After politely refusing to become King of America, George Washington left the nascent United States with a set of dire warnings. Among the most important was his suggestion that partisan politics would be the death of Democracy. In other words, he warned that the rise of political parties would entrench our differences in pointless sectarian squabbles, destroying our chances at arriving at common-sense solutions to what ails us.
We have, of course, entirely failed to live up to his expectations.
At this point in our development, partisan politics have rarely been more divisive — nor more acrid. But while we may be tempted to take a leaf from the U.K.’s book, in which third parties frequently offer a refreshing new perspective, even U.K. politics seem to suffer from a poisonous duality.
The solution, as always, would appear to lie somewhere in between.
The State of Politics in America
Politics in America has become a duopoly, presided over by the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee — two lumbering beasts that are industries unto themselves. They have expertly drawn battle lines along contentious issues like abortion, workers’ rights, gun control, international priorities and many more. So divided is our electorate that politicians cannot be afforded the right to speak their mind on the issues that go against the wishes of their party. To suggest that women have the right to control their bodies, for example, would mean career suicide for a Republican in today’s Congress.
When you get right down to it, what’s at stake here is nothing less than freedom of thought. While the American people as a whole seem less concerned than ever with, for example, the rights of same-sex couples to marry, Conservatives in government still need to cater to the vanishingly small number of people who do — no matter how they themselves actually feel on the topic.
This kind of duopolistic, bipolar politicking didn’t come out of nowhere. Third-party candidates are actively prevented from taking part in national contests by the two establishment parties. Ralph Nader sued the DNC for preventing his Presidential bid. And in 2015, Lawrence Lessig wanted to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination — but he, too, got brutally shut down by the DNC.
In the United Kingdom, the situation is often thought to be better, since a wider variety of political parties compete for the support of the public, rather than just two parties wrestling control back and forth. But how well does this work in practice?
How Much Better Off Is the U.K.?
In the U.K.’s parliamentary system, it would seem that politicians who don’t fit neatly into the carefully laid-out American parties would stand a better chance at winning an election. This is at least partially true: Third-party candidates often manage to win power and enact dramatic changes in national and international priorities.
One of the troubles with this system, though, is its inherent lack of permanence. While in American politics Republicans and Democrats can enjoy lasting control over one or more houses of Congress, or entire branches of government, for many years, politics in the U.K. can be much more fluid. In other words, legislative actions brought about by one party can be undone relatively easily next time there’s a change in representation, which tends to happen much more often in the U.K. than it does in the U.S.
This is partly by design. America’s founding fathers intended for the legislative process to be somewhat, well, stubborn. They thought it would be best if legislation was relatively more difficult to enact here than it has historically been in other countries. Consider the difficulty President Obama has had in convincing the Republican-controlled houses of Congress to do anything of consequence. Believe it or not, this is how things are supposed to work.
Unfortunately, we’re now seeing this process at an awkward moment of transition. If the President’s party is not in control of Congress, it means that Congress is speaking for an electorate that no longer supports the President. That’s the theory, anyway. The current Republican-led Congress wasn’t elected by a “mandate from the people” so much as it was elected by the “malaise of the people.” The results of the mid-term elections in 2014 were decided by an aging electorate — the only sort of people, it turns out, that show up for mid-term Congressional elections. President Obama, meanwhile, sailed to victory by an engaged younger voter turnout. As a result, we have a president who speaks for a young and progressive America and a Congress who speaks for Baby Boomers too out-of-touch to recognize that they’ve become tools of corporate America.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., it’s far less common for a Prime Minister to lack support in Parliament.
Nevertheless, while that kind of solidarity is more common in the U.K. than in the U.S., the U.K. is subject to a touch more capriciousness and sudden change than American politics is. Take, for example, Nick Clegg, who ascended to the position of Deputy Prime Minister in the 2010 elections and denied the Conservative Party the parliamentary majority they were seeking. Clegg then led the Liberal Democrats for five years, until the Conservatives defeated the party decisively in 2015. While he was in office, he was forced to “tear up” a number of campaign promises, effectively bowing to the wishes of the incumbent parties.
Since then, we’ve been back to the familiar Labour vs. Conservative power struggle. Will things ever change?
Where Do We Go From Here?
While the U.K. has been successful in granting third parties their moment in the spotlight, the United States has had less success on this front. It’s true that Ralph Nader’s Green Party rose to relative prominence in 2000, but some still claim that in doing so, they cost Al Gore the Presidency. Will third parties in the United States ever serve as anything but “spoilers” in high-stakes elections?
Party affiliation might not be as closely tied with peoples’ ideologies as it once was. For example, while there is no substantive Socialist Party involved in American politics (at least, not one with a high probability of winning a public office), about 43 percent of likely caucus goers polled in advance of the Iowa caucuses described themselves as Socialists. Given that Bernie Sanders is (at the time of writing) currently tied with Establishment candidate Hillary Clinton at 51 pledged delegates each, it’s clear that political platforms are less and less beholden to familiar party labels. Sanders is an Independent Senator and an avowed Democratic Socialist, and yet he stands a good chance of winning the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Meanwhile, over in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn — himself a socialist — won leadership of the Labour Party last year. That’s a significant feat when you consider that much of the U.K., just like the U.S., still makes the Soviet-era mistake of conflating socialism with communism.
If there’s a takeaway here, it has something to do with so-called “dark horse” candidates laying siege to establishment political parties and defying traditional labels: Socialists in the Labour Party and Democratic Socialists in the Democratic Party.
Perhaps turning politics into an engine of positive change once more demands that we simply throw out labels entirely, and learn instead to recognize a good idea when we see it, no matter where it happens to come from.
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