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Are Lawyers to Blame for the Two-Party System?

For generations, Americans have been told that liberty lives within the two-party system. The often uttered narrative states that the two dominant parties offer the best opportunity for voters to reflect upon and promote their own ideals. The 2016 election may irrefutably disprove this theory.

An increasing number of polls show a majority of voters highly unsatisfied with the candidates borne by the current system. A number of factors contribute to the persistence of two-party dominance in the United States. Winner-take-all contests, party primaries, campaign finance, and strict ballot access all contribute to Republican and Democratic electoral supremacy.

Nevertheless, there is another, often overlooked factor which reinforces the two-party system at every level of government.

According to a 2013 report by the Social Science Research Council, lawyers make up the largest occupational group in the U.S. Congress. They comprise 41% of federal lawmakers. By contrast, attorneys make up only .6% of the U.S. population as a whole.

On the surface, this may be an unsurprising, if not innocuous statistic. However, it may go farther in explaining the problems of American politics than many may realize.

To practice law in the United States, one must not only pass the bar exam, but have also received a law degree from an accredited institution of higher learning. A legal education in the United States, as it should be, is based largely on debating one side of a binary argument. The goal of the debate is to convince a decision maker (judge, magistrate, jury etc.) that one’s mastery of the facts of a case are superior to the opposition’s argument.

Through a legal education and subsequent work life, an attorney learns that the winning side of an argument is where their success will be found.

How might a preponderance of lawyers impact the efficiency and effectiveness of any lawmaking body? For starters, the attorney views most public policy dilemmas in strikingly absolute terms. Issues are often approached by arguing a “right” side of the debate against a “wrong” side.

Good lawmaking requires an appreciation for the complexity of most social and even economic problems.

Good lawmaking requires an appreciation for the complexity of most social and even economic problems. Such an appreciation should yield a nuanced and multifaceted solution. In educational and professional terms, most lawyers are not equipped with such skills.

Sound problem-solving is usually a function of reverent cooperation. Alternately, sound lawyering is usually a function of savage obstinacy, and never the twain shall meet. The omniscient specter of the two-party system bests pragmatism at every turn.

Furthermore, creativity is not necessarily the hallmark of a good attorney. This is not to say that a legal career does not involve creative skills. The creative process, however, is not generally one of the pillars of a legal education, nor is it a part of most lawyers’ daily professional regimen.

Unlike litigation, creating solutions to a society’s ills demands an open mind, an open heart, and the noble recognition of one’s own inherent ignorance. This is the sweet spot where truly innovative and reality-shifting change occurs.

Unfortunately, most lawyers are uniquely unsuited to reach the peak of this particular mountain. This shortcoming causes most to fall back on what they know, which is argument and debate; another win for the two-party system!

Finally, lawyers are the most influential stewards of congressional workplace culture. This is a result of their sheer numbers. As such, they dictate the mores and unwritten professional protocols of the institution. As the lawyers go, so goes the Congress. The tug of war mentality infects and permeates every corner of Congress, including members who happen not to be attorneys. This even further bolsters the hold of the two-party system on the Congress, and the country.

Acknowledging a problem, as the saying goes, is the first step toward resolving it. We have a major problem in regards to legislative lawyers as a conduit for the two-party system. The best way to address this issue may be to bring it to light.

Perhaps a better understanding of the value of interdisciplinary lawmaking can bring new voices from new professions into the congressional fold. Awareness of the need for a more occupationally diverse Congress and advocacy toward that end could be a first step toward a long-term dismantling of the two-party system.