As we gear up toward midterms in November, Americans have resumed a perennial conversation about political division and parties.
A casual scroll through Facebook or Instagram will highlight the level of animosity and cruelty between some who are politically inclined. And we inevitably hear among discussions, civil or otherwise, that third parties and “new” political philosophies (like so-called democratic socialism) are the way of the future. But there are reasons to refuse to go down this path.
We can certainly understand the arguments: two sides, locked in an eternal political struggle, often beset by special interests and the self-interested, concerned with power rather than people, who are less interested in results and responsibility than reputation and the next election, do more harm than good for Americans.
Political parties — the kind of factionalism that George Washington warned posterity against — lead only to division, it is argued. The nation would be better off with more parties, or fewer parties, allowing greater room for people and their ideas, and fewer battle lines being drawn.
The roots of political division in the United States are commonly historically attributed to the rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton within Washington’s own Cabinet. Each man and each set of ideas had their own supporters, and they went after one another in the press.
But parties do not make people. People make parties, which become vehicles for philosophies, ideas and political systems — and this predates Washington’s Cabinet.
Consider the geopolitical divides, sociocultural differences and factionalism in the then-American Colonies just during the prior period of the Revolution. Religiously fervent New England — which early on had experienced the heavy hand of British tyranny — was already at war when a reluctant, distant and more isolated South slowly appeared to support the cause of independence, and when Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson and his supporters opposed war to resolve issues with Great Britain even after blood had been spilled (though Dickinson, to give due credit, did lead troops into the field to guard part of New Jersey).
Human beings are social animals. From the family to the nation, we associate with one another. We aspire to belong, and we seek purpose in that belonging — whether it is as simple as going to work, participating in a book club, bringing a son or a daughter to soccer practice, or going door-to-door for a political candidate. Even the abolishing of political parties would do nothing to curb political association. Such organizations would still appear, and they would still be vehicles for ideas and platforms.
In the United States, the presence of two major parties has actually helped to ensure the ascendancy of good ideas and good people, as well as a kind of political stability. Each party has philosophies and positions on reigning and timeless issues; and it is ideological movements within those parties that shape them. The success of good people and good ideas under that framework itself is very possible — consider the rise of Ronald Reagan and conservatism within the Republican Party, for example.
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Stability is also ensured where immoral ideas and indefensible movements, whether they are those of Neo-Nazis or Antifa, are either rejected or relegated as unwanted to the periphery of the two major parties. Solid majorities are required to advance or defeat, sustain or dismantle ideas and philosophies. Despite the shift of the Democratic Party further left, and despite the increasing popularity of socialism among Democrats, at the moment avowed socialist candidates are few and far between.
While socialists might play well among certain areas, most Americans overall want nothing to do with a system of government of misfortune and misery — and could take refuge in the Republican Party. The GOP, which has set itself in total opposition to socialism, could move to block the rise of socialism by winning elections. Where one major American party errs, the other moves to correct or protect. The balance of two competing major parties can temper diametric views, and helps check extremists and unfit candidates. Among multiple parties, factionalism becomes fracturing — as two primary sets of views become countless.
Additionally, in a free-for-all political environment, a plurality, rather than a majority of votes, would be required for ill-intentioned individuals or parties to succeed. There is the alarming return of Neo-Nazism in Germany in a multiparty system — and election to office grants a disturbingly false mask of legitimacy to their aims. In a government divided among multiple parties, under what circumstances would parties opposed to Neo-Nazis finally be forced to work with them to conduct the nation’s business?
But a two-party system can block such evil by requiring majorities, or providing a united bulwark. (Additionally, there is the added safeguard of the brilliant electoral college majority, but that is for another column.)
The two major parties in America also serve as a kind of accountability for one another. While a third party might not guarantee holding true to promises and responsibilities, the countervailing major party guarantees at least a challenge. If you do not live up to your promises, there is the promise that someone else will. Crass political conversation that comes from such division is not the fault of parties, but of our own fault as individuals. Blaming parties only allows us to shirk our responsibilities of kindness to one another.
When parties and leaders fail, it is important to move to change things. William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, waged an intellectual battle for the soul of American conservatism beginning in the 1950s. It took decades for him, and supporters, to see conservatism positively transform the Republican Party — and the United States.
Rather than going a third way, Buckley, Reagan and others determined the Republican Party was the best home for good change. Change does not always come overnight. And two major parties help prevent bad change.