KUZMINSKI: Is 2-Party System Serving Nation?

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Is 2-Party System Serving Nation?

The other day I had occasion to visit the websites of both our local Otsego County Democratic and Republican Committees. Both were disappointing.

The Republican Committee’s website still listed John Faso as our congressman. The most recent posting I could find was from 2014. The Democratic website, by contrast, was up to date, listing local officials and candidates for this year’s races. Both parties have active Facebook pages (the Republicans had 611 likes, the Democrats 721 likes).

What disappointed me was the lack of content on both party’s sites. On neither the Republican nor the Democratic websites, nor on their Facebook pages, could I find a link to anything like issues, goals or a platform. No vision for Otsego County is presented. Zero.

This state of affairs may not be surprising, but it is revealing. The two major parties are machines for winning public office, with little or no intrinsic commitment to any issue or goal.

It is largely a matter of historical accident that some issues have become attached to each party – say, minority rights for Democrats, and small government for Republicans.

That could just as easily be overturned by the next historical accident. There was a time, after all, when Democrats held out for small government and Republicans were the champions of minority rights.
Our two major parties are in fact available to whomever can seize, direct and redefine them, as Trump recently demonstrated with the Republicans in 2016 (going populist), and the Clintons in the 90s with the Democrats (going corporate).
Since they are in direct, one-on-one competition, the parties tend to polarize issues into right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. Their not-so-subtle message is: “To play politics, you must be on our Team or the other Team.” Call it the Red Team vs. the Blue Team.

Political parties in most other countries, by contrast, proceed very differently. They are largely defined by their commitment to an issue or goal: in Europe and elsewhere we have workers parties and peasant parties, clerical parties and ethnic parties, as well as communist, socialist, fascist,
secessionist and anarchist parties.

The notion that political parties represent ideas and beliefs is what animates the multi-party, parliamentary system of most Europeans. The plurality of parties reflects the spectrum of ideas
and beliefs.

In the European tradition, if the idea or belief loses support, the party declines or disappears. The major American parties don’t disappear, but are instead practically immortal, persisting structurally unchanged through every election cycle, even as their ideas come and go.

The disconnect between ideas and beliefs on the one hand, and the machine structure of the two major parties on the other, makes it difficult if not impossible for any set of ideas and beliefs to find effective political expression. While individual Democrats and Republicans may hold passionate values, their parties stand for nothing, except self-perpetuation.

Hence also the lack of any check on special interests and money in politics. Parties which stand for nothing can be bought and sold; they offer little resistance to any group strong enough and wealthy enough to make their interests central to the party.

This self-perpetuation is evident in the gerrymandering of electoral districts across the country, which carve out a solid base for each party, leading to national gridlock. Otsego County is an exception, a swing district where Republicans and Democrats have lately been competitive.

Democrats have achieved near parity with Republicans on the county Board, largely due to a hard-fought election in 2017.

This year, however, there is only one contested seat between Democrats and Republicans in
the fall’s county Board elections. (Independents can still file May 21-28.) That may leave many county Board voters with little or no choice. In our system, if the two dominant parties accommodate one each other in this manner, for whatever reason, there is no one to challenge them. In a more competitive multi-party system, more candidate choices would be likely.

Of course, the multi-party parliamentary system of Europeans and others is no panacea. But it does give a direct political voice to ideas and beliefs which, in our system, remain free-floating.

We have a plethora of commentators on TV, radio, the internet, and print media, yet ideas and policies seldom gain the traction and persistence we see in parliamentary systems; we hear a lot instead about electoral strategy and who’s up and who’s down at the moment.

The party structure in this country – especially as enshrined in the two major parties – is usually taken for granted, but it may be an important part of what’s wrong with American politics. Why should the two major parties be gatekeepers to public office? Who gave them that power?

Reducing their privileged electoral stranglehold would break up the major party monopoly and let in some fresh air.

Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.


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