Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 (or December 37th, 2020 if you prefer) will go down in history. Not that I think anyone reading this needs a reminder, but, well, the U.S. Capitol building was overrun by insurrectionists who posed for pictures smoking pot in leadership offices and defacing the symbolic center of American power, in a conspired act of sedition and domestic terrorism fomented by the then-current President (and amplified by powerful machinery of manipulation and misinformation) as he sulks over losing his bid for reelection. A friend on Slack messaged me during the attack to ask, simply, “Are we going to be okay?” And I, notoriously an optimist, paused for a minute, and then replied, “I don’t know.”
I think we’re literally headed for a small scale civil war. Trump leaving office, even Trump being permanently de-platformed from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should that come to pass, won’t change the minds of the thousands and thousands of people who have internalized the incorrect and invalid belief that our recent election was fraudulent and the will of the people was overturned. It could even reinforce the division, if Trump can stay mentally copacetic enough to broadcast his lunacy through alternative media pathways including Parler, OANN, Newsmax, and talk radio.
One outcome of this week’s Georgia Senate election is that Democrats will have control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, potentially streamlining the process of taking significant action to make things better. But I don’t imagine they’ll be able to track down and throw in jail literally everyone who set foot in the capital as part of this mob, as they deserve. And the martyrs on the other side will in all likelihood misinterpret every action taken by Democratic leadership, whether aggressive or milquetoast, with even more hatred and fuel for their fires.
I struggle to find optimism here, but I’ve latched onto a nugget that came from a separate conversation with a different friend. What if this is the catalyst we need to move away from the two-party political system? There are (at least) two distinct wings in the Republican party: a free-market wing that strives for limited government and conservative fiscal spending to empower the private sector, and a classical George Lakoff “strong father” spirited wing (read “Don’t Think of an Elephant” if you haven’t) that prioritizes using government to make sure that bad people and bad outcomes can be controlled. And the Democratic party clearly has a more centrist wing and a more progressive wing, best illustrated in the Presidential primary election of 2016 where each wing had an established standard-bearer.
Keeping these different factions stuck together in the same party is a problem, illustrated very, very clearly this week. The January 6 Capitol mob was enabled as much as anything else by its legitimization in the person of Donald Trump. Donald Trump only reached power because he called himself a Republican and won the Republican nomination— much to the chagrin of a substantial majority of Republican voters, at this point.
The parliamentary system used in Europe and elsewhere certainly isn’t perfect, but having a greater diversity of party options would be good for the United States. Many Americans would feel more effectively represented by their elected officials, that their votes were more meaningful, and that they weren’t being pushed to support a candidate they didn’t much agree with. And the legislative process should improve as well, though things like committee assignments would get a bit trickier.
Anyway. This isn’t meant to be a substitute for a full analysis, and I’m sure legal experts and political scientists have already done the theory work here. Maybe this isn’t possible absent a Constitutional amendment or there’s some other reason why it’s a bad or impossible idea. I’m writing this as a vent and a thought experiment more than a serious proposal; I haven’t done the homework involved. So from the perspective of “this is a hobby”, I’ll move on to the fun part: What should the American system be, instead of two party?
I think we can start by just splitting each party into two, for four total. Now, there’s no reason to stop at four, necessarily. It isn’t a magic number. There’s no magic number of parties that makes a system good. There is a magic number that makes the system bad, however, and that number is one.
When one party has too much control for too long it loses its way. That’s how a democracy dies. And increasingly I’m worried that’s where we are headed as a country. We could get there if a smarter spiritual descendant of Trump rebuilds the now-fractured Republican coalition and figures out how to win over more centrists, locking in Republican power for decades. Or we could get there through the collapse of the modern Republican party, locking in the Democratic establishment for decades (although that seems pretty impossible to me). Either way, nearly half of America will feel deepening resentment and our divisions will grow.
Anyway. I said this was the fun part. Sorry.
Let’s imagine a future with a far-right party supporting strong government control, a center-right economics-first party open to some amount of social liberalism, a center-left party reflecting Clinton/Biden favoring incremental progressivism rather than overhaul, and a far-left Bernie Sanders party of radical transformation. (Please forgive me if my characterizations perturb you; I’m trying to set aside my personal proclivities and avoid moral judgment in favor of or against any of these camps.)
I really think this framework would be better for everyone. Many issues would align parties on the same side of center as is typical of the dynamic today. But it could turn out to be easier for the center-right to work with the center-left to develop good legislative outcomes, such as in the realm of economic policy, without feeling identity politics pressure (or the practical pressure of leadership of a different wing/party) to stay in lockstep with the other half of the same side of center.
I contend as well that the number of people whose votes would be up for grabs, whose allegiance would vary depending on the quality and efficacy of the elected representatives, would substantially increase. There would be plenty of centrist voters who would consider voting center-left or center-right depending on the individual being supported. And I can imagine just as many who would clearly lean left or right, but would not be wedded to a more centrist or more radical camp in all respects, and could be won over by the persuasiveness of the policy vision and leaders put forth.
Here comes the really fun part. The elephant and the donkey have symbolized our two-party system for ages. What animals would we use in representing a four-party system? I propose we adopt the tortoise and the hare. The turtle would be the symbol for the center-right party — in honor of Mitch McConnell — and the rabbit for the center-left, as a note of symbolic contrast. The elephant stays with the far-right in homage to their weight on the current Republican party. And the donkey stays with the far-left, because they often come to the table with a bit of an attitude and a healthy kick.
Now, colors and names, that’s an exercise for another day.