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[flagged] The two party system is killing our democracy (vox.com)
70 points by dangjc 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

> Understandably, many on the left believe the problem is simply the Republican Party, and if only Democrats could win decisive majorities, American democracy would work better.

I was waiting for a paragraph that started "On the other hand, many on the right believe the problem is the Democratic party," or something to that effect. The author says the problem is the two party system. I think this article shows that the problem is that half the country pretends the other half doesn't exist, and doesn't even bother addressing them, let alone convincing them to change their minds.

> let alone convincing them to change their minds.

This has become a growing issue in American politics. As much as a love progressive politics myself. I can't deny the important of strong political opposition and the importance of conservative view points in opposition to progress.

Progressive politics has become ignorant to the people, and as a result the people have turned a dead ear towards it. Instead of trying to convince them of their new ideas and why they're better than the old ones. Progressives have adopted an assumption of, "the other side is evil and is deliberately holding us back".

It should be hard to cause political change. Most new ideas in politics are truly awful and failures at that level affect society gravely. Disagreement over how to move forward is fundamental to a functioning democracy and the emergence of good ideas. Yet modern politics seems to treat any amount of disagreement as a solemn oath of obstinance. Yes, changing minds politically is challenging, and yes it should be.

Yeah. It turns out that saying "Agree with me or you're evil" doesn't actually persuade people very well. The first side to figure that out, and actually do better, might win until the other side also figures it out.

> It should be hard to cause political change. Most new ideas in politics are truly awful and failures at that level affect society gravely.

Part of the problem is that the left has erased all evidence of the failures of progressive politics (and in many cases the right has let them do so). When you just hear about the civil rights movement and marriage equality, it’s easy to assume that conservatives are just there to hold everyone back.

I’d offer three examples. First, “socialism.” Socialism failed dismally. One of the most colossal failures of a political idea in modern history. So progressives endeavored to replace “socialism” with “social democracy.” But “social democracy” as practiced in Europe approaches the problem from the complete opposite end. It abandons the socialist economic model and builds on a capitalist one. Put differently, it’s not “socialism with more democracy” it’s “capitalism with more democracy.” So progressives have turned social democracy—which is more than anything an affirmation of the success of capitalism, and an utter retreat from what progressives were pushing before—into a win for progressivism.

The second is the sexual revolution. At least in the United States, we have retrenched significantly on that front. Millennials start having sex later, and have fewer partners. “Affirmative consent” has replaced “free love.” The boundary-pushing on things like age have been pulled back hard. The #MeToo movement reaffirmed conservative truths: men cannot be trusted and society has a role to play helping women stave off unwanted and inappropriate advances. (Andrea Dworkin addresses this at length in Right Wing Women, though obviously long before #MeToo. In explaining why many women continue to support patriarchal systems, she notes that the sexual revolution stripped women of a lot of protections that those systems used to provide, with nothing to replace them. While Dworkin was obviously no conservative, she astutely recognized that the progressive tendency to throw out rules can easily end up overreaching. Many have lamented that the #MeToo movement is a return to a more Puritanical approach. There is a lot of truth to that.)

Third, eugenics. The history of support for eugenics in this country has been pretty much erased, even though the evils of Jim Crow get plenty of attention. That’s likely because many progressives backed eugenics. Woodrow Wilson, progressive champion, was a former New Jersey Governor and eugenicist who segregated the federal work force for the first time. He fired existing black federal employees (proving he wasn’t just a product of his time). Meanwhile, one of the strongest opponents of eugenics was the Catholic Church. In 1930, the Pope released an encyclical in which he condemned birth control, abortion, and eugenics as all being incompatible with the traditional Christian view of reproduction.

I think you may be overstating the degree to which the sexual revolution has been rolled back. Its two pillars were universal birth control and sex outside of marriage--in other words the decoupling of sex from family and procreation--and those are very much still in place. MeToo isn't a rollback of those changes. Maybe there is a Puritan element to it, but there has always been a displaced Puritanism among certain elements of the left.

I know the whole post is about progressives "erasing" evidence of failures, but your points don't make sense.

1. Could you point to things to back up socialism failed dismally?

2. At what point is affirmative consent anything similar to free love. Free love should still be consensual.

3. Eugenics is definitely a stain on progressivism, however I disagree that that has been erased. There's plenty of evidence of the US being swept up in the eugenics fervor.

> 1. Could you point to things to back up socialism failed dismally?

Literally every country built in socialist economic principles, I.e. collective ownership of capital.

> 2. At what point is affirmative consent anything similar to free love. Free love should still be consensual.

That’s an attempt to reformulate “free love” to fit modern sensibilities. Read Dworkin’s contemporaneous take on the sexual revolution, starting at p. 89: https://www.feministes-radicales.org/wp-content/uploads/2010...

> In the sexual-liberation movement of the sixties, its ideology and practice, neither force nor the subordinate status of women was an issue. It was assumed that — unrepressed — everyone wanted intercourse all the time

Affirmative consent is more than just “consent” (which too often turns into “the woman didn’t physically resist”). Combined with #metoo, it narrows the scope of sex to something shared between individuals under specific circumstances under specific terms and conditions, and demarcates vast swaths of human experience (like the work place) where discussing or propositioning sexual activity is inappropriate. That’s a huge retrenchment from “free love.”

I've thought about this as well. On the one hand, you have a system that assumes one size fits all for two specific parties. That will never be the case. I can guarantee you there's people who will disagree with both parties on any number of things.

On the other hand, if both parties stopped behaving like the other is an enema of the state and actually attempted to collaborate for the good of the American public, that would be great.

I think allowing other parties would be useful, the problem is even though other parties totally can be voted in, most people don't bother because you could lose your vote altogether if the party you disagree the most with wins. To put the example more bluntly I heard it said that Obama said a vote that isn't for Hillary is a vote to Trump, as in, if you vote third party, you may regret it.

Personally, I don't think two single political parties can represent all the hopes and dreams of all 300 million citizens. I know this may sound controversial to some, but it is starting to prove itself to be a problem.

> Personally, I don't think two single political parties can represent all the hopes and dreams of all 300 million citizens.

I would agree with this. The problem with the article though is that assumes that changing the structure of the political parties is the best way to solve that problem. An alternate solution is to solve fewer problems politically, since the best person to advance one's hopes and dreams is one's self, and political solutions (whatever the arrangement of parties) necessarily are about enforcing conformity.

I agree: Leave a little more to local governments, which might rub some the wrong way, but some issues might only affect a small area, or set of smaller areas.

> enema of the state

was it intentional or not? ;)

Wow I was thinking of Will Smith, realized the movie's not titled that. It might still apply... I did listen to Blink-182 a lot growing up.

Appropriately, one of the symptoms of this problem is that it's impossible to complement/criticise one party without being interrupted by opposite-party whataboutism. Perhaps ironically, I can't tell if you think this is a criticism of Democrats, and hey, why didn't they criticise Republicans; or if you think this is a lenient analysis of Democrats, and hey, why didn't they give Republicans a lenient analysis.

What a boring and redundant follow-up that sentence would have been. Surely we are not accusing Vox of all places of having a Republican slant?

For better or worse, I read it as accusing them of ignoring Republicans; making no attempt to address them or speak to them (presumably because they are the evil other, beyond redemption).

Right... I was waiting for it because one of the claims of the article is politics is broken. Then the author goes on to imply the only reasonable position is that it's all Republicans fault. I was hoping that, even if the author didn't believe it personally, there would be some sort of nod to those who disagree.

For a sneak preview of how well our democracy will work once democrats have decisive majorities, check out California, or San Francisco.

Don't forget Seattle. Where progressive policies have also led to disastrous situations like a booming economy, low unemployment, and less crime.

Seattle is an interesting case. On the one hand, it has lots of progressive policies. On the other hand, tech companies formed there in large part because Washington State has no income tax (something which conservatives more often advocate for).

I think that's a great example of how not all problems need to be politicized - sometimes we as a society can make things better without involving the government.

One party rule is working great in Baltimore.

What a relevant conservative talking point.

I lived in Baltimore for two years. Sent my daughter to preschool downtown; still go back to attend our favorite church downtown. Love the city, but yeah, it’s a damning indictment of Democratic governance. The city manages to spend more than the wealthy maryland suburbs per student and still get abysmal results. It’s a national disgrace.

I believe that the left loves to tie itself in knots trying to address the right. Books like What's The Matter with Kansas[1] and The Righteous Mind[2] are all written from a left-wing point of view, explaining the right-wing point of view and encouraging understanding. These books go at least back to the mid 90s[3], and during that time, the Overton window has shifted almost monotonically to the right. It seems to me that the harder the left tries to understand and accommodate the right, the more the right takes it as an opportunity to make itself less appealing to the left. And politically, it's successful.

I don't want to run down a rabbit hole of blame here. Rather, I wanted to suggest that it's not just symmetrical, and it's not as simple as "if only we on the left tried harder we could solve the problem unilaterally" -- because I don't think I've ever heard any similar accommodation from the right. I think we've tried that, and need to try something different.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_the_Matter_with_Kansa...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Righteous_Mind

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Politics_(book)

I can't say I've read any of those books. I can say though that as someone who is more conservative working in tech living in New York City, this doesn't match my daily experience. Pretty frequently, I hear flippant remarks where people assume that everyone else in the room must agree with a particular view or else must be an idiot. And my experience from trying to break out of my bubble by reading left-leaning material is that even if there are examples of books out there in which a leftist tries to explain conservatives to other leftists, they seem to have little impact on the general discourse.

I don't think it's a simple case that the Overton Window has moved to the right. When one reads for example the Democratic party platform of the 1990's, many of the proposals are more similar to what some Republicans argue for today.

In any case, my point is: maybe conservatives are to blame. Conservatives are roughly half the country. If the author wants to make some change, he'll half to convince at least some of that half. Speaking only to the favored half won't change anything.


However, "ranked choice voting"... pretty simple and good idea, yeah?

There are a lot of things that could be done. Electoral college voting is required by the Constitution, but 'winner take all' apportionment by the states is not; that is just imposed by the states to protect partisan results. Can imagine what presidential campaigns would be like if candidates had to actually campaign for every electoral vote in every state? The number of seats in Congress has been fixed for 100 years, so we no longer have anything close to equal representation by district.

Most things that could be done suffer from the problem that they require the people who currently have power to disadvantage themselves.

Proportional allocation of electoral votes might be a useful reform (though it could easily be gamed, if states were to follow Congressional District boundaries you could gerrymander the Presidency) but if Texas and Florida enact it while California or New York do not (or vice versa) it's a massive gift to the Democrats (or Republicans).

Both the UK and Canada have recently failed to deliver proportional representation despite explicit campaign promises because of this.

No realistic scenario involves only some states doing this while others don’t, though it’s worth pointing out that Maine and Nebraska are not winner-take-all.

You may find the national interstate popular vote compact interesting. [1] Basically each state in the compact pledges their delegates to the national vote winner, but only once enough states to guarantee the presidency have agreed to do so.

That said, currently it seems that any “popular vote” measure that takes away power from small states (like this one, or changing the senate or house) would disadvantage republicans, so it’s probably a nonstarter.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Intersta...

> That said, currently it seems that any “popular vote” measure that takes away power from small states (like this one, or changing the senate or house) would disadvantage republicans, so it’s probably a nonstarter.

This isn't actually true, for a couple reasons:

1. Small states are already ignored in Presidential elections because most of them are solidly red or blue (see [0] and note how many small states have no visits at all). Pretty much the only small state that swings in elections is New Hampshire, so I suppose New Hampshire loses a bit by transition to a popular vote, but no other state really does. I'm prepared to bite that bullet.

2. Right now there are tons of suburban and rural Republicans in California and New York whose votes essentially don't count at all in the current system, but would in a popular vote.

People who have studied the potential effects of abandoning the Electoral College have found that it doesn't actually provide an unbalanced benefit to either party, though I concede that as long as Republicans think it would hurt Republicans, it won't happen.

[0]: https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/campaign-events-2016

It would be a much different debate if Kerry had won Ohio (and thus won the Presidency without winning the popular vote) in 2004 but at the moment the Electoral College has given Republicans two of the last four elections where they lost the popular vote so I don't think it's just perception that it would hurt them.

The UK had a Alternative Vote referendum in 2011 that voted strongly for the current system:


Mind you - we do have proportional representation for the Scottish Government and although it is rumoured that this was part of a design to ensure that the wrong party didn't get power the people of Scotland keep voting for them:


Thanks, I remembered it was part of the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Agreement and that it didn't happen but I didn't realize there was a referendum that went down in flames.

South Africa has a proportional representation system for similar reasons - to recognise plurality. It has some significant downsides. It weakens the ties between a representative and a specific district / constituency. In exchange it strengthens the hands of party decision makers who are the final brokers of how seats are apportioned.

Having grown up in South Africa and having spent a reasonable amount of time in the USA, I admire the local civic mindedness of American communities and the accountability of the political representatives. I am also appalled by the partisanship. I worry that proportional representation could make it worse.

Propotional representation is not with out its problems, but I think given that our current system has a bicameral legislature where one body (the Senate) basically just represents entrenched power interests and is badly divorced from the will of the people, and grossly unrepresentative (since it's 2 per state where states have differing populations), I think we could gain a lot by making that body proportional.

Would it be perfect? Nah. Would it be -a lot- better than what we have? Yes.

With the Senate proportional party, and the House still geographically representative, and then if you add in ranked choice voting, you could break the two party system and have a much, much more representative government.

This the easiest and most realistic step in my opinion; the people lobbying heavily to preserve the current Senate system would just be entrenched local tyrants. I think the vast bulk of Americans would be swayed by the idea of having at least one Senator who almost completely shares their politics.

If the result is that the Senate becomes the most interesting and representative body, gradually shift the bulk of power there on whatever issues it's best at. If the result is that the Senate becomes a disaster, abolish the entire body.

Right, always easy to see the good sides of other systems, but much harder to anticipate their failure modes. Besides the one you mention (of politicians being pawns of a party boss -- they owe their local seat only to their place on his list) proportional systems also have a habit of handing undue power to small, often extreme, parties when they have a tie-breaking vote.

The technical jargon for what the article is describing is Duverger's Law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duverger's_law

Support https://www.fairvote.org. They are making good progress on incremental but substantive reform.

Ugh. They are advocating IRV, which is probably the worst voting method except plurality.

It does seem bad; it's hard to say if it's even an improvement on net. https://www.electionscience.org/library/approval-voting-vers...

In my opinion, even better than multiple parties is no or weak parties. The US used to have parties that were weaker than those in British parliamentary systems. Most votes in a parliamentary system are "whipped"; members are forced to vote along party lines. The US doesn't have whipped votes, but party line votes have increased dramatically.


While I favor proportional voting, I don't expect it to solve the problem because the legislature still works on an all-or-nothing basis. A law either passes or it doesn't. Adding more parties just tweaks the alliances and horse-trading that have to be formed to reach the 50%+1 required for it to pass. Those alliances have to be durable for the quids-pro-quo to work. You can call those alliances parties or not, but they work in similar ways.

Any chance would tweak the existing sets of alliances, and that would a time confuse and quite the partisanship. But sooner or later somebody is going to realize that pledging fealty to each other is the best way to get their personal priorities achieved. Partisanship happens because it's effective, and encouraging more parties won't deter the fact that 50%+1 of the country can shut the remaining parts out entirely.

Partisanship in the US these days has little to do with agendas and more about identity. Elections have become more about shutting the others out of power. I see that the article hopes that by introducing more parties, they can remove the urge to see one other party as the enemy to be destroyed at all costs.

But I don't think it works. A variety of social and political factors have pushed us here, and they won't be removed by rearranging the names of the alliances. The causes run much deeper, and tweaks to the process won't do more than confuse that for a while. So I'm all for proportional voting, or really any change, just to give me a break from the constant drumbeat of animosity. But I don't expect that break to last more than a few cycles, at most.

A potentially easier fix would be to roll back the changes made to the US primary system in the 70s and go back to letting parties pick their candidates internally rather than throwing it open to an electorate where only the most partisan bother to vote in primary elections.

The old system had its share of problems but I think that, all in all, the old smoke filled rooms worked better than what replaced them. Using approval or ranked choice voting to have more than 2 parties would solve most of the issues with the system anyways and we ought to do that as well but that seems harder to get in place.

No thanks.

Somewhat relevant: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotelling%27s_law ; It’s an observation about why e.g. Whole Foods and Trader Joe would have branched next to each other, but also explains why in a two party system, parties end up having very similar platforms in practice with respect to most ”sliding scale” issues, like war. (And then there’s the polarizing no-middle all-or-nothing issues like abortion or immigration that are not addressed by this explanation)

Is there a place I can donate to support an amendment?

I see this from a quick search: https://www.fairvote.org/donate

There are different "alternative vote" organizations, which have different favored reforms.

FairVote is, indeed, the biggest advocate of IRV, and of multi-member districts.

The Center for Election Science (https://www.electionscience.org/) favors a switch to approval voting, and AFAIK doesn't have an opinion on multi-member districts.

I'm always amused when people propose what the problem is and a fix for it, and then they immediately think "congress" should do something about it. Democracy happens at the state and city level. The federal government is mostly ineffectual and not really the right place to do most things. If you beleive in rank choice voting get your city to do it, then your county, then you state. The federal government doesn't run elections.

Put differently: Real change in such a voting system can only come by turmoil. Like war. You shouldn't pray for that and vote for a change.

The article doesn't seem to mention that on a state and local level the republican and Democratic parties have conspired to pass laws that make it harder for third parties to get on ballots. In many places third party candidates have to get a lot more signatures than Republican or democratic candidates which makes it harder for them to get on the ballot let alone elected.

As someone living in a multi-party system, I'd say the difference is probably negligible. Having several smaller parties usually means the forming of two political blocs, within which the different parties must get along reasonably well while still trying to keep their constituents, which usually leads to compromises nobody is really fond of.

"Compromises nobody is really fond of" is normally functioning politics. What we have now is trench warfare. Normally functioning politics would be a large improvement.

I was trying to avoid hyperbole.

Trench warfare is certainly applicable to the situation here as well. We might be lagging behind the US, but polarization is steadily increasing. Nobody seems willing to address the real issues at hand. Instead people are arguing semantics and calling each other nazis, and it's getting increasingly hard to gather a majority for passing a budget, not to mention actually forming a government.

I honestly don't think a handful more political parties will do that much of a difference to combat the current zeitgeist.

Unfortunately the author doesn't have a good understanding of the process required to end two-party domination.


Does anyone? Is there a case where an entrenched two party system for broken up?

I was surprised to enjoy reading 90% of this article.

There was a little gratuitous Republican-bashing (it is Vox, after all), but outside of one paragraph it was remarkably even-handed. I liked a lot of the ideas presented, too.

I hope we do find a way out of the two-party gridlock.

Yeah, I get the gist of this, but I'll counter-propose: RANKED CHOICE VOTING as the single most effective means of getting out of the various traps a 2 party system (among other things) creates.

No. You need score voting, STAR voting, or approval voting for that.


While I'm sympathetic to the author, we have a significant amount of history showing that two parties work quite well. We certainly have our issues with long-term thinking that's not helped by this system, but in general, America is still doing quite well.

As long as parties are default opposed instead of default collaborative, Democracy necessarily heightens group divides: Anyone who leaves your group gives power to your enemy, so the enemy must be demonized. Demonizing the Outgroup is how you police Ingroup. This is true even in multi-party democracies, though its not always as apparent.

(Of course, once you see someone demonizing you, there's very little choice on your side but to fight them...)

> we now have... a genuine two-party

Okay, but how did we go from non-genuine-two-party to this so-called genuine two-party? The policy proposals here are fine but they didn't exist in the 60's either. Something non-mechanistic changed.

I don't think its exactly the two party system, but the concept of ideology as an identity that is the modern component of this problem. Rather than dwelling in their own thoughts, being a human being, living and experiencing things and gaining wisdom, people restrain all of their wisdom faculties with these chastity belts of ideology. If ideology becomes one's identity, having impure thoughts is not thinking, it is a blow to your sense of self and therefore dangerous. In the political realm, it means that compromise simply isn't possible in ways that it may have been 100 years ago. There's no "if we get this, you can get that", ideology doesn't see differing people with differing interests, it sees you — sacred, you could never compromise yourself — and when it thinks about the obverse, it can only see an enemy.

Many willingly fit themselves into ideological categories that are quite narrow, and by "identifying" with these labels, they are depriving themselves of the contemplation and reflection befitting the question of a person's identity. I wish for no one's life to be easily summarized by the contortions of such machines, but many seem to welcome the labels. When you express concern publicly that politics has taken over people's lives, this is fed into the machines that have taken over, and they churn out their answer: "Everything is political." You might ask them if they have the causality reversed, but at that point you must wonder who, or what, you're having the conversation with.

I've written about this before and I think this has been a long time coming by the way, starting with the printing press which enabled massive one-way communication over what came before it as the default, two-way communication. (TConsider: Before the printing press, you talked to more people, perhaps in a day, than you would read in a lifetime. Now it's the opposite, you will always read/consume more media than talk to others, by a huge margin. This split is imo not well understood). I'm not exactly convinced it can be defeated merely with mechanistic changes to how voting and representation is done, though that's sure to help, otherwise. The real problem is bigger, deeper, and much more subtle.

I think the cause (or at least accelerating factor) may have been the end of the Cold War. Before that, you had an identity: You were an American, and the bad guys were the Communists. You were for freedom, and they were for tyranny. After the end of the Cold War, we lost the external enemy that (for the most part) united us.

We could use a leader that attempts to stop the silent civil war that is this sort of identity politics.

Unfortunately, current powers won't let them, and getting popular support for this idea is hard when polarizing is so easy.


You know, if the only thing you can say is to label the other side "fascist", you might be part of the problem...

Yes, of course, the problem is not the concentration camps, but the people getting too worked up about concentration camps.

And who started those camps? Trump, or Obama? But sure, label this administration fascist...

So, yeah. You are in fact part of the problem.

You seem to be suggesting that the answer is Obama (false). Look at yourself, you are justifying mass detention and the punitive separation of children from their families.

Please link to any mainstream source that directly compares the Obama and Trump policies.

"deniers ... focus on what the authors call a "snapshot fallacy," picking a historical document or fact and stripping it of its historical context"


Especially given that the commenter can't even count.

  four years in to the fascist Trump administration
Three years and three days, in fact.

Or maybe we should fix the divide itself, given that the system has worked reasonably well during 200+ years, more than most Western democracies


But a 2012 study by Stanford University political science professor Shanto Iyengar and colleagues offers another way of looking at this apparent split.2 It examined political polarization from a different angle — not from how Americans stand on policy issues, but from the perspective of “affect” — how they feel about those on the other side of the political fence. Drawing from survey data spanning several decades, the study found that the feelings of those who affiliate as Democrat or Republican towards members of the opposing party have become increasingly negative since the late '80s.

Another study published earlier this year by Texas Tech University professor Bryan McLaughlin provides additional insight regarding the contributing role of the media in the political polarization of the country.

Media, and social media, have a lot to answer for.

EDIT: here's a CNN political analyst joking about a conversation he made up.


Vox doesn't even remotely address any possible role they must have had in furthering the divide. But sure they have solutions.

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