Perversion of the Two-Party System

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


This year’s presidential primary season has brought to light the inadequacy of the de-facto 2-party system, which has served the nation reasonably well through several election cycles that include WW I and II and other Wars of Choice and periodic economic convulsions for well over a century, maybe longer. After all, the two strong political forces, the GOP and the Democrats, are both committed to the Constitution, even though they have differentiable ideas on most social, cultural, political, economic, military, environmental, and global issues.

And we have a fairly protracted primary season in which anyone with enough charisma, courage, drive, and ambition can throw their hat in the ring to enter the fray. The protracted primaries with many grueling televised debates give ample opportunities for candidates to project their grasp of the issues facing the offices they seek and the solutions they offer; and also to puncture holes in their opponents’ ideas. The debates also help candidates sharpen their rhetorical skills and burnish their images.

Seeking elected office in the US is a strategic decision. Candidates start years before they decide to enter the race, mulling over the pros and cons, and then building and burnishing their images among the party opinion makers, big-time donors, and leaders.

One good feature of the primary system is that until the candidates get through three-fourths of the primaries, they are on their own. Party officials rarely get into the scene picking favorites even though prominent party members who do not hold official positions do endorse their favorites. But the official party machine scrupulously stays out.

The concept of primaries here is an egalitarian idea. Everybody, irrespective of one’s pedigree or the lack thereof, but fulfilling broad eligibility criteria, can and does enter the ring. This is like the US Open tourneys in tennis or golf. The idea of a primary is drilled down from the highest elected office, namely the Presidency of the United States, to seats in the US Congress, state legislatures, even city council seats.

We have seen candidates with great clout, name recognition, and pedigree falling by the wayside in primaries losing to upstart candidates.  This rarely happens in other democracies.

The most famous are Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, all well-known US Senators, losing to an upstart Black first-time US senator named Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

On the GOP side this year was Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and the scion of the Bush Dynasty, getting eliminated early in the primary. Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, all US Senators with clout and name recognition, eventually lost to the upstart, maverick, flamboyant, and cocky Donald Trump, the New York real-estate mogul. Trump never sought any elected office in his life. Further, Trump, having given money to both Democratic and Republican elected officials in the past for smoothing out his real estate dealings, till recently had only condescension for elected officials.

In spite of the good points of the primaries, the de-facto two-party system has been continually perverted over the last several decades by vested interests and special interest groups. Consider these:

Both the GOP and the Democratic parties have become coalitions of special interest groups (SIGs) with only a few of them having overlapping interests. Often, many groups close their eyes to the goals of other groups in the coalition, so long as their interests are protected.

In this evolutionary change, both the GOP and the Democratic Party over the years have become disjointed alliances among SIGs differing among themselves on social and religious matters such as stem cell research, reproductive rights, and contraception; and on public policy issues like immigration, Second Amendment rights, energy, taxation, national debt, healthcare, environment, defense, global trade, etc.

With huge financial stakes on the different parts of the $17 trillion US economy (1 trillion is 1,000,000,000,000), the interests of many of these SIGs within both parties simply cannot converge. So, each group supports the party that serves its interests, often not caring how the interests of other groups in their camp affect the nation’s overall strength. This coalition arrangement has become conflict-ridden for both parties.

Take the healthcare industry as an example. It now accounts for 18% of our GDP. By comparison, this number in terms of GDP is 9% for the UK and Norway; 10% for Japan; 10.4% for Canada; 11% for Germany, Austria and France; and 12% for Sweden. The healthcare dollars in the US economy are over $3 Trillion ($3,000,000,000,000) per year. Honestly for all the extra dollars we spend per capita on health-care, are we any healthier or live any longer than people in these countries? The answer is NO. On many measures, we are even worse.

Obviously, every part of the healthcare industry in the US — hospitals, medical labs, pharma industries, healthcare providers (doctors, nurses, and therapists), insurance companies, lawyers and other businesses servicing the healthcare industry — resists reform because of this bounty compared to other industrialized societies. Similar is the story with the defense budget and expenditure, insurance and banking industries and so on…  So, proactive reforms are very difficult.

Complicating this further, in a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court extended the First Amendment rights to corporations. Now corporations can use their funds for campaigning in federal elections. Hiding behind Super PACs, they open their bottomless money bags to campaigns to protect their interests. So, small  donors do not count unless candidates vow not to take money from PACs as Sen. Sanders did this primary season.

If you also factor in the totally skewed way in which electoral districts are gerrymandered, one gets the complete picture of why changing the status quo proactively is so very difficult in the US. To understand this look at our own state of Pennsylvania. In statewide elections (presidents, governors, US senators, attorney generals) the vote split between Democrats and Republicans is close — around 53/47 or tighter.  But of the 18 US congressmen from the state, 13 are Republicans and only 5 are Democrats. That is what gerrymandering does.

So, with legislators interested only in getting re-elected, we cannot expect them to proactively bring the much needed reforms. Consequently the system goes through periodic convulsions, with the taxpayers eventually footing the bill for bailouts again and again and again.

Mark Twain said this on civilizations: “Every civilization carries the seeds of its own destruction, and the same cycle shows in them all. The Republic is born, flourishes, decays into plutocracy, and is captured by the shoemaker whom the mercenaries and millionaires make into a king.” What he said decades ago makes even more sense today when applied to nation-states such as the US.  ♣


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