The Two-Party System is the Disease, But We Have an Antidote

Created: 14 September, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
6 min read

In a piece for the Daily Beast last week, James K. Glassman, former Under Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, made an impassioned - and, in our view, logical - case for a separate online national primary contest to choose a single independent candidate to go up against the Republican and Democratic nominees in the three final presidential debates in the fall of 2016.

Glassman wrote that most Americans believe "their political system is broken and doesn't represent them" - which partially explains the rise of unconventional candidates like

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of whom now command the allegiance of about one-quarter of the major parties' supporters.

But Trump and Sanders, writes Glassman, "sit on the tip of a very large iceberg." Below the surface are the mass of voters who are turned off by the Republican and Democratic parties and consider themselves independents - a group that Chuck Todd of "Meet the Press" calls " the largest party in the United States."

These independents have no choice but to cast their ballots for one of the two major party candidates - even though 62 percent of the nation's voters say they would like the option of voting for an independent in 2016.

By the way, some commentators, such as Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast, persist in arguing that these independents are merely a chimera. Independents, he writes, "lean towards one party or another and vote accordingly." Of course they do! They have no other choice. That's the whole point. If voters were happy with the two parties, they would not give them both net unfavorable ratings. If they were satisfied with the candidates being offered by the major parties, they wouldn't tell pollsters over and over again that they want more choices. And they certainly wouldn't identify themselves as independents.

Roadblocks to Choice

Despite a clear and growing demand, Americans won't have the choice to vote for a viable independent candidate for president in 2016. Why? Because a significant roadblock is in the way. In 1992, Ross Perot scared both political parties when he got 19 percent of the vote after participating in the debates. And so the two parties set up a roadblock so a candidacy like Perot's could never happen again. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) changed the set of rules that determines who gets into the final debates. They re-wrote the rules to exclude independents from the debates, thus depriving them of the oxygen they need to be competitive.

Dominated by partisans, the CPD wants to preserve the current rigged duopoly that most Americans reject. They are using an unfair and biased rule that forces independents to meet an impossible polling threshold only 7 weeks before the election.

But if the CPD opened the debates up to include a single qualified independent candidate, you would see respected, talented, and experienced Americans stepping up to run for president - not just from political life but from business, academia, the military, and more.

Americans Want to Open the Debates

Opening up the debates is precisely what Americans want. As Glassman writes: "By a two-to-one margin, however, U.S. voters support relaxing the rules that effectively bar an independent from that stage, according to a poll and focus groups conducted by Peter D. Hart for the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Debate Reform."

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Ann Ravel, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, weighed in along the same lines recently, stating that a "reexamination" of the CPD's rules "is long overdue." The CPD uses polling as a criterion, but Ravel, at an FEC hearing, cast serious doubt on that method in an era when surveys have proven so inaccurate.

So how should the debates be opened up to make room for an independent voice? In his article, Glassman notes that a distinguished group of four former elected officials (Sen. Bob Kerrey, Reps. Lee Hamilton and Vin Weber, and Gov. Tom Kean), plus an ex-director of the CIA (Michael Hayden) and the top academic in the field of democracy studies (Larry Diamond), has proposed to the CPD...

...a month-long series of debates, interviews, and online voting-with participation by all Americans (not just from New Hampshire or Iowa)-that would culminate in the selection of a single independent candidate to stand on the stage with the Democratic and Republican nominees for debates in September and October 2016.

If it happens, America's Independent Primary will almost certainly generate enormous enthusiasm in an electorate tired of parties' ideological orthodoxies and petty infighting. Stay tuned.

David Brooks Wonders What Would Happen if a "sensible Donald Trump appeared"

In an op-ed in the New York Times last week, David Brooks explained how political parties are being accorded less respect, in part because of a cultural shift toward "expressive individualism," which places individual authenticity as the main value. Brooks sees Mr. Trump and Sen. Sanders as manifestations of this trend.

But a Trump is all that the current system can produce, given the constraints imposed by the debate rules. Potential candidates without the entertainment and self-promotional background of Trump don't stand a chance under today's rigged regime.

Brooks writes:

I wonder what would happen if a sensible Donald Trump appeared - a former cabinet secretary or somebody who could express the disgust for the political system many people feel, but who instead of adding to the cycle of cynicism, channeled it into citizenship, into the notion that we are still one people, compelled by love of country to live with one another, and charged with the responsibility to make the compromises, build the coalitions, practice messy politics and sustain the institutions that throughout history have made national greatness possible.

That could happen! In fact, we expect several "sensible Donald Trumps" could appear - but only if the CPD tears down the barriers it has created. Imagine the prospect....

'We're Seeing Something Big...The Molecules are in Motion'

Peggy Noonan wrote about her conversation with Scott Miller in the Wall Street Journal. Miller, co-founder of the Sawyer Miller political-consulting firm, worked for Perot in 1992.

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Miller told Noonan that he views the key political fact of our time as this:

Over 80% of the American people, across the board, believe an elite group of political incumbents, plus big business, big media, big banks, big unions and big special interests-the whole Washington political class-have rigged the system for the wealthy and connected." It is "a remarkable moment," he said. More than half of the American people believe "something has changed, our democracy is not like it used to be, people feel they no longer have a voice.

Miller added: "People who work for a living are thinking this thing is broken, and that economic inequality is the result of the elite rigging the system for themselves. We're seeing something big."

But the answer, Miller implied, goes well beyond a solution within current two-party structure. "The molecules are in motion," he told Noonan, who asked exactly what that meant. "He said bars of support are not solid, things are in motion as molecules are 'before combustion, or before a branch breaks.'"

The best solution is one that provides what one of our friends calls "trade space" - that is, the breathing room to find solutions that occurs when a third player enters a duopoly. We don't have that now. What we have are two brittle and unloved parties, and merely injecting each of them with a few strange new faces isn't going to help matters. Providing another real choice will.

Editor's note: This article originally published on Presidential Debate News, and has been slightly modified for publication on IVN.

Photo Credit: Orhan Cam / shutterstock.com

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