing institutions that promulgate ideas and other methods of, to put it starkly, mind control/manipulation methods.

    This is one reason why education, both “higher” and “primary,” has become corrupted. It’s the ultimate way to sway electorates by inputting beliefs directly into impressionable young people.

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