In terms of economic and military prowess, the United States has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the world for quite some time. This began with a victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, where we routed the colonial power in just five months, and was cemented after our role on the global stage in World War II. As such, we are afforded more freedom and opportunity than many of the other 192 (as recognized by the UN) countries of the world. But how we stack up against the 163 democratic countries is another story entirely. Yes, we happen to be one of the youngest countries based on our founding in 1492, but our independence from Great Britain in 1776 and the Constitution that came with it are more tenured than many nations with much deeper roots.
Within this short existence, America has pioneered in many avenues that are benchmarks for other countries to try and achieve. But, is it possible for all of that rapid expansion and development we have failed to learn some important lessons from those we surpassed along the way? Not seeing the forest through the trees, so to speak. In striving for the utopian society that would continue to set us apart from the rest of the world, we missed some crucial components of effective government. The Economist published a study in January 2019 in which each democratic country in the world was given a “democratic index” on a scale of 1 – 10. When first reviewing this document, I began to think my eyes were playing tricks on me. Scanning the top ten countries up, down, and sideways, the USA was nowhere to be found. Taking a deep breath, I continued down to the top 15, 20, 25. Number 25, that is where we land on this list. And if being that much lower than expected wasn’t bad enough, it became even harder to grasp that, while 1 – 20 are considered “full democracies,” America falls into the realm of a “flawed democracy.”
Now, reading that may not surprise many. There is very little in life that is perfect, but 24 other democracies are doing a better job of it than we are. There had to be some common denominator, so down the rabbit hole of facts and figures I went. While there are several factors the Economist takes into account in this study, three leaped off the page at me. The first was more obvious. Five of these countries were also the former British colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malta, and Mauritius. The United Kingdom itself was also ranked higher than the United States. Intriguing that we all learned under the same style of government from the United Kingdom, yet America seems to be the struggling student. Second, was that countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea ranked higher than we did. In these instances, our military strength proved a dominant factor in our current relationships. We were instrumental in the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II and aided the South Koreans in repelling a North Korean invasion so their country could even exist today. Yet all three of these countries have come closer to the mark on functional democracy. Third, and the most staggering of all after really analyzing the numbers, is that almost none of the top 10 democracies in the world have only two political parties as we do in America. In fact, the average number of parties in these countries is 7!
This research led me back to a question that has always been intriguing. Why are there only two main political parties in this country? Does it come down to money or tradition? Simplicity or control? Search as I might, there does not seem to be one simple answer. History has shown, though, that the political party structure in this country has shifted several times throughout our history. Not so much with the addition of parties, but with the transformation of ideals and platforms that caused parties to be reborn, or outright replaced a party declining in public popularity. Such was the case between 1834 and 1860 when the modern-day Republican Party rose to power. Along the way, they displaced the incumbent second party of the time, the Whigs, and saw their first President elected in Abraham Lincoln.
There was a time in America when adding a third party to ballots was a much simpler process. All one needed to secure was support in the form of a constituency, money for campaigning, and ballots. Doesn’t seem much different from the current process, does it? At face value – no. All three of those components are still very much required today. What has changed is the third piece of the puzzle and the way ballots are handled. When the Republicans got Lincoln on the ballots, the money and popular support directly led to the ballots. But today, the addition of new names and parties on the state ballots is directly controlled by the Democrats and Republicans, who are not keen on granting access to any new form of competition. The reason our political system should allow those in power to control who else is allowed to campaign in a so-called “free country” is convoluted at best and tyrannical at worst. But what does seem to be apparent is that constantly having to choose between only two things when neither truly represents an individual’s ideals leaves only a choice between the lesser of two evils.
If the multiple-party system works so well in much of the developed world, one must wonder if adopting some aspects of that here could be beneficial. 8 of the top 10 highest-ranked countries for quality of life in the world also happen to be in the top 10 democratic countries. The other two countries with the highest quality of life rank as the number 11 & 13 top democratic countries, making coincidence seem unlikely and leaving one to question whether that is the secret to a more functional style of government and better society for the citizens. The two-party system has become nothing more than an “us versus them mentality” that only benefits those making money from the political affiliations of big businesses that donate money to candidates’ campaigns and personal pockets.
Yes, campaign laws are supposed to safeguard against this by prohibiting businesses and labor unions from donating directly to political parties. However, these entities are still allowed to contribute to Political Action Committees (PACs), which are not allowed to directly contribute to parties, either. However, these PACs are allowed to provide financial support for “administration” and “fundraising” within these parties. Would it be naïve to think that these massive war chests do not help sway the outcome of elections? Or would it be cynical to think these PACs only exist to provide an end-run around the laws put in place to prevent it? At the time of writing this, the Democratic party has raised $201,000,000 towards the 2020 election and the Republicans $234,000,000. Is it not possible that the fundraising activities responsible for generating this revenue were funded by those allowable donations from the PACs? In 2018, one organizer was found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, Geoffrey S. Berman, was quoted as saying, “ This is the first-ever federal prosecution of fraudulent scam PACs, but it won’t be the last.”
One should be hard-pressed to think that there is any logic in strictly voting along a particular party line simply because their family and ideological beliefs have taught them to do so if there were viable alternatives out there. But under the current system, the only other option available is switching to a party whose sole platform has historically been the defamation of their political party. Neither side introduces any robust new ideas, concepts, or dialogue. A Democrat can’t bring themselves to vote Republican, and vice versa, because the opposing party has attacked what the person thought they believed instead of trying to understand where that point of view comes from or how being open-minded to a different one may also align with aspects of their beliefs.
Having 20+ years of sales experience, attending dozens of sales seminars, and reading countless books on the topic, I can confidently say that for partisan politics to be effective, it should resemble the art of selling, a back-and-forth dialog in which each party is trying to maximize their benefit. The mechanics behind a good sale are where the buyer and seller each feel as if they are walking away from the transaction as a winner. In a debate or disagreement, the quickest way to shut the other party down is to attack their beliefs or particular points of view. When an angry customer demands to speak with a manager regarding a perceived slight or complaint, the best way to deescalate that situation and get the customer on your side is to empathize with the situation and hear them out before formulating a response. Trying to simply meet them head-on and engage in finger-pointing about why they are wrong (the customer is most certainly not always right) will only make them dig their heels in deeper. The more we feel like our opinion matters, the more likely we are to listen to what the other person has to say.
Character assassinations have become the staple of campaigning. Muckraking, as it was called once upon a time, seems to be the only tool in the political arsenal. While it has been used to varying degrees throughout the political history of this country, that should not give it credence over facts and figures. There are still some, generally more so in one party than the other, who choose the high road, but in the current political climate, that is becoming much more uncommon. Arguments of intellect and experience fall by the wayside in favor of candidates’ past sexual dalliances, foreign connections, and questionable moral fibers. It is equivalent to mental warfare or terrorism on the brains of the masses whom the elected few try to retain control. This should be of no surprise, though, considering everyone who has run for President was already rich, sometimes famous, and strictly looking to further their agendas (many are wealthier when they leave office than when they started, and on a $400,000 salary that should be very hard to believe). This goes to the earlier question of the money factor, and since there are an incredible amount of financial resources needed to even campaign, it would seem that the person with the best ideas only stands a chance of winning if they have a pocket equally as deep as their knowledge base – something that needs an entire article dedicated to explaining. The last time we had an independent candidate in the election finals was Ross Perot in 1996 (1992 as well), and that only happened for the sheer fact that the man was a billionaire.
Is it possible introducing a more neutral party could shed some light on how ineffective this political style is? Personal relationships have evolved from two parties to the new trend of polyamory, something that politics could also try and dabble with since it is clear that the marriage of our current two parties is broken and abusive. After all, as we now know, 24 other countries are doing far better than we are, with an abundance of political parties as one of the main contributing factors. Most people are loyal to a fault, either for love of their current choice or fear/disdain for the only other option. They have the same cell phone provider, barber, accountant – you name it – forever, simply because they always have, and they didn’t think the alternatives were any better.
Links have been made between the five stages of grief proposed by the Kubler-Ross model and the way many humans process the thought of change. It usually takes something drastic for people to make a chnage. The best example I can think of to prove this point is from my field of expertise – banking. Someone may be subjected to unnecessary fees, antiquated rules, or the outright deprivation of services, like when physical locations begin to close due to the corporate profitability model. Banks (like many politicians) have, and will always put the benefit of their shareholders above their customers, and as such, will blatantly squeeze every dollar in fees they can out of you, or solely look at statistical models when determining which physical locations should remain open without any thought to the humanity of the decisions. People will endure one slight after another, overdraft fee after overdraft fee. But it isn’t until that bank causes a traumatic impact, such as an error processing a mortgage payment that destroys someone’s credit, or closing the last branch location within a two-hour drive, making the relationship impossible to maintain, that the impacted party finally snaps and switches.
Are politics really that different? Despite how much our politicians lie and cheat the average citizen, we remain loyal to one of these two parties. These matters go far beyond basic conveniences and can seem far removed from our everyday lives, but they speak to the heart of what this country was founded upon. The policies and positions, both domestic and foreign, our bickering candidates fight for out of blind opposition to any possible alternative offered by “the enemy” affect tens of millions of people whose tax dollars keep this country running. This has been referred to as polarization, or what happens when a group of like-minded individuals get together and discuss their viewpoints. In these situations, the opinions of the individuals combine and tend to swing toward the extreme end of that spectrum, often breeding sentiments of fear and hate akin to that of a pack or mob mentality. These are two powerful emotions that our current parties, as evidenced daily in the media, use to keep Americans opposed to other points of view while further entrenching them in their current party allegiance. Should the populace not have more than two choices as to who will control this policy for the next four years?
Our founding fathers omitted political parties from the Constitution for fear they would rip this new country apart as they had during the civil wars in England they fled from. Alexander Hamilton said, “Political parties are the most fatal disease of popular governments. James Madison added, “A well-constructed union should be its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Instead, they designed the overall government with a system of checks and balances, a safeguard if you will, to prevent any one person or party from stealing or abusing the power of a democracy. This system allows each branch of government to step in and stop another from acting in a way that could be seen as detrimental to the people of the republic, or at least that was the concept.
But the more politics begin to creep into all areas of our daily lives, that system seems to have become as abused and weaponized as the polarization of the campaigns that put those in power who seek to do so. Whenever there is a bill proposed, whether it be by the President, House, or Senate, the first coverage heard about in the media is which political party brought it forward and the number of opposing party members that will need to be swayed to go against their party and vote for it. Since when did being a member of a political party, or any affiliation for that matter, begin to mean every single person within it must think exactly alike and forgo any concept of free thought? If you belong to a science fiction book club, are you suddenly prohibited from reading or enjoying the work of non-fiction?
Nothing in life is all or nothing, at least it shouldn’t be. The marvelous thing about human beings, and what sets us apart from every other species, is the free will aspect of our genetic makeup. We do not have to rely solely on instinct like the animal kingdom, yet when it comes to political ideals, social reform, or the greater good of the people, our politicians revert to a primal “kill or be killed” mentality. As if admitting that they feel concepts proposed by a political rival were interesting and worth further dialog would lessen their standing within their political party. And sadly, this is not entirely false. How many times during our most recent presidencies have we heard a blanket statement about not “crossing party lines” and “controlling the House or Senate?”
Isn’t the purpose of communication to see things from the points of view of others before outright dismissing them? To give the people they represent a voice in the decision and not just staunchly maintain voting with the party is the right thing to do for the preservation of one’s political career. One of the most baffling parts of this whole divide is the history of the political party system in this country, to begin with. When our government was founded, there were no recognized political parties – and that remained true even in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. The two-party political system did not emerge until 1792 when there was a divide between those in George Washington’s cabinet. Alexander Hamilton’s supporters favored a strong central government with ambitious financial programs (the Federalists), while Thomas Jefferson favored a decentralization of power and favored the more common person (Democratic-Republican Party).
These parties have changed drastically over two-plus centuries, as have the people they serve. But the question remains very much unchanged. When only two parties exist, how can there be any sense of balance? The system is designed in such a way that one party can’t hold a majority in both the House and Senate while also holding the Presidency, but that still means there will be a 2:1 ratio at any given point. All this tends to accomplish is kicking the proverbial can down the road in a show of defiance but never really stopping anything, or worse, accomplishing nothing promised to the people. There are also, for lack of a better term, loopholes in the system that allow a president to veto bills his party cannot win by majority or the use – or abuse, as seen in modern politics more than ever – of executive orders to patronize the will of the people and accomplish party specific goals.
The underlying problem that allows this situation not only to continue but to worsen, is the abundance of misinformation disseminated to the masses. That does not mean we as a people are all stupid. It is a jab at the system that keeps all these nuances and intricacies, the fine print and barriers preventing the common person from entering the political arena, under wraps because the population is easier to control when they do not think there is another option. Knowing how much control the two current political parties hold in preserving their monopoly on the political system, the task seems daunting at best and impossible at worst. Money, misinformation, and resistance to change are the tools of politicians and the big businesses that drive them to keep us immobilized with fear and blind allegiance.
Under these circumstances, it seems impossible to change the system one person at a time, but grassroots movements are sprouting up around the country leveraging the platforms of the existing parties – think Tea Party for Republicans and The Squad for Democrats. Agree with these offshoots or not, they speak to the willingness of some to take a stand in the only way currently available to the minority. They do not necessarily share many of the beliefs of their overall party but must run as either Democrat or Republican strictly to have their voice heard. Maybe it’s time for the people to rise up and come together to pool their resources and love for this country to begin affecting some positive progress that finally focuses on what makes America great – WE THE PEOPLE!