Americans live in a big country. We are 320 million people spread across six time zones speaking more than 180 different languages. Our territory includes almost every imaginable climate, from tundra to coral reefs. In our cultures, cuisines and religions, we are a microcosm of humanity, a diversity too broad for summary. There are roughly 500,000 elected offices spread across our nation. About 99.95% of our elected officials are members of two political parties.
By comparison, the United Kingdom consists of 65 million people in a single time zone stretched across an island and a quarter. If they had decent freeways, you could drive across Britain from tip to tail in half a day. Nine different political parties hold seats in the British parliament. The Germans have five. The French have more than fifteen. The Irish have nine.
A political system built to prioritize consistency over representation has reached an event horizon. Americans have finally allowed our diversity to bloom in culture and commerce. Our politics must follow. It is not possible to deliver authentic political expression in a nation this large and complex through only two, monolithic, national political parties. We either adapt this system to incorporate a broader range of organized voices, or it will soon fail.
Introducing more meaningful, multi-party political competition in the US is complicated by the structure of our system. The bulk of our most powerful elected representatives are elected from single-member districts. In races where there can be only one winner, there will never be more than two candidates who can be truly competitive. Despite this structure, there are openings for the development of third parties and sub-parties. Building representation outside the Big-Two requires some creativity, but it can be done. In fact, in a few local areas this process is well underway. Those organizations can provide a roadmap for others to follow.
All politics is local. Thanks to advent of ubiquitous data, we have learned to follow the back and forth of Washington politics as if it were a football game. Much of our journalistic establishment has been swallowed by a 24-hour news model premised on covering politics as entertainment. How many voters who can identify Paul Ryan or John McCain also know the name of their town’s mayor? For better or worse, the road back to a functioning national government runs through our boring, neglected local institutions. If the foundation decays, the rooftop spire won’t hold. All politics is local.
Donald Trump is not the problem with our political system. He is a consequence of our civic rot. It took decades to put ourselves in this mess, so we can expect little or no improvement in the weeks and months after he leaves office. Americans are fundamentally disengaged from politics as something more than a TV drama. That must change, or nothing else will matter. That change can only happen in the precincts.
New political parties will not emerge from Washington. They will begin in our neighborhoods or they won’t begin at all.
An evolutionary process produces dozens, sometimes thousands, of dead-ends before a successful mutation emerges. What follows are merely suggestions. Hopefully many other models will be spawned, producing alternatives not imagined here.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting a series of pieces at Forbes meant to describe the current state of our two-party system and sketch an outline of a new direction. I’ll convert the following headlines into hyperlinks as the pieces go up. Hopefully this page can become a clearinghouse for ideas on the subject.
It starts with a few pieces explaining why I think the current system cannot be sustained.
Then there are a few pieces, yet to be posted, describing a successful third-party strategy, starting with the example of the Working Families Party in the New York metro area.
Why we need political parties, perhaps more than ever.
This is where you come in. What am I missing here? What questions still hang in the air? What parts of this concept are impractical or unreasonable or just plain wrong?