America is, for all its bluster — or perhaps as a result of it — a nation obsessed with simplicity and repulsed by nuance. We like our history told in grand sweeping metaphors and our moralizing done in easily understood binaries. America is founded on stories of being unambiguously good in the face of unambiguous evil — whether it's monarchal England, the Spanish, the Germans, or some other monolithic opposition against whom the country could measure itself.
It's with this spirit of simplistic dualities that American politics has locked itself into a de facto two-party stalemate — the sort that has relegated a significant portion of political fights to the disparate "wings" of both the GOP and the Democratic Party, who are now forced to spend energy on intra-party fights that could otherwise be used to push an agenda in the broader political arena. While the ossification of American politics into the binary it exists within today is neither total nor has it always been the case, it is the modern political reality by which we live and die.
The problem can be traced back to a "decades-long realignment of the party coalitions" in the middle of the past century, explained political scientist and two-party foe Lee Drutman in Foreign Policy in 2019. Where once the two-party system was more akin to a fairly overlapped Venn diagram in which moderate agreement often carried the day, the 1950s and '60s — particularly the civil rights movement — upended everything. "Politics nationalized, and pragmatic economic materialism gave way to culture wars and fights over national identity," Drutman wrote.
That process of nationalized politics as defined by party affiliation, coupled with the increasing polarity Drutman describes, has only intensified in the decades since. It's led to a zero-sumification of American politics, creating a situation in which — particularly when it comes to federal office — there's only one game in town, being played over and over again with the same two players, neither of which has any interest or incentive to cede territory to anyone else.
Nor do they have to. The accumulation of power has made it easy for both parties to further solidify their political strangleholds, either by absorbing threats or eliminating them altogether. The GOP has cemented its ability to win elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, as well as a surprising flexibility when it comes to incorporating potential threats into its locus of power. (Think the semi-astroturfed Tea Party a decade ago, and the MAGA movement today, both of which have essentially been folded into the GOP as a whole.) For Democrats, this concentration of power largely manifests in efforts to bat down the more progressive wings of the party, whether by working against challengers from within or even blacklisting vendors for merely agreeing to work on primary challenges to sitting Democratic lawmakers.
In both cases, the message is clear: It's us, or nothing.
"The obvious challenge then becomes how to shift the axis of political conflict back away from a battle over the nature of America and its political institutions, and to more of a non-existential 'normal politics' argument over public policy and its implementation," Drutman wrote in a 2018 essay for Vox. "The answer has to involve somehow scrambling the current party system, so that being a Democrat or being a Republican is not wrapped up in these fundamental zero-sum questions about the basis of American democracy."
Given the seemingly intractable stalemate presented by our current political bifurcation, and the pressing need to move ahead on any number of critical policies that — quite literally — could decide the fate of the planet before it's too late, what can be done to help pry our two parties' hands off the throat of our democracy?
First, it's important to note that introducing a third party is an extremely popular idea in American politics, and has been for some time now. It regularly polls in the high 50s and low 60s which, given how polarized the country is on just about everything else aside from marijuana and The Rock, is pretty impressive.
But for that to happen, it might require some bottom-up work in specific states, where conditions are right to crack open the political market without scaring off voters who might otherwise be worried about wasting their vote. Writes Micah Sifry in The New Republic:
The hard reality is that if we ever get a major new political party, it won't be built by think tank denizens. It will be built first in states like New York, Connecticut, and Oregon, where minor parties don’t have to risk "spoiling" the election because they can endorse candidates from another party, or cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco where ranked-choice voting (where you can assign your vote to a series of candidates in order of preference) eliminates that barrier. And then it will move to power in a few states and maybe a few congressional seats. The presidency will be its final prize, not its first.
We've already seen the start of this very phenomenon. In the just over two decades since its founding, the Vermont Progressive Party has put multiple elected officials in that state's legislature. And while, as its name implies, the VPP is exclusively active in Vermont itself, its creation — inspired in part by the political ascendency of Bernie Sanders, perhaps the most popular independent politician in the country — offers a template for others to follow.
Sifry's invocation of ranked-choice voting is echoed by Drutman as well. In a 2018 essay, again for Vox, previewing that year's ballot initiative to transition Maine to a ranked-choice system, Drutman argued that by having voters list their preferences in order, rather than as a simple yes/no binary, "voters can choose the candidate they most want to elect without having to worry so much about the 'spoiler effect.'" The only way someone would win outright in a ranked-choice race is if they garner more than 50% of the vote. Suddenly, the pressure to "vote blue no matter who," for instance, is significantly less intense.
What's more, Drutman wrote, is that ranked-choice voting:
would improve representation, even if the two major parties continue to win. In an election with only two choices, Democrat and Republican, voters can only send a very weak signal. But in an election with more candidates, even if it winds up electing a Democrat or a Republican, voters can send stronger signals. Winning candidates will know where their support came from and will be more responsive as a result.
In other words, even if a third party (or fourth party or fifth party) doesn't break through to win a particular race, elected officials would still be more inclined to understand the bloc of voters that pushed them over the top. If that includes a chunk of people who voted for the third-party candidate first, it will further legitimize those outsider parties and their impact.
Former Maine State Solicitor Peter Brann agreed, explaining in an interview with Harvard Law Today last year that "it eliminates the role of 'spoilers' — you can vote for your preferred candidate first, and then rank one of the 'lesser of two evils' second, and know that you aren't 'throwing away your vote' on a candidate who cannot win."
What's more, Brann noted, is that "in Alaska, opponents are also arguing that it will undermine the two-party system by making it easier for third party and independent candidates to run and win." In other words, ranked-choice voting represents an enough of an opportunity to break free from the usual Democrat/Republican polarity that proponents of the two-party system have fought against it on those very grounds.
There is, however, another way to jettison the two-party system — not by adding additional parties, but by abandoning them altogether.
"There's a lot of Americans who can rally behind this vision of using democratic lotteries to cut out so much of what we hate about politics, and really put people at the center of it," Adam Cronkright explained to me, emphasizing that there's broad appeal across the political spectrum for something different from what we have now. And for Cronkright, that something different is the democratic lottery — a modern take on how ancient Athenians used to select their representatives.
Cronkright is the co-founder of of by for*, a self-described "non-partisan, non-profit working to replace politicians with everyday people." To do that, Cronkright has turned to what he calls citizens' panels, a process by which ordinary people are selected through a multi-step randomized democratic lottery that brings together a representative body that reflects the demographics of the community being served. That panel is then tasked with doing what we ordinarily trust elected officials to do: making decisions based on informed opinions, shared values, and a desire for the common good.
In the fall of 2020, Cronkright and his colleagues put their theory to the test.
"The citizens' panel provided a glimpse of this bigger vision of what government should look like in this country."
"We decided to head into Michigan and do a citizens' panel on COVID, because it's the most charged issue in the most divided state," Cronkright told me. "To show people what's possible as far as bridging these divides, and what happens when you cut out politicians and pundits and parties, and you just get people together without all the politicking."
The result was a 30-person panel that met for almost 45 hours over the course of six weeks, sharing their own stories, hearing expert testimony, and ultimately crafting a series of COVID-related policy recommendations designed to help their community through one of the most pressing crises of the era. And while the final recommendations of this citizens' panel have not been adopted into law, the submissions exist as a testament to a new way of looking at politics, beyond the bifurcated notion of party allegiance and instead through the lens of the actual people who will live with the consequences of their decisions.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that citizens' panels and democratic lotteries are going to replace legislation by career politicians anytime soon.
"For us, the citizens' panel provided a glimpse of this bigger vision of what government should look like in this country," Cronkright explained to me, stressing that his group is not pushing to institute citizens' panels as a widespread practice across the country. "We don't envision this as a process that people are just going to do on their own. There is a lot of work that goes into supporting this structure. And that's the same for any governing body."
But that glimpse was enough for some participants in Michigan to gain a newfound distaste for our current system.
"Several of them feel frustrated, but not surprised, by the lack of response by elected politicians at the state level," Cronkright told me. "Several of them have expressed more frustration when they look at politics. Because of the juxtaposition of the circus they see on TV and what they've experienced firsthand with their fellow Americans."
The fact that elected officials haven't responded to the panel's recommendation is likely due in part to the fact that it's a product that defies easy classification along partisan lines — which is hardly a surprise, given that most real people don't neatly live their lives according to a party platform. But for politicians who are ultimately part of the existing system, which necessitates party allegiance to enjoy its benefits, actually going to bat for what might be a hard-to-categorize policy is sometimes a bridge too far.
"It's not something that any of [those politicians] can take credit for," Cronkright said, nothing that the COVID report crafted by the Michigan panel had been sent to every lawmaker in the state, with little response in return. "The recommendations that came out of this panel don't seem to align very neatly with either party's political agenda. This common ground doesn't lend itself to the political point-scoring that they have to do to keep their power and their positions."
In a political system that has increasingly become the ultimate binary, with billions of dollars and immeasurable power at stake, it's understandable that any deviation from the standard — even one supported by the very people that system ostensibly serves — would be met dismissively, if not with outright hostility.
But look around and ask yourself if politics in America is truly working the way it's supposed to. Or even if it's working at all. How much longer can things keep going the way they are before the gears of government simply lock up? How much longer before the machine falls apart entirely? It's clear that something needs to change. Whether that's expanding the system to create a new calculus for power-sharing, or whether it's rejecting the need for a government beholden to party-affiliated politicians in the first place, there's never been a better time than now to do something about what will otherwise be an irrevocably ossified system.
In fact, if we don't do something soon, it might just end up being too late.