In 2016 the presidential candidates nominated by both of the major political parties in the United States had negative approval ratings. Given their dominance of the American political system since the 1850s, it is hard to fathom how both parties could be so inept at the same time.
Three years of the Trump presidency has left the impression that the two parties are no more successful at governing than they are at choosing effective presidential candidates. Granted Donald J. Trump’s leadership, or lack thereof, is a major factor in the current impasse, but he is more a symptom than the actual cause of the bipartisan ineffectiveness.
There has been little progress for more than three decades now on addressing several grave challenges facing the country. Immigration, health care, gun violence, income inequality, and responsible corporate governance are some of the most threatening that have been festering for years.
Internationally, America’s place in the world is under siege. The quality and consistency of our leadership is in question.
A majority of Americans still generally identify with one of the two major parties. In recent years, however, more voters consider themselves Independents than those who identify with either of the major parties. A Gallup poll in September 2019, found that 31% of Americans identified as Democrat and 29%, Republican. But 38% claimed to be Independents.
Since 1991 Gallup has been regularly measuring the partisan leanings of Independents’ in an effort to get a clearer picture of the party divide. Democrats have typically maintained a slight advantage over Republicans here as well. Currently, the margin is 47% to 42%.
While Democrats usually hold a slim advantage in partisanship, Republicans vote at higher rates, which make U.S. elections competitive. Divided government has thus been the order of the day.
Republicans in recent years have appreciated better the state-based structure of our political system, paying more attention to state and local offices. This is reflected in their dominance in state legislatures who control reapportionment of Congressional seats. The GOP’s broader geographic focus is also evident in the membership of the US Senate where they hold a 53-seat majority. Only 10 of 50 states have split senate representation and in two of those, the non-major party senator is an independent (VT and ME).
The close partisan divide has been evident in recent presidential elections. In the last five contests beginning with 2000, the Democratic candidate has won the popular voter four times. Only twice has the Democratic candidate won the presidency. In both 2000 and 2016, a Republican achieved victory in the Electoral College despite having fewer popular votes than the Democratic opponent.
There has always been contention between the two major parties, but the intensity of the divide has increased exponentially in the past three decades. When LBJ in 1965 was pushing through Medicare, approximately half of Republicans in Congress voted for the legislation. Fast forward forty-five years and not a single member of the GOP in Congress voted for the Affordable Care Act.
In any democratic system elections are important so it is natural for parties to focus on campaigns for public office. But carrying out the essential functions of government in a fair and equitable manner is equally as important as elections. This has become increasingly problematic in recent years as sizeable elements in both parties have come to view the opposition as unfit to govern.
For example, in a September 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center 75% of Democrats viewed Republicans as “more close-minded” that other Americans, while 64% of Republicans questioned the open-mindedness of Democrats. In another opinion survey a month later, 55% of Republicans described Democrats as “more immoral” when compared to other Americans. Among Democrats 47% said Republicans were “more immoral.”
The partisan hostility runs very deep. Nearly half of members in both parties say the other party has almost no good ideas. Majorities in both parties accuse those in the opposing party of not sharing their nonpolitical values and goals.
Most disturbing is the September survey in which 63% of Republicans claimed Democrats are unpatriotic. In maybe a glimmer of hope, only 23% of Democrats said the same of Republicans.
It appears that our two party system is no longer adequate for our political environment. Issues and challenges have become too complex to be resolved by just two points of view, and efforts at compromise between the two parties consistently flounder.
Perhaps the existence of two or three more viable political organizations would encourage a serious exploration of solutions to our problems. Many other democracies in the developed world have had multi-party systems for a long time.
Ironically, a major factor in the political standoff is that the parties are so evenly matched. Consequently, there is a tendency for the loser to focus more on the next election rather than on trying to develop solutions to our challenges even if some degree of compromise is necessary.
Whether or not the addition of one, two or three additional political parties may be helpful in clearing the logjam in American governance is uncertain, but the prolonged poor track record of the existing two major parties offers little reason to stay with the status quo.