Is the Two-Party System All it is Cracked Up to Be?

Kim Burningham 01When young I was sometimes taught principles and expected to accept them as truisms. With later experiences, I have discovered some “truisms” are not always true. One example: as a teen I believed, “The two-party system is sacrosanct.” Today, I am not so sure.

Before I launch into a discussion of my concerns about the two-party system, I wish to make a disclaimer: I certainly do not think a large number of competing parties (frequently called splinter parties) is a good thing. When too many parties vie for power, the emerging victor may represent a very small minority. That would be problematic. However, I find our stubborn adherence to a two-party system is also problematic.
Dangers of a two-party system
My biggest concern relates to how the two-party system divides the middle, weakening the influence of those in the political middle ground. Folks of a more centrist point of view are placed in a quandary by a system that only sees power in two parties. Should they join those on the right? Or on the left? Being middle ground folks, they probably agree with some philosophies of each side, not always identifying with the rigid right or left. (Incidentally, it should be obvious my own political philosophy is somewhere in the middle.) 
The result:  some of the middle joins the right wing. Others join the left. That decision leaves the extremes of both sides with greater power, and the middle ground finds their influence divided and diminished. The middle becomes the victim of the extremes on both sides.
Illustrations surround us:
Convention delegates not representative.  When comparing Democrat and Republican convention delegates to the general population of a particular party, the lopsided influence of the “extremes” is demonstrated.
A poll taken by the nonpartisan Utah Foundation (“Convention delegates unbending,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 22, 2016, p. 1) compared party convention delegates to voters in their parties. Outcome: 27 percent of Republican voters were labeled “consistently conservative” in response to a series of questions, while 46 percent of Republican delegates fell into that category. “In other words, GOP delegates are much further to the right than typical Republican voters.”
The same phenomenon was true among Democrats: 55 % of voters were “consistently liberal” while 75 percent of delegates were categorized that way.
When the middle is divided, the extremes of right and left have increased power in actions of the respective parties. I find myself listening to the rhetoric coming from many delegates to the Republican convention, and as a lifelong Republican I am left baffled. I suspect many of my Democratic friends have a similar reaction (but in the opposite direction).
Last weekend, the delegates of the Republican Party gave more votes to Jonathan Johnson than Gary Hebert in the race for governor – this despite the evidence of Herbert’s high approval rating with the general public. The approaching primary will be interesting in this regard. If Herbert defeats Johnson, the bias of the delegates will be verified.
The problem of party delegate misrepresentation looms even larger now that some political activists are insisting that candidates who run under their standard must adhere to some rigidly set positions. Independence of thought seems to have become a sin; I still consider such independence a virtue!
2016 Presidential candidates represent the extremes of their parties. The country’s election season this year is especially disturbing to me. When I listen to debates of potential candidates, it seems to me they are appealing to the extremes. I am told when the convention process is over, the surviving candidates will change their rhetoric trying to appeal to the middle. But who are these candidates really? Shouldn’t the “real” candidates be apparent from the beginning?
(I am a gardener by hobby, and I usually wear very old clothes to work in the garden. Recently, my wife looked at the hat I was wearing and shook her head. I had it for decades. It was an old electioneering hat and said: “Proud to be a Republican!” When she called the hat to my attention, I disposed of it, and told her I would look for a new hat that read more honestly, “Embarrassed to be a Republican!”)
Truthfully, I am embarrassed by the whole process as it is playing out this year. More and more I am convinced the strange perversity may be blamed on a two party system that divides us into extremes, promotes candidates from those extremes, and reduces the voice of the “middle” in the process. Where are the moderate, middle ground candidates?
The Utah State Legislature’s one party domination ignores the middle ground. In our state, the two party system is an anachronism. For a number of years, the Democrats have been nothing but a faint voice in an echo chamber! The result: the Republicans mostly ignore the Democrats.
When Speaker Greg Hughes (House of Representatives) announced he would not even allow the Medicaid expansion issue to go to the floor for a public debate until his Republican caucus had all the votes needed, it was clear the extremes had taken over!
What middle may exist among the Republicans (and I believe it does) has no chance to assert itself and be joined by middle ground folks of an opposite political affiliation.
It turns out, in the case of our State Legislature, that the two-party system has been maneuvered until we actual have a one-party system!
Potential solutions to strengthen the middle ground
Identifying the problem is easier than obtaining a solution, but four thoughts occur to me:
“Count my Vote” approach.  Much media attention has been focused on the attempted petition, the ensuing compromise, the implementation, and the legal challenges surrounding the “Count my Vote” effort. This approach seeks to provide an alternative way for candidates to get on the ballot (outside of the exclusive convention/delegate system with increased power for the extremes). The effort may help, although only time will tell for sure. (Failure is inevitable if the continual legal maneuvers of the State Republican Party to derail this move successful.) The legal challenges to halt “Count My Vote” are a clear testament to how elite politicians want to keep the present caucus system to maintain their power.
Third party support. The possibility of forwarding an alternative to the two-party system by way of a third party challenge has been attempted. Largely, such attempts have always failed. The task is so daunting; I do not believe this is a viable alternative.     
Balance between the parties. This would be, in my opinion, the best solution. Unfortunately, elimination of blatant gerrymandering and a major shift in political allegiances in Utah would be required for success to follow. The effort should be pursued, but my hopes are not sanguine
Election of middle ground folks.  In the meantime, we are left to the slow plodding effort of working through the current process: moderate candidates must be identified, support for them engendered, forward-thinking delegates found and advanced, and then we folks in the middle must go to caucuses and to the polls to support their cause.
The problem is real and serious. I am not the first to be concerned about the dangers of political parties. George Washington echoes some similar ideas warning of the “continual mischiefs of the spirit of party.” (Washington’s farewell address, delivered to Congress on September 19, 1796)
The solutions are challenging. I urge all publicly-minded citizens to do what they can to advance change: we need less control by the extremists and more balance in our process if solutions to the community, state, nation, and world problems are to find solutions. Personally, I doubt that extreme political philosophies supported by our present two party system will be able to find the answer. I am looking to the middle for thoughtful leaders to step forward.