The Problem with American Politics

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Unprecedented polarization abounds in the United States. As negative partisanship proliferates, favorable dispositions toward the opposing party have dissipated, replaced by sheer contempt, with half of Americans perceiving political opposition as “downright evil;” consequently, ideologies amongst congressional representatives have diverged, eviscerating bipartisanship and hamstringing productivity. Although the past two presidential cycles have both inflamed and illustrated the United States’ rampant political enmity, this trend of political tribalism fomenting governmental gridlock, which in turn perpetuates animosity in a vicious cycle, is not a transient aberration to be ascribed to populist demagoguery or socialist impingements. Rather, our two-party system invariably fosters polarization and its concomitant political stalemates.

Alienated by the factionalism of British politics, our Founding Fathers envisioned a republic devoid of political parties, with legislators forging compromise through expansive coalitions that preclude the emergence of tyranny perpetrated by a partisan majority. With scant democratic precedent to base their political experiment upon, however, the Constitutional Convention imported Britain’s plurality elections and neglected to institute electoral mechanisms to mitigate polarization. A two-party system manifested within two presidential cycles. For the overwhelming majority of United States history, ideological concordance between and diversity within the two predominant political parties enabled the formation of coalitions and bipartisan compromise. In the 1960s, however, the Civil Rights Movement redefined the United States’ politics, precipitating the nationalization of American ideology in which the Republican Party and Democratic Party adopted uniform party discipline and standardized their values, imposing two monolithic political identities on the country.

This political binary does not arise from political preference; rather, the duopolistic stranglehold on American politics disenfranchises millions of American voters. Despite survey data revealing that half of Americans repudiate party identification, plurality elections have enforced a political dynamic that coerces voters to acquiesce to the two-party dichotomy. Although the political landscape may initially contain myriad political parties accommodating the entire populace and its diverse spectrum of ideology, first-past-the-post, winner-take-all elections invariably impel constituents to vote strategically: in order to preempt the ascent of an unpalatable party, exponents of less popular ideologies must vote strategically, abandoning their authentic party identification to bolster a viable alternative. This phenomenon continues until the body politic amalgamates beneath two divergent political parties embroiled in an incessant conflict. Even though sixty-two percent of American adults concur that the “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed,” this same dynamic intrinsic to first-past-the-post elections prevents the formation of a third party since deviating from a dominant political party only facilitates the victory of the opposition. As a result, the two-party system strips voters of the power to project their political ideology onto Washington, instead compelling them to conform to one of two available party lines.

In the twilight of his presidency, George Washington declared that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” Washington’s prescient farewell address encapsulates the unbridled antagonism of the status quo with uncanny precision. In a political atmosphere rife with bigotry, the American political spectrum has bifurcated into two distinct and irreconcilable parties separated by an irremediable chasm. Two-party domination has rendered politics a zero-sum game in which one party’s loss amounts to the other party’s game; this “either-or” mentality perpetuates polarization by incentivizing negative campaigning that excoriates the opposing party as an existential threat. Since both political parties have, as an expedient electoral tool, cultivated a national identity and narrative that condemn the other as un-American, they have perpetuated partisanship and infused politics with tribalistic antipathy.

In addition to fomenting rampant tribalism, the United States’ unique two-party system compounded with winner-take-all elections debilitates our political machinery. With party loyalty permeating every facet of politics, a pernicious incentive scheme characterizes Washington D.C. Under a unified government, the electoral success of the congressional majority hinges upon presidential success, removing the incentive to curtail the executive branch; under a divided government, the congressional majority’s electoral prospects depend upon the president’s failure, inducing it to consciously undercut legislative productivity. Parliamentary majoritarianism, meanwhile, obviates the need for bipartisan compromise: whichever party commands a majority in congress expeditiously enacts legislation that disregards the minority until the political pendulum swings, heralding the reversal of the previous administration’s agenda.

While the United States remains entrenched in zealous partisanship that translates to political gridlock, climate change is accelerating, global democracy is eroding, China is ascending, the economy is atrophying, and COVID-19 is proliferating. Transcending the polarization that undermines American politics and confronting the problems beleaguering society with multi-partisan unity necessitates dissolving the two-party duopoly asphyxiating the nation and allowing a multi-party democracy to flourish. Only a multi-party system that encourages the establishment of broad coalitions can reflect the United States’ political diversity, attenuate the partisan acrimony of zero-sum politics, and enable inclusive legislation.

I am a high school student at Polytechnic School with a passion for economics and decision making as well as politics and international relations.

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