Is a Two-Party Solution Possible in the U.S.?

American flag on broken walls.

People are talking these days about whether a two-state solution is possible between Israelis and Palestinians, as they do after each fresh outbreak of violence between them. But there is a pressing question closer to home: is there a two-party solution possible at the moment in the United States, and what might it look like?

Democracies can exist with a multi-party system, if sometimes uncomfortably: just ask the Israelis themselves. But they cannot do without a minimum of two parties, and those two must be predicated on one shared principle: that power is conferred by popular elections, and that in these elections there are winners and losers. If you can’t ever win, you can’t govern; if you can’t ever lose, no one else can.

We are now at a moment when this principle is no longer accepted by one of our two major parties. The Republican Party is no longer prepared to lose. That means it is no longer a party in the most essential sense, but a clique or a cabal, and that, to the extent it is subservient to the will of a single individual claiming to represent it, a cult. This is the situation of the organized rebellion against democracy that calls itself the Republican Party.

Apologists for the Party blame this situation on the buffoonish sociopath (yes, you can be both at once) whom it chose as its presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, and who continues to dominate it today. But the Republican problem goes back a much longer way. In the late nineteenth century, it became the party of monopolistic capitalism, or big business as it was more casually called. This is not to say that its rival, the Democratic Party, was not also a party of big business. To compete electorally, however, it needed to open itself to other constituencies. One was the post-Civil War South, whose dominant white majority gravitated to it because of the brief but bitterly resented ascendancy of Reconstructionist Republicans who sought to democratize it. This segment of the Democratic Party, the so-called Dixiecrats, gave the Party a reliable although not sufficient base of electoral support based on the replacement of slavery by the more efficient and less controversial system of exploitation known as Jim Crow. The other available constituency was that of big-city labor, whose political interest was to claim precisely the economic freedom and security denied to Southern Blacks. These constituencies were antithetical, and the Party that cultivated them both was, to that extent, an ideological absurdity. But political parties can be absurd if they collect enough votes; Democrats called it having a big tent. The tent was big enough to contain a vocal minority of progressives, who came to be called liberals until that term fell of favor, and are now in a turn of fashion called progressives again.

Progressives, in a word, are people who think capitalism needs to be regulated, something few capitalists agree with (unless, by collusion, they do it among themselves), and which no Republican has ever supported except for Theodore Roosevelt, who was read out of the Party for doing so. Such, however, was both the practical power and the ideological dominance of big business that when Calvin Coolidge famously declared in the 1920s that the business of America was business, no contradiction was heard.

All of this changed with the Great Depression. Suddenly, there was no business to be had; a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed and another quarter subemployed; world trade fell by two-thirds, and the price of raw commodities by 90%. In Europe, the consequence was fascism; in the United States, the election of a Democratic president for the first time in a poll not clouded by a third party insurgency in forty years. The new president was another Roosevelt, FDR. He rescued American capitalism with a program of massive government investment: the New Deal.

The New Deal dominated American politics until Lyndon Johnson pushed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. This drove Dixiecrats into the waiting arms of Republicans, who embraced white supremacy, and, in short order, racism generally. From there, they developed a “politics” of class and cultural resentment aimed at breaking down the distinction between church and state (another nod to white supremacy); crushing organized labor; hollowing out the urban middle class by budget cuts, school defunding, and regressive taxation; and leaving the country awash in guns and the violence attendant on them. All the while, they faithfully serviced their Wall Street and Silicon Valley masters, fostering the greatest concentration of wealth, unaccountable power, and unchecked monopoly in a hundred years. The story is too long to tell in brief space, but the summation is simple: the Republican Party of the past half century, especially since the Reagan presidency, has been a retrograde and destructive force, and its contribution to public welfare has been zero. Under Donald Trump, whose thumb is still on it, it has simply reached the nadir of political, intellectual, and moral bankruptcy. It is beyond rescue or repair, and—as many former Republicans agree—there is no point in trying.

This leaves us with only one functioning political party. As we have noted, that is not a healthy state for democracies nor, in the long term, a viable one. As President Biden has recently said, the country has need of a conservative party. But it already has one in the Democratic Party, and Joe Biden himself is its leader. For a brief while it seemed that Biden, propelled as Franklin D. Roosevelt had been by circumstance, might be reviving a modernized form of the New Deal. He passed a large economic stimulus bill, and proposed a relatively ambitious infrastructure package that would be a start, at least, on climate policy and social assistance. But it is clear now that he is dithering about the latter, and it is time to question whether he is actually serious about it at all. The same may be said for other aspects of his announced agenda that lie dead in the water at present: voting rights; gun control; policing reform; immigration; health care expansion; affordable housing; education debt forgiveness and free community college tuition; affordable housing; a moratorium on the federal death penalty; an increase on the corporate tax rate and on the income the wealthy (i.e., a slight rollback on the enormous tax breaks they have been receiving for decades). Biden has in effect coopted much of the program of the progressive wing of his party, only to leave it to die the death of a thousand cuts, which Republicans are only happy to inflict and which, in unilaterally offering to cut a quarter of his own infrastructure bill, he is now delivering himself. The good question is why; the vital one is what Democrats who embraced his supposed agenda are going to do about it. The Republicans may have elected the candidate they really wanted in losing with Donald Trump. Democratic progressives, meanwhile, may finally discover that they need a party of their own. It’s a conversation that needs to begin.

About Robert Zaller 85 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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