Watching from afar, the descent of American politics into an orgy of polarisation, institutional decline, and political dysfunction is both worrying and strange. Cynical declinists might argue that, yes, this is precisely how the United States is and always has been. They’re wrong. I’ll set aside my European snobbishness for a moment and admit it on behalf of both myself and my fellow Europeans: America is indisputably a great nation. Perhaps the greatest democratic nation the world has ever seen.
To a non-American Westerner like myself, it is precisely America’s greatness that makes the decades-long deterioration of its politics so disturbing. Because it is so important, the decline of American leadership threatens the cause of freedom and democracy worldwide. It is also a moral defeat—not just for America, but for the world. The United States is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, an aspirational example of what can be achieved when people are united by a belief in certain inalienable rights and, out of many, one free and prosperous nation emerges. Its politics are not supposed to be those of a poorly conceived reality TV show or a failing banana republic.
From an outsider’s point of view, a single strange assumption seems to be at the core of America’s accelerating polarisation and political self-destruction: the assumption that there are, essentially, only two ways to look at any given political question—a so-called “liberal” way, and a so-called “conservative” way, and nothing in between. It is an assumption that the American public debate seems to take for granted, but most people in other democratic countries—or, for that matter, an American from just a few generations ago—would find utterly absurd.
Even more bizarrely, there seems to be an unwritten rule that one’s opinion on one issue must determine one's opinion on every other issue in the political universe. Not to mention every other conceivable cultural, religious, or social issue, as well. It's as if there are not only just two possible answers to each political question but also only two possible types of people: “liberals” and “conservatives.”
The assumption is so absurd that to have arrived at it without having first been diagnosed with clinical psychosis almost seems an achievement worth celebrating. And it’s devastating for democracy: it is a view of an America with no grey areas, no shared values, no opportunity for mutual understanding or respect, and no room whatsoever for compromise and coming together. Oh, liberals are liberals and conservatives are conservatives, and never the twain shall meet.
The extreme restrictiveness of America’s binary politics is especially strange, given America’s love of unlimited choice in every other aspect of life. Do you want steak in your ice cream? Awesome! Your dog’s name on your license plate? Cake for breakfast? Surgery to make your ears look like those of a magical elf? That’s your God-given right as an American, and no one can tell you otherwise! One can almost imagine a choir of patriotic angels breaking out in a divine rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ every time someone insists on having peanut butter and chocolate chips atop their deep-fried (but gluten-free) cheeseburger, singing in celebration of an American exercising individual choice. The more idiosyncratic the choice, the better.
May the Lord smite you, however, if you dare suggest that you can be both anti-abortion and pro-gun control. Or support lower taxes, as well as a more open immigration policy. Or be really excited about both state-funded public healthcare and a hardcore approach to law and order. You, dear American, may choose between 22 different varieties of Cheetos but don’t ever dare suggest there could be more than two alternatives in all of American politics!
Italians, however, who insist that you absolutely cannot have coffee with milk after midday, eat a meat dish before the pasta course, or—God forbid!—commit the sacrilege of putting pineapple on a pizza—have no less than five major political parties to choose from when they go to vote. In France, where you might get shouted at if you ask your waiter to substitute fries for mashed potatoes (or the other way around), no one thinks it strange when self-described socialist politicians vocally reject “le wokisme.” And in Norway—where we only recently discovered that the laws of physics allow for more than just a single type of beer (except during Christmas)—there was never any doubt that the social democrats were different from the democratic socialists, that the Christian Democrats were different from the mainstream conservatives, and that all of the above were different from the liberals and the populists.
At the heart of America’s straitjacket politics lies its two-party system. There are, to be sure, dividing lines within each of the two parties, heated debates amongst both “liberals” and “conservatives” about what those labels ought to mean, and important voices that transcend party politics. Nevertheless, the public debate is necessarily shaped by the real, practical choices Americans face when they go to the voting booth. As long as that choice remains a binary one, between two parties who each present voters with a single nationally determined policy platform, the American public debate will be focused around a single, seemingly unbridgeable political fault line between “liberals” and “conservatives”—even though the divide is an entirely artificial one.
It was not always like this. In fact, it is a very recent phenomenon. As Lee Drutman points out in his excellent book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, the United States effectively had a four-party political system until the 1990s. Because the two parties were far more loosely organised than they are today and more of the public debate took place at a local rather than national level, there was plenty of room for both liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Practically speaking, the liberal and conservative wings within each party might as well have been separate parties—leaving the US with four rather than two parties. Broadly speaking, conservative democrats would have been expected to agree with conservative Republicans on some issues and liberal democrats on others—and vice versa—with only limited control of the Republican or Democratic party agenda at a national level.
As a result, there was far more room then than there is today for flexible coalition-building around specific policies. And even on highly divisive issues such as civil rights, major reform was passed with large cross-party majorities. As late as 1994, a blanket federal ban on the purchase of new assault weapons was passed with 56 votes against 43—a vote that would be unthinkable in the United States Congress today. But, just as significant as the fact that 10 Republican senators voted for the bill—including from conservative strongholds such as Kansas and Indiana—is the fact that nine Democrats voted against it. Neither Republican nor Democratic party membership guaranteed the opinions of an individual senator or representative on a specific issue—even when it came to such an ideological shibboleth as gun control.
But, gradually, as the national parties asserted themselves more in congressional policymaking, campaigns, and fundraising, and the national political conversation began to matter more than local ones, the ranges of permissible opinion within each party kept narrowing. That pseudo-ideological sorting and narrowing of the parties today’s Americans take for granted is still running its course, but, increasingly, the term “conservative Democrat” or “liberal Republican” sounds as much of an oxymoron as “vegetarian meat-eater”.
It’s worth reflecting on how rare this is amongst developed, democratic Western nations. Of the 38 democracies that make up the OECD, the United States is the only one that effectively has only two political parties. Even the handful of other countries that have first-past-the-post elections, such as the UK, have smaller third parties that are consistently represented in parliament and sometimes play an important role. The ultra-rigid two-party deathmatch system of the 21st-century United States is not only unique in American history (except, perhaps, during the 1850s), it is also unique among all developed Western democracies.
However, even as the two American political parties have narrowed significantly around two distinct and polarising political platforms with little overlap, the American people have not. If anything, the opposite might have happened. As a result, America’s two major parties today probably represent a smaller slice of the American electorate than at any previous time in the country’s history, and the consequences are corrosive to the health and integrity of American democracy.
Practically speaking, the previous norm of bipartisan policymaking has almost gone—even on issues on which substantial majorities of Americans of all ideological shades agree. And given the Senate’s filibuster rules, a lack of bipartisan policymaking tends to mean a lack of any productive policymaking at all. This highly visible political paralysis now appears the norm rather than the exception in the Congress of the United States—with the result that either party seems to think the only way to pass any meaningful policy is to control every arm of government (and, at some point in the future, nuke the Senate filibuster). Rather than a search for common ground within the framework of checks and balances, American politics is increasingly conforming to the logic of a winner-takes-all political cage fight, with both sides simultaneously dreaming of permanent domination and mortally terrified of what might happen if their opponent wins.
This has broader consequences for government. The enormous importance the Supreme Court has taken on in American politics is partly a result of legislative paralysis in congress. In most other democracies, hugely political decisions such as whether or not abortion is protected by law or whether gay marriage is legal are overwhelmingly more likely to be made by the legislative arm of government rather than the judicial branch. The fact that decisions like these are a matter of judicial interpretation of existing law rather than a broad-based decision made by elected representatives is an important symptom of America’s dysfunctional two-party politics.
The all-or-nothing political dynamics also make congressional oversight of the executive branch into a farcical affair. Because everyone expects members of Congress to pursue the interests of their party against the other, there is no way to distinguish genuine attempts at keeping the executive branch accountable from naked political efforts to destroy the opposition at any cost. It’s like asking two kickboxers to referee their own match while brutally beating each other to a pulp.
The predictable result is that bending the rules becomes a political virtue and attempts at enforcing the rules become indistinguishable from attempts at bending them. Over the long term, that’s a recipe for the erosion and eventual collapse of America’s democratic political institutions. Even the Constitution of the United States will eventually break if your elected officials spend enough time trying to twist it.
Given the prevailing conditions of self-imposed political dysfunction, it is not surprising that America’s view of its own democratically elected congress is almost universally negative. As of early 2022, 82 percent of Americans disapproved of “how Congress is handling its job.” There’s hardly any issue Americans agree on more. A different measure is the percentage of Americans who bother showing up to vote. In congressional midterm elections, less than half of eligible Americans—sometimes not even 40 percent—typically show up to vote for their own congress. By any stretch of the imagination, that is a stunning rebuke of the way this great American institution functions today.
It’s an extremely dangerous thing for any people to lose faith in their own political institutions. One of the most important benefits of democracy—perhaps the most important—is that it allows people to get rid of a government they are unhappy with without resorting to violence. For more and more Americans, this increasingly feels like an illusion.
The best-case scenario, if that doesn’t change, is that Congress keeps muddling along. The worst-case scenario is that a critical mass of activist-extremists—either from the Left or Right—gather enough support from people who are fed up with America’s democratic institutions and destroy them. That ought to be a real worry. You, Americans, are already in a place where rabidly radical political ideologues like Curtis Yarvin are invited onto Tucker Carlson’s “conservative” TV talk show to explain how American democracy is a sham and that it should be abolished and replaced by a Big Tech CEO who can act as an “American Caesar.” Great republics have fallen before.
The other corrosive effect of America’s narrowing two-party system is that it has fed Americans’ increasingly poisonous, polarised views of their fellow citizens. Despite the parties talking as if there could be no other way, it is a near-impossible task for both Democrats and Republicans to unite “their” half of the country behind a single, comprehensive policy platform. Far easier and more politically expedient to spend one’s time and energy vilifying the other side than talking about what your side believes. You don't have to worry about voters liking what you say if you're able to make them hate the other side.
And it works. Amongst 2020 Biden voters, nearly one in two said their vote was primarily a vote against Trump rather than for Biden. And amongst Trump supporters in 2016, more than half said their vote was more against Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. The way to win elections in 21st-century America is to show how terrible your opponent is rather than what you have to offer.
And since most people are far more attuned to the differences between those close to them than those on the “other” side, the latter always appear far more united and uniform. As a result, every political ideologue, pundit, or activist in America appears to see themselves as members of a brave, beleaguered minority and the opposition as a monolithic, ideologically brainwashed horde hell-bent on destroying everything that’s good about America. “They” are always an unthinking mass of politico-cultural zombies—“NPCs,” “Libtards,” and “MAGA-heads”; both morally decrepit and stupid. “We,” on the other hand, think for ourselves, are all individuals, all different, and don’t let anyone tell us what to do.
The absurdity of each side’s view of the other becomes clear if you assume the opinion leaders on the Left are right about the Right, and the opinion leaders on the Right are right about the Left. In combination, the America that they describe is an absurd and hellish caricature of the country that exists in the real world. “Conservative” America, as described by the left, is an irredeemably racist, authoritarian conspiracy cult whose political vision is to take the United States back to the Jim Crow era, permanently chain all women to an undeserving man’s kitchen stove to cook and breed, and forcibly deport anyone “acting gay” to a religious conversion camp.
Meanwhile, “liberal” America, as described by the Right, is a self-hating socialist revolutionary movement determined to turn the United States into a totalitarian communist state where law and order is replaced with Antifa mobs ravaging communities at the behest of the woke Twitterati, all straight white men are permanently condemned to life in a chain gang as punishment for their privilege, and American toddlers are forced to undergo gender-change surgery at the whim of government-appointed kindergarten teachers. If both sides’ descriptions of their opponents were accurate, the only logical conclusion would be that the entire American electorate is exclusively made up of communist trans activists and woman-hating fascist reactionaries.
The reality, of course, is that the (still) silent majority of Americans on both the Left and Right are deeply moderate and abhor dogmatic extremism. The Democrats and Republicans are both supported by a broad coalition of voters who disagree on many things amongst themselves and with the candidates for whom they vote.
And a brief look at the political diversity of other Western developed democracies—all of whom have more than two major parties—makes arguments about the inevitability of binary “liberal” vs. “conservative” politics look like utter madness. This is not only because multiple parties allow for more nuanced positions along an imagined “right–left” spectrum—but also because many real-life important parties across the West don’t fit neatly on that spectrum at all.
For instance, explicitly Christian parties in Europe, like American Republicans, tend to be highly conservative on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and “family values.” But—like American progressives—they are typically very concerned about welcoming refugees and taking care of the poor (which shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who has read the Bible).
Nor would European liberals—who tend to be actual liberals rather than leftists, as the term has come to mean in America—fit comfortably within either of the two American parties. Like many American conservatives, they tend to be highly committed to individual freedom, free speech, and free markets. But they also tend to interpret that to mean it’s nobody else’s business whether you want to marry someone of the same gender, have an abortion, or identify as a man if you were born a woman.
Meanwhile, European “green” parties predictably tend to be very ambitious on energy transition and climate. But, unlike progressives in the US, many of them tend to see this as part of a market-oriented, capitalist, industrial policy rather than identifying with the far Left on economic issues. They also tend to be pragmatic centrists on other issues such as foreign policy. In Germany, the Green Party were amongst the most vocal about the need for Germany to carry their weight in NATO and arm Ukraine against Putin’s invasion—the complete opposite position of the country’s far-left socialist party.
Most importantly, perhaps, the key political divides in a multi-party system tend not to be between the “Right” and the “Left”, but between the “centre” and the “fringe”—irrespective of whether one is talking about the right or left fringes. To the extent that parties fit neatly on a left–right spectrum, centrist parties tend to win the most votes and routinely form governing coalitions with other parties both to their left and right—more often other moderate parties than far-left or far-right ones.
The effect this type of politics has on polarisation and political vitriol is palpable. When coalitions are necessary for governing, it changes the way mainstream politicians and pundits talk about their opponents. It also strengthens the general assumption amongst voters that they agree with almost all of their fellow citizens on lots of things even if they voted for different parties—no less strange than the notion of two people liking the same type of pizza but different flavours of ice cream. Apart from politicians and party activists, few consider their politics or party affiliations to be a fixed or central part of their identity.
Despite the American parties’ attempts at forcing the American people into two far too small ideological clown cars, the US electorate is no less politically diverse than those of other Western democracies. In a poll asking Americans how they would vote in a scenario with five parties—a Nationalist Party led by Donald Trump, a centre-right conservative party, a centrist party led by Michael Bloomberg, a centre-left “Labour Party” led by Joe Biden, and an AOC-style Democratic Socialist party, only about half of Americans would pick either of the two parties arguably closest to today’s Democrats and Republicans. The rest would be spread across the other options—agreeing with other parties on some things and disagreeing with them on others. It’s American politics that are polarised, not the American people.
That said, nearly every American I’ve ever met has told me that the prospects of a third party are slim—let alone a fourth or a fifth. Look at Ross Perot, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson. At best, they ended up with a bit of publicity. At worst, they split the vote of the party they were closest to and helped bring to power the people with whom they agreed the least.
And it’s true that the first-past-the-post electoral system heavily favours two parties. Dreams of a third party probably seem little else than just that—dreams. Indeed, as Lee Drutman argues, for America to truly become a multi-party democracy, electoral reform is needed. The question remains, though, why the two parties who would stand to lose from such reform would ever contemplate it.
However, there are many other alternatives besides a political outsider running for office as a third-party candidate. Perhaps, instead, the most promising place to start would be with establishment centrists who are already elected to the Senate or House of Representatives. Across Congress, there is an increasing number of both Republican and Democrat elected officials who feel uncomfortable with their own parties’ lurches towards the political fringes. The result is that the most moderate Republicans and Democrats likely have far more in common with each other than the fringes of their own party—irrespective of whether that fringe is embodied by Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor-Greene or Ilhan Omar and AOC.
Especially in the Senate, people like Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, Kyrsten Sinema, or Lisa Murkowski sometimes buck their own parties and are expected by their electorates to be relatively independent voices. It would hardly be political suicide for any of them—ideally an equal number of Democrats and Republicans—to leave their respective parties and become the founding members of a new political party.
Such a move would represent a profound strengthening of the political middle ground in America. Centrist politicians are already key to what remains of bipartisan policymaking in Washington. However, they frequently come under pressure from party activists accusing them of being “traitors” or “RINOs,” and some risk fierce opposition in primaries from more extreme candidates. And they remain, first and foremost, Democrats and Republicans who sometimes do their own thing. Forming a new, centrist party would allow them to prove to ordinary Americans that sound policy can come from the middle, rather than just being moderated by it.
Given the tight margins in the United States Congress, such a party—let’s call it the America Together Party—would, overnight, become a force to be reckoned with. Even if it only consisted of the four senators named above, either party would still need its support to pass legislation requiring a simple majority in the Senate. Holding the pivotal votes required by either party, it would have a powerful negotiating position from which to push its own policy agenda—presumably a moderate and centrist one. And if it were able to convince just 10 senators from either party—for instance, the 20 senators who voiced initial support for the new, bipartisan gun safety bill—it would be able to furnish either of the two parties with a filibuster-proof majority. Placing the centre back at the centre of American politics is doable if just a small number of America’s political leaders are willing to courageously think and act outside the box.
Despite the insiders’ understandable worries about losing the financial, electoral, and media support of their parties, starting a third party might very well pay off electorally. In fact, voters who self-identify as “independent” have steadily grown over time and made up a plurality of the American electorate since the early 1990s. And although most of the 40 percent of voters who identify as “independent” tend to reliably vote either for the Democrats or Republicans, they haven’t been given any other credible choices to pick from. However, in a three-way congressional race in a state that reflected the average American electorate, an “America Together” candidate might very well beat out both the old parties, as long as the candidate was credible enough that voters didn’t worry about “wasting their votes.” Already being a senator might well be an effective way to create that kind of credibility.
There’s another way, too, that a credible third party in the middle could become electorally competitive in Congress. One of the most pronounced trends in American politics over the last 50 years has been the dwindling of swing districts. As late as the early 1990s, the majority of American congressional districts were genuinely competitive between the two parties. However, already in 2012—10 years ago—347 out of 435 districts were either deep blue or deep red, with little meaningful contest between the two parties—but plenty of room for a more extreme candidate on either side to pull their party further out on the fringe. As one election analyst put it, “purple America has all but disappeared.” It is a tragedy for democracy: as more and more districts become either deep blue or deep red, fewer and fewer Americans live in a district where their votes matter.
But this situation also offers a unique opportunity for a third party—if it can gain enough traction that it is seen as a credible alternative. The first-past-the-post electoral system favours a two-party contest in each election—but it doesn’t necessarily have to be between the Democrats and the Republicans. In deep-blue states and districts, an “America Together” candidate would stand a far better chance of defeating a Democrat than a Republican would—and vice versa in deep red ones. A centrist third party would be able to offer voters common-sense middle-ground candidates who—unrestrained by affiliation with either Democrats or Republicans—could unreservedly and credibly reject both Trumpist populism and talk of a socialist America. Tens of millions of voters across your country are starving for that.
Given the dynamics of first-past-the-post elections, the rational strategy for Democrats in deep-red states and Republicans in deep-blue states would be to throw their support behind “America Together” at the local level. Far better for a centrist, third-party candidate to get elected with whom your party could compromise than a mortal enemy from the “other” side. The happy consequence of this would be that American voters in the large number of states and electoral districts that are practically uncontested today would see the return of meaningful democratic choice outside of party primaries.
Of course, even if a third party were able to establish itself in Congress, the American presidential election system, with its winner-takes-all electoral votes, is poorly designed to accommodate a three-way race. But perhaps, after all, the president would matter less if Congress worked as it is supposed to. A third (and, perhaps, over time, a fourth and fifth) party would radically change the prospects of credible congressional oversight of the executive.
Cabinet members, Supreme Court judges, and other key appointments do, after all, need to be approved by the Senate. The confirmation hearings, which today function mostly as a combination of political theatre and foot-dragging sabotage by the opposing party, would take on a very different role if, in effect, what the president was looking for was two out of America’s three parties agreeing to the appointments. Even a hardcore right-winger or a far-left progressive would have to consider the interests of America’s middle ground to get their government appointed. It might even go some way to solving the extreme politicisation of America’s Supreme Court appointment process.
That said, a third party in Congress explicitly offering Americans a middle-ground political platform is not a cure-all for every challenge America faces. Nothing ever is, for any country. Nor is it an easy thing to do, and it will not happen automatically. It will require an abundance of both political daring and competence. But, if done well, it could go a long way towards unblocking the perpetual political logjams in the US Congress and reassert its role as a check on the executive. More importantly, it could be a powerful way to mitigate and, perhaps, reverse America’s accelerating political polarisation and the loss of faith in its democratic institutions.
That’s a goal well worth pursuing. It’s only the world’s greatest democracy you'd be saving—and perhaps the entirety of the free, Western world along with it. We are cheering for you.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/07/06/dear-americans-your-politics-dont-have-to-be-this-insane/