Fusion Power

Why only two parties is no fun

The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, by Lisa Jane Disch, New York: Columbia University Press, 194 pages, $45/$19.50 paper

The two-party system once severely strained my relationship with my roommate. It was the summer of 1988, and my roommate -- also my best pal -- was informally managing the local petition drive to get the Libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, on Florida's ballot. He offered up our very small apartment -- I was already sleeping in what normally would be the living room -- as a crash pad for the kids who were dedicating their summer to dunning apprehensive and often hostile strangers for signatures in Gainesville's hellish heat and humidity.

I literally couldn't get out of bed without having to step across a well-meaning political neophyte. Since I, too, wanted Ron Paul on the ballot, I mostly swallowed my annoyance, but that sort of pent-up exasperation can wreak havoc on a happy home. And I'm sure the campaign workers were none too thrilled to be sleeping on a stranger's floor while pursuing their ill-paid, frustrating mission.

Under the best of circumstances, getting third-party candidates on the ballot is onerous and expensive. The numerous procedural hoops they and their supporters must jump through exacerbate the tensions inherent in fighting for heterodox political beliefs in America, adding heavily to the psychic costs of everyone involved.

Which means the system is working exactly as intended.

In The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, Lisa Jane Disch, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, examines the reality of two-party hegemony. More than that, she lays bare the mental framework that she believes sanctions such a system. As Disch tells it, the two-party system dominates through more than just the legal barriers that require third parties to expend enormous amounts of money and effort, under restrictive and complicated conditions, just to get to the starting line of political competition. She argues that the system also works as a monolithic ideological construct that makes it difficult even to imagine a vibrant, multi-party political marketplace.

Disch makes an interesting and meaningful distinction between the reality of a system that has two dominant parties and a "two-party system." The first is quite possibly a necessary result of America's single-member-district, first-past-the-post electoral format, which effectively rules out the coalition governments common to parliamentary systems.

Yet Disch argues that the "two-party system" is something else altogether. It's a rhetorical construct that rules the discipline of political science and has become a veritable civic religion. She writes that the two-party system is a "system of meaning" that "associates third party candidates with lost causes, political extremism, and authoritarian populism while promoting established party candidates as the responsible and effective choice." Being third in a two-party system relegates you to the margins.

While the two-party system meets the known and stated political demands of many -- probably most -- Americans, it impoverishes our political discourse. It creates barriers to the creation of now-unknown political choices, in the same way that restrictions on introducing new consumer products might not violate any known, specifically statable preference but still diminish everyone's well being.

Although Disch spends little time on it, the history of third parties in America is fascinating and colorful, suggestive of possibilities largely missing in contemporary politics. Before the Civil War, a plethora of parties came and went, many achieving the kind of electoral prizes -- governorships, congressional seats -- almost universally denied anyone but Democrats or Republicans for the past century. In the 1800s third parties often arose to push for specific principles that more successful parties ignored or abandoned.

But these insurgent parties often quickly backslid on their founding principles when it became politic to do so. The Anti-Masonic Party, for example, was founded in the wake of the New York murder of a man planning to divulge Freemason secrets. It was dedicated to curbing the influence of the supposedly sinister secret society in American political life. Yet in 1832 it nominated for president William Wirt -- a former attorney general and unrepentant Freemason. Similarly, in 1855 the staunchly anti-Catholic American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothing Party, found itself winning the governorship in Louisiana with a Catholic candidate.

One of America's current two major parties was itself a "third" party. The Republicans were formed from remnants of the Whig, Free-Soil, Liberty, and Know-Nothing parties -- basically, all the groups that fought against slavery's extension into new states and territories. The Republicans first won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln in 1860, only six years after its founding, in an election in which four candidates made decent (better than 10 percent) showings. That early Republican success doesn't hold out much hope for third parties nowadays, though: The nascent GOP's victory only came with the complete disappearance of the formerly major Whig Party.

As the 19th century wore on, parties such as the Greenbacks and Populists made strong showings by standing up for constituents and beliefs that the Republicans and Democrats ignored -- especially farmers and their demand for cheap money. In 1890, for instance, the People's Party (the Populists' official name) won 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and three in the U.S. Senate. At the state level in the same year, it captured three governorships and majorities in seven state legislatures. From 1896 to 1916, nonmajor parties held six governorships, 1,761 seats in state legislatures, and 116 seats in the U.S. House and Senate.

Our contemporary fixation withfederal (and presidential) politics tends to diminish those achievements, lending support to Disch's thesis about the "system" of two-party dominance. Disch documents how the academic discipline of political science uses "the two-party system [as] more than a term of reference. It is a synonym for the United States political system and an organizing principle for textbook knowledge of electoral democracy...it is one of several 'unresearched hypotheses' that orient action and speculation not because they are established in fact but because they have become 'almost imperceptibly...imbedded in the conventional wisdom.'"

She locates part of the reason for this reliance on two-party dogma in a larger demand of the social sciences: "The two-party system, like the military, the hospital, the education system, and the law, forms bridges between social power and academic knowledge. Like each of these, it orders human behavior so as to render it amenable to such characteristically modern forms of analysis as statistics and quantitative analysis." Disch suggests that concentrating on such institutions helps social scientists reduce the blooming, buzzing confusion of social reality into something simpler, more controlled, and quantifiable.

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