Is The Two Party System About To Crack Wide Open?

Editor's Note: I'm applying for the occasional freelance gig and if I'm going to have to submit writing samples with my resume, I figured I might as well put them on here for your reading pleasure and, naturally, posterity. So if it seems a little different, that's why.

While the two party system is probably under the greatest amount of strain in decades, despite the pressures placed upon it from both the left and the right in this electoral cycle it is still unlikely to experience major shifts or outright changes. The tones and ideological placement of both parties might shift after this current election, but the system will most likely remain the same.

That might seem slightly incongruous, given the amount of support for political outsiders such as Bernie Sanders (on the left) or Donald Trump (on the right.) If the mood of the electorate can be characterized as anything, it would perhaps be: ‘ready to hand someone a can of gasoline and some matches to burn the whole damn place to the ground.’ Whether this palpable anger can be ameliorated somewhat come November remains to be seen- but despite demands for change and an end to business as usual, widespread anger has failed, thus far, to coalesce into a series of demands for actual reform. Unless it does so, we can assume that the current system will survive- more or less intact.

However, we can’t discount the possibility of the electoral map shifting for a generation or so- the way the New Deal Coalition transformed politics in the 30s or the way the Reagan Coalition did so in the early 80s. While President Obama’s election was a unique moment in our nation’s history- the coalition he put together has not borne fruit for the Democratic Party- especially on the state level. Republicans control more state legislatures than they have in a century- and while the possibility of taking back the Senate for the Democratic Party is a viable one, a long period of Democratic dominance- similar to the one that the Republicans ended in 1994, seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

So, what can bring real change? Well, that depends on who you talk too: the reality of the situation is that with the Single Member District (one district, one representative) and the First-Past-The-Post voting system (candidate with the most votes wins) the number of parties is likely to remain low. While Canada and the United Kingdom might point to the possibility of multiple parties emerging, most of those have been regionally based (such as the Bloc Quebecois in Canada, Plaid Cymuru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland). However, Canada also proves that the rise of a viable third party cannot be ruled out: the New Democratic Party vaulted over the Liberal Party in the elections of 2011 to become the official opposition in the Canadian Parliament. Now the Liberals managed to recover and win the elections in 2015- but the NDP proves that a viable third party can capture significant amounts of power in the system- though they have yet to win their way into government and 2011 may yet prove to be an outlier rather than the start of a trend.

No matter how you spin it, without structural changes to our system, the number of parties will remain relatively low. If the anti-trust lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates is successful it might open up challenges to restrictive ballot access laws and open up the system to competition, but even if the playing field is level, other parties have to win seats and accumulate experience in governance to be successful.

However, there’s an old saying: “A week is a long time in politics.” And if that is true, then six months is an eternity. If any candidate is denied a nomination at the convention in a way the public finds unpalatable, then the anger that outsider candidates are benefiting from might coalesce into something that could prove dangerous to the establishment: actual, specific demands. And if that happens, then all bets are off. 


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