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No Major Shakeup Likely in U.S. Two-Party Political System

 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a rally at The Oval at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., Sunda...
 With wife Cindy cheering him on, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to a rally of supporters in the Zanesville High ...

Obama 2008

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a rally at The Oval at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., Sunda...

McCain 2008

With wife Cindy cheering him on, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to a rally of supporters in the Zanesville High ...

Is the two-party system in U.S. politics on the verge of extinction?

Not likely, analysts on a bipartisan panel agreed at a discussion hosted by the National Archives October 14. But the three panelists predicted the end is near for a conservative cycle in U.S. governance that began with the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan.

The United States has followed the two-party model since the early days of the nation. Since the demise of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, the two dominant factions have been the Republicans and the pre-existing Democratic Party.

Third-party candidates sometimes have performed well in presidential elections — former president Theodore Roosevelt, whose Bull Moose Party candidacy in 1912 helped throw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson; Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette as a Progressive in 1924; Alabama Governor George Wallace on the segregationist American Independent Party ticket in 1968; and businessman Ross Perot as an independent in 1992. None were elected.

Panelist E.J. Dionne, a liberal Washington Post columnist and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, declared the two-party system “so durable it takes an enormous crisis to break it up.” The most recent realignment in the 1850s reflected the crisis over slavery, he observed.

Until an issue of equal magnitude develops, “there’ll be local challenges that are successful, but it’s hard to see the whole system breaking up,” he said.

Dionne lauded political parties as “a democratizing force” and “an effort to organize choices in a rational way in a mass democracy.”

He contrasted the two-party approach favorably to multiparty systems common to many other countries. In Italy, where he reported on politics, “voters voted for parties ranging from Communist to Fascist, various shades of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic and Liberal and Republican.” That resulted in government by undemocratic coalitions assembled after the fact, often behind closed doors, he said.

“Now, our two parties are messy coalitions” within themselves, “but you know who is in the messy coalition when you cast your ballot on Election Day,” Dionne said. “So you know more or less what you’re going to get, and I think that is ultimately more democratic.”

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, agreed that major realignment in the two-party system is unlikely. “I don’t see a change to where we’re going to have three parties, or two and a half parties or one party,” he said.

Brooks, generally considered a conservative, was less enthusiastic about parties than Dionne.

“One of the things corrupting politics right now is an obsessive loyalty to party … loyalty to team displaces loyalty to the truth … [and undermines] individual thought and individual conscience,” Brooks said. He cited regular party policy lunches in the Senate, where members are given “the message of the week, and they all go out and say it.”

Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University and author of American Heritage History of the United States, cast his lot with the two-party system. Despite problems like lobbying and the excessive party loyalty that Brooks addressed, “it serves us pretty well,” he said.

As for the issue of longevity, Brinkley predicted “the Democratic and Republican parties will be here for a long time; I don’t see either self-destructing any time soon.”

Dionne argued that recent problems in the party system result from “a radicalization of American conservatism.”

A pattern in which “Democrats passed programs and Republicans made them efficient … seems to have broken down in the last eight years,” he said.

“I think that what’s gone haywire is what’s happened on the Right,” Dionne said, adding, “This election, if the Republicans lose, will create a very useful ferment in the Republican Party.”

Dionne said that a conservative cycle, which began with Reagan, “has just run out of steam. It ended in 2006.” With issues of religion versus secularism also in the forefront, “I think we are at two hinge points right now, which is why this election is so exciting.”

Brinkley concurred that 2008 “will mark the end of the Age of Reagan,” predicting that the United States is “entering into a new realm.”

“I totally agree we’re at the end of the conservative era; it’s what comes next I’m confused about,” Brooks said. One possibility, he said, is “an age of progressive corporatism, essentially subsidizing a lot of companies and then using the revenue from those corporations for progressive causes — environmentalism and other things.”

Asked whether the party system has become too reliant on money, Brooks rejected the idea that money is the primary corrupter of American politics. “Obviously, people with money have more access, but I don’t think it’s nearly as corrupting as the power of friendship and personal connection, and … of blindly following the team,” he said.

The most serious problem is not the money in politics, but rather “how long these campaigns are,” Brinkley said. “It never ends. Our best politicians are spending their whole lives just running, running, running. The second this election is over, they’re going to … [start] running for another four years.”


Updated : 2021-05-06 11:33 GMT+08:00