America Should Let a Thousand Political Parties Bloom
With the two party system coming apart, the United States ought to take its cues from Europe.
Sunday’s election in Germany proved to be a “debacle” for Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the German daily Der Spiegel put it. Not only did the two mainstream parties, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, suffer a shocking loss of support, but the openly xenophobic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 12.6 percent of the vote and will now have 94 representatives in the Bundestag. Both German commentators and outsiders — including me — had been far too sanguine about the outcome.
Like almost all of its European neighbors, Germany will henceforth have a relatively fragile center and noisy, robust extremes. The United States, with its two-party system, is now the great anomaly of Western politics. Yet American voters seem to be as deeply divided as Europeans and along essentially the same lines. The American debacle of 2016, in which one major party became the host body for the parasite of nationalism, is far graver than the German one. And this compels what might seem an odd question: Why should the American exception continue?
Of course, I recognize that our 165-year-old two-party system won’t disappear anytime soon. Our first-past-the-post electoral rules enormously advantage the large, existing parties. And since the U.S. Constitution dictates that presidential elections in which no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes are decided by the House of Representatives, a multiparty system could throw every election into the House and thus make a mockery of democracy. So let’s treat the idea as a thought experiment.
Political fragmentation in the West seems to be a deep phenomenon and not just a passing response to the economic crash a decade ago. In an article I wrote about the French election this spring, I argued that the four chief candidates in the first round of balloting represented pro- and anti-globalization parties of the left and the right. The Socialists, the left-of-center consensus party of the postwar era, had simply disappeared as their former working-class base abandoned them for the nationalist right or the hard left. This phenomenon has been repeated across Europe: Social democratic parties have been crushed everywhere save England, where Labour has thrived by recasting itself as a frankly socialist party. (The French Socialists, in contrast, are social democrats.) In Germany, as in France, both the center-left and center-right parties suffered major losses, with the Social Democrats falling to a historic low of 20.5 percent. Increasing numbers of voters, especially the less educated, are repudiating what they see as transnational, progressive values, above all the liberal openness to immigrants and refugees, though also the wish for a stronger European Union.
The same dynamic runs, in effect, underground in the United States, where the two-party system masks the depth of an internal breach. The obvious case is the Republican Party, now virtually deadlocked between a laissez-faire and even libertarian elite — think of the Koch brothers — and a resentful, nationalist rank-and-file that elected as president one of its own, or someone who claimed to be. One side is eager to exploit the forces of globalization; the other views those forces as a mortal threat. The New York Times recently reported the astonishing news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has replaced Barack Obama as the favored voodoo doll of fired-up Republican voters.
The Democrats are currently in too reactive, and too inchoate, a state for their internal contradictions to become fully manifest. But the lesson from Europe is that working-class whites are becoming less and less receptive to what they deem elite values. In the United States, that means openness to immigration and to “diversity” in all its forms, affirmative action and the like. The Democratic leadership is now torn between those who want to reaffirm the party’s commitment to progressive values and those who want to reach out to working-class and middle-class whites who voted for Donald Trump. Those voters are probably not coming back, just as French factory workers who pulled the lever for Marine Le Pen will not return to the center-left. They might, however, vote for an anti-globalization socialist — that is, Bernie Sanders or someone in his mold. The split between the Sanders wing and the Hillary Clinton wing of the party is bound to widen as the 2020 election approaches. The Democrats could become almost as incoherent as the Republicans. The United States increasingly feels like a four-party country trapped inside two parties.
What would it mean for those on the left and right flanks to be gathered under their own banners? A rough ride, to say the least. Many Germans are terrified about the prospect of a formally empowered AfD. “This is an attack on our liberal democracy,” one German editorialist wrote. As has happened in Sweden and a number of other European countries, Germany will form a governing coalition organized around fencing out the extremists. Liberals of all stripes, in effect, will make common cause against anti-liberal parties.
Is that better or worse than a system where the anti-liberals are able to gain control over a mainstream party? I put that question to Josef Janning, an expert in German politics with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think it’s better to have more parties,” he said. “While it appears to be a weakness of the European party system, it can actually be a strength. It gives an opportunity for these fringe parties to express themselves but also to become an object of disillusion.” Fringe parties, he said, tend to tear themselves apart, as France’s National Front now seems to be doing. A multiparty system allows those on the flanks to rise and fall “without taking along with them the party structure of the party they have hijacked.”
A multiparty system also allows citizens to recognize both what separates them and what binds them together. Millions of French voters concluded that they could easily live with Emmanuel Macron’s economic liberalism when the alternative was a party fueled by racial resentment. The competition of four parties crystallized the act of choice and reminded voters of the republican values they deeply cherished. In the United States, those on the center-left and the center-right might find that their essentially hopeful attitude toward the world matters more than their disagreement over the size and role of the federal government.
Is this a dream we should indulge? I also ran the idea past Sean Wilentz, the American historian and authority on political parties. Wilentz argued that while political conflict has been every bit as sharp in the United States as in Europe, the two-party system has “institutionalized” that struggle by allowing it to play out inside each party and thus has proved remarkably effective in holding the country together. Wilentz acknowledged that no American party in memory, if ever, has been as extreme as today’s Republicans, but he expects, or rather hopes, that the party will explode and then be compelled to refashion itself in a more sustainable form. In any case, my thought experiment did nothing to advance his hopes of Democratic victory in 2020.
My own kindred thought is that by hiving off the Deplorable Party from the body of the GOP, we could hasten the day when bullying nativism becomes, as Janning put it, an object of disillusion. One might even do the same with the Occupy America Party.
My thought experiment is not a real proposal, but neither is it just whimsy. The fact is that our politics really have become different from what they were — more fragmented, more extreme, more ideological, and more globalized, in the sense that the forces that shape European politics shape ours as well. The era when Obama could hopefully insist that we are all red, all blue, already seems terribly far away. There is no reason to believe we will get back there anytime soon.
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