(Note: This article was originally written in April of 2016, some primary election references are outdated because of that)
The two party system in American electoral politics acts an explicit suppressant to democracy and representative republicanism. There are, without a doubt, other corrupting influences in American politics; “big money” being chief among them. But in this essay, I want to briefly explore some of the main ways in which the two major political parties in the U.S. act as barriers to the very things they claim to be manifestations of: democracy and equal representation.
Delegates (and Super-Delegates)
The current 2016 primary season is showcasing for the American citizenry just how much control the parties have over the entire primary process. The delegate system itself is coming under broad suspicion from folks all over the political spectrum. This is largely because this election cycle both parties have an “outsider” candidate that they have to deal with. Usually all of the candidates running in both parties are official and long-standing members of those parties (usually consisting of governors, congressmen/women, and senators). This means that the parties do not have to be so obvious in displaying their total control over how the primaries unfold. For example, in the 2008 Democratic primary, both Hillary and Obama were legitimate members of the Democratic Party, and so when Obama started picking up steam, and it was clear he could win, many of the superdelegates (who are just party insiders) had no problem switching from Clinton over to Obama. This year, though, Bernie Sanders is running; he has been a registered independent for years, and only ran as a Democrat this year out of political necessity (an issue I will address later in this essay). To the DNC (Democratic National Committee) Sanders, unlike Obama, is not “one of them”, and he is annoyingly standing in the way of their chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton. In this context, it becomes clear what their superdelegate system is designed to do: to act as a defender of the Democratic Party’s interests against any populist or grassroots candidates that may arise. This is why we get such absurd results, like the recent Wyoming caucus, where Sanders won 55.7% of the vote compared to Hillary’s 44.3%, and yet still walked away with less delegates. Sanders only got out of Wyoming with 7 delegates while Hillary left with 7 pledged delegates and 4 superdelegates, bringing her Wyoming delegate count to a grand total of 11. Sanders won the popular vote by a wide margin, yet the Democratic Party machinery made damn sure their preferred candidate won anyways.
This is clearly antithetical to any coherent notion of representing the popular will of the people, and its an insult to the intelligence of the American voter.
Election Structure and the Third Party Blockade
The primary process is largely conducted at the state level by the Democratic and Republican parties of each state. They have a lot of room to make their own rules surrounding their delegate systems, dates of elections, brokered conventions, and the voting process as a whole. However, the voting infrastructure is funded by the American taxpayers. In effect, citizens fund the primary process, but private parties own and manage the process. And since those two parties do not represent the entire swath of political sentiment in the population, we are effectively subsidizing political parties that don’t adequately represent the will of the majority of Americans. And since the primary process is the sole mechanism that gives us our two general election candidates, the fact that we have no say in these party rules means that our final two choices are not the result of real democratic procedures, but rather the result of two narrow organizations putting forth whoever they want. To add insult to injury, and further solidify their duopolistic grip on our political system, they work together to create policies that make it nearly impossible for third parties to gain traction and compete in any meaningful way. All over the nation, the Democratic and Republican parties have created ways of preventing third party challenges to the duopoly. One way in which they do that is to restrict ballot access
“Nationally, ballot access laws are the major challenge to third party candidacies. While the Democratic and Republican parties usually easily obtain ballot access in all fifty states in every election, third parties often fail to meet criteria for ballot access, such as registration fees. Or, in many states, they do not meet petition requirements in which a certain number of voters must sign a petition for a third party or independent candidate to gain ballot access.”
Or by implementing cynical and arbitrary debate rules to hide third party candidates from the public:
“Debates in many state and federal elections exclude Independent and third party candidates, and the Supreme Court has upheld such tactics in several cases. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private company. In 2000 revised debate access rules made it even harder for third party candidates to gain access by stipulating that, besides being on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority, debate participants must clear 15% in pre-debate opinion polls.”
Pat Buchanan, who finished in fourth place in the 2000 presidential race and won four states when he ran in the Republican primary in 1992, told CBS News that the system as it now stands amounts to a “monopoly” maintained by the major parties: “It’s an instrument of the two political parties to ensure that the presidency is passed back and forth between them,” he said. “The very fact that this duopoly can keep you out of the debates means you don’t play in the Super Bowl.”
In these ways, among others, the two parties all but guarantee their continued dominance. But this dominance is not just the dominance of two different political parties, it’s the dominance of the banks and corporations who own the two parties.
One Big Corporate Party with Two Flanks
Both major political parties are completely bought and paid for by the U.S. capitalist class; those who own the vast majority of wealth and resources in this country. They fund both sides of the races between Democrats and Republicans, and therefore have vastly disproportionate say over policy decisions in both parties. This means that the parties who dictate our small candidate selection every election cycle act in the interest of the richest and most powerful people in our society and are structurally prevented from acting in the genuine interests of the American people as a whole. The only thing that can pose a challenge to the total domination of big money in American politics is millions of highly organized American citizens. But the demands of work and family, the risk of being met with state violence, the confusion about the root causes of our issues perpetuated by the corporate media, etc., conspire to naturally decrease the likelihood of mobilized mass movements that can effectively fight back. All of this means that political and economic power remain in the hands of the ruling class, who then use that power and wealth to turn our government into a shield that protects them from us.
In turn, most American citizens uncritically accept the two parties as indicative of the two main currents of thought in our society, and then orient themselves to one party or the other. Once they identify with one party or the other, they defend their parties as true representatives of their values and beliefs, which in turn, reinforces the stronghold of the two party system. So the system, as all good ones do, reinforces and maintains the power dynamics that empower it while giving off the illusion that it’s all natural and unforced.
Restricting the Sphere of Acceptable Opinion
The Democratic and Republican Parties represent a very limited spectrum of political thought, and via their dominance, ensure that the American people mostly stay within that limited spectrum. In America, what are called “liberal” and “conservative” are merely two slightly divergent manifestations of the political philosophy of Liberalism. The former is slightly more concerned about “equality” while the latter is slightly more concerned about “liberty”. But both uphold Capitalism, fully equipped with a large State Apparatus, as the preferred politico-economic system; and both support the Imperialism needed to protect and maintain global capitalism and American hegemony. Views that fall outside of that narrow range are relegated to the margins of society, and given no airtime on major media and popular culture outlets. More to the point, any views that challenge the fundamental economic assumptions of Capitalism are not only marginalized, but mocked if and when they do come to the fore. These are ways in which Capitalism defends its hegemony over social, cultural, and intellectual life. The two political parties are merely the political flanks of Capitalism; giving us the illusion of democratic control while maintaining total domination over all aspects of our political and economic (and thus our social) lives.
The American system is in desperate need of dramatic revolutionary changes. The longer we wait to begin implementing the necessary changes, the more drastic and perhaps even violent the inevitable upheaval will be when it finally arrives. By making small reforms immediately and moving up to larger changes methodically, we can decrease the chances of dangerously disruptive sudden upheavals, and move more smoothly into the future. One place we can, and should, begin our project of changing the system is overhauling the two party system; getting rid of the legal and procedural obstacles to other parties entering the political landscape, thus allowing a more robust dialogue to take place, and getting corporate money out of politics. By implementing these practical changes, we can make our political systems more responsive to the needs of the people, and only in a context where our political system is sincerely working for us (as opposed to the rich ruling elite) can we hope to make the larger necessary changes towards a sustainable, egalitarian, democratic, and yes, socialist future.