Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop
- By Lee Drutman
- Oxford University Press
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
- May 2, 2021
An incisive historical examination of how ideological purity has hurt our nation.
From the perspective of week eight of coronavirus quarantine, the American government seems broken. More than 65,000 dead and over a million infected. Mask, ventilator, and test shortages. Schools closed, and millions of jobs lost while the president propogates drinking bleach.
However, if you believe political scientist Lee Drutman’s new book, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, what is broken is not just the government, but the American system of government: the very institutional structure that has sustained a democratic and stable political system for more than two centuries and has long been the envy of other societies.
Some Framers of the U.S. Constitution were not proponents of political parties. The document does not mention them at all, and George Washington actively warned against them in his farewell speech. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson also hated them, yet collaborated to form one: the Democratic-Republican Party. Within a few years of constitutional ratification, these undesirable, unwanted, and oft-corrupt entities were shaping America’s political passions.
Political science would later demonstrate that election rules determined the number and character of the parties. In adopting the British single-member, pluralistic election system — one vote per voter and one winner per electoral district — the Framers had unthinkingly laid the foundation for a two-party system.
The discipline also found that political parties were necessary for democracy to function effectively. They mobilized citizens, offered programmatic platforms, and ensured that leaders remained true to their stated positions.
American political life has been a tension between the reality of political parties and the distaste we have for them. Drutman identifies three persistent schools of criticisms.
First, antipartisans such as Washington expected political leaders to rise above partisan interests to grasp the common good. While this remains a cherished goal, it negates the very idea that preferences can differ in a society.
Second, bipartisanists wanted political parties to compromise. This attitude matured during the Cold War years, when the Soviet nuclear threat compelled Republicans and Democrats to think of survival first. The differences reemerged soon after that conflict ended.
A third line of criticism came from political scientists led by Woodrow Wilson and E.E. Schattschneider, who believed that the two parties were, in fact, too similar to give Americans real choices.
Drutman writes that the early American political parties were confederacies of local notables, often with narrow interests that national leaders stitched together with compromise and persuasion. Over time, the parties evolved; the most famous alteration was the replacement of the Whigs by the Republicans prior to the Civil War.
The Civil War cemented parties regionally: Democrats were the Southern white party, and Republicans were the Northern Yankees. Two world wars, the Great Depression, and the New Deal brought further challenges, but, Drutman reports, the parties remained “big tents” that could accommodate ideological opponents as well as regional factions.
They could not, however, satisfy everyone. One distressing example can be seen in the exclusion of race integration from New Deal programs to keep Southern Democrats in the fold. Drutman does not mention this, but one consequence remains the low rate of black home-ownership to this day.
In the early 20th century, the Republican Party included progressives who wanted to end machine politics and did not support big business. But party politics flipped during the Civil Rights Era: Democrats emerged as the party of integration based mostly in the coastal states, while Republicans pursued a Southern and, belatedly, Midwestern strategy.
The party realignment was accompanied by remarkable changes in government and technology. Driven by the Cold War and television, American politics became nationalized. The next few decades saw national political parties become better organized, more professional, and better funded.
This process culminated, by 2010, in a clear demarcation between Democrats and Republicans. The once-stable two-party system entered a doom loop of divergence, emotion-based politics, lack of trust, alternative facts, insularity, and radical policies, resulting in the instability and dysfunction we know today. The history of political parties suggests, via Drutman, a noteworthy conclusion: National American political parties can be stable (as they were in the past) or they can be coherent (as they are now), but they cannot be both.
Drutman suggests broadening our thinking to include multi-party democracy, increasing the size of the House of Representatives, and eliminating primaries. The author also advocates for ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank their candidate picks and reallocates second and subsequent choices if their first-choice candidate is ruled out. This method of elections is wildly popular among progressive activists.
Are Drutman’s proposals achievable? Not in today’s politics. Republicans may be naturally averse to the ideas of a self-confessed Democrat no matter how evenhandedly presented, and vice versa. For political leaders of any stripe to accept radical proposals, they must be able to see gain, and while Drutman does promise improvement for America, he offers none for politicians themselves.
Implementing the author’s suggestions, in fact, might cost current political leaders their positions. Drutman sees a future of four to six political parties, and this reordering seems likely to remove existing leaders from their perches.
Regrettably, then, Drutman ends on a whimper: Change “will take a mass movement of active citizens…and a cadre of entrepreneurial reform politicians and writers and public figures.”
Doesn’t it always?
So, rather than hoping to find ways to fix our system of government, read this book for what’s in the middle: a thorough, incisive, and passionate diagnosis of how we broke it in the first place.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.