The Unkillable Two-Party System

Governors and comedians unite to lock in the stupid status quo.


The unprecedentedly bizarre presidential election we have just survived taught us many unpleasant lessons. Among the most startling was the extent to which, even in a year dominated by voter revulsion at the two leading candidates, the two-party mindset nonetheless continued to maintain a powerful magnetic pull on the actions and reactions of so many people.

Consider Bill Maher's treatment of Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback created a national stir in August by refusing to stand for the National Anthem, explaining: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." There were follow-up controversies about Kaepernick wearing game socks that portrayed cops as cartoon pigs, about the correlation between anthem protests and plunging NFL TV ratings, and about his truly terrible performance on the field in two blowout losses. But what infuriated the HBO comedian to the point that he called Kaepernick a "fucking idiot"? This: After the first presidential debate, the QB noted that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are "proven liars" and suggested that the election was about "the lesser of two evils."

Also a "fucking idiot" in Maher's view: Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who unlike Clinton and Trump has positions similar to Maher's on civil liberties and war. But after The New York Times in September published a scare story about how Johnson-leaning millennials might throw the election away from the presumably entitled Clinton, supposedly independent-thinking comedians of all stripes had a unanimous message to their fans: Don't even think third party. Stephen Colbert called Johnson "laughable." HBO's John Oliver said the Libertarian was "around 80 percent sure that he's running for president." And all three comics were just as harsh on Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Fewer and fewer voters are buying into this dreary us vs. them shtick—the percentage of people who self-identified as "independents" at mid-September of an election year has increased since 2004 from 29 to 35 to 38 to 40, according to Gallup—but that still leaves three-fifths of the adult population with a Pavlovian impulse to mobilize against the Other Guy every time someone bangs the "most important election of our lifetimes" gong.

Human hearts, no matter how damaged, wrong, or plain cruel, can always be changed. More challenging is to uproot what might be called the ghost architecture of the two-party system, the hidden edifices that trap us in a political duopoly.

Ballot access laws, the bane to every third party's existence, are written, enforced, and interpreted by politicians with primary affiliations to the Democratic and Republican parties. In September, Florida's Division of Elections, which reports directly to GOP Gov. Rick Scott, ruled that independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin, who had been nominated legally by the Independent Party of Florida, would nonetheless not appear on the November ballot.

Why? Because, in a reversal of an order given five years before, the state suddenly decided that qualifying political parties had to be one of the 13 officially recognized "national parties" in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission, even though states obviously have the legal leeway to set their own election guidelines. "Now that the [major] parties are suffering in Florida and are less powerful," Ballot Access News guru Richard Winger told Politico, "the state feels it can change the rule with impunity."

Blocking out a candidate who takes most of his support from Republicans was a blatant attempt to protect the GOP in a state known for its election-swinging potential. Did I mention that Gov. Scott ran a Trump-supporting SuperPAC?

The two major parties, through their surrogates at the Commission for Presidential Debates, control which outside competitors get to participate in nationally televised discussion. Johnson was on 51 ballots and Stein on 45, with both polling higher than any third-party campaign since Ralph Nader in 2000. Neither made it onto the stage. Even in events not controlled by the two-party cartel, such as a September 7 forum organized by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, the two-party mindset was enough to keep Johnson on the outside looking in, even though he polled higher than Clinton among active-duty military throughout the campaign.

Like the drug war and alcohol prohibition before it, the infrastructure constructed by the Democrat/Republican duopoly will live on long after all enthusiasm has drained from it. Of the many urgent projects after the debacle of 2016, few are more important than clearing away the institutional allegiance to parties that have more than outlived their charm.