Following up on a couple of interesting posts at the ever-interesting PoliBlog…
Steven refers to a piece by Mark Tapscott, who suggests that it is time for a new party, on account of what is being reported as the “10-year low popularity of the US Congress,”* just months after Democrats took control of the institution.
There is thus a growing perception of Washington as a Tweedle-dee/Tweedle-dum kind of place in which the two political parties are merely two sides of the same coin.
This is the single most significant fact about the political landscape – a growing public disgust with both major political parties.
As Steven notes, the single-seat districts (SSDs) under first-past-the-post (FPTP) by which the US congress is elected makes the emergence of new parties difficult. He mentions both the interparty dimension (the high barrier to entry for a new party created by the need to win a substantial share of the vote in order to gain any significant representation) and the intraparty dimension (the ability of individual legislators to cater to their districts with pork and services distinct from the national party identity).
Really, two-partism is over-determined in the US. It’s not just FPTP. After all, most FPTP systems, such as the UK and Canada, have far more important parties other than the top two. It’s also presidentialism, yet most presidential systems, too, have more than two major parties. Also the use of primary elections and the electoral college–both of which are unique to the USA and either raise the barriers to new parties (the interparty dimension) or increase the opportunities for local tailoring of legislative campaigns (the intraparty dimension).
My response to such arguments about the unlikelihood of new parties absent institutional reform is always as follows:
I canâ€™t name one case in which major change away from single-seat districts to a more representative and democratic electoral system ever occurred without the rise of new parties first.
So, my advice to people who feel it is time for a new party is simple: Find one and participate in and vote for it.
Since 1990, third-party voting in congress is at the highest it’s been in the post-WWII era (see graphs). Make it higher.
On the Tweedle-dee/-dum question, Steven notes that it sounds a bit old-fashioned nowadays:
Ironically, one could argue that with the re-alignment of Southern conservatives in the 1990s from the Democratic to the Republican Party that the two parties are more distinct now than they were ten to twenty years ago.
That certainly is fundamentally right. The centers of gravity of the two parties are further apart than ever, due to greater internal discipline and homogeneity In turn that’s a result of increasing geographic segregation of the partiesâ€™ electorates and the impact that has in a single-seat district system. But I doubt the full range of represented views is any greater than in the past. In fact, we would not expect it to be if the major change in the party system is simply the movement of one block of interests (“southern conservatives”) from one party to the other.
Even more to the point, I suspect that that actual range of views represented in the US Congress it is actually narrowerâ€“largely as a result of the ever-increasing need for corporate moneyâ€“once you discount the few who speak up for relatively radical viewpoints from the safety of their own uncompetitive districts (Tancredo, Kucinich, etc.).
On the general subject of congressional approval (the subject of the other PoliBlog post I alluded to), it seems to me that these numbers need to be situated in the context of a major change that has taken place in the last decade (-plus).
Before Newt Gingrich became the closest thing the USA has ever seen (by far!) to a “co-habiting” prime minister, the Speakership and the Congress-as-an-institution that the Speaker heads never had a position within our political system of significant national and partisan profile.
I continue to ask myself: how long can we sustain this new combination of increasingly partisan, nationalized congressional elections with a constitutional structure designed for non-responsiveness to the democratic (small-d) will and more suited for nonpartisan, localized congressional elections?
And, yes, to articulate demands that are currently either not represented at the national level or are bargained away at the elite level, generating frustration and low public approval of our democratic institutions, we do indeed need new parties. And institutional reform. But we’ll need new parties to arise in the current system before we get democratic institutional reform.
* No discussion of this story would be complete without a link to Charles Franklin’s analysis of the trend.