On America’s Two-Party System… And the Damage It Has Done

On March 20th, the date that the General Assembly of the United Nations declared the International Day of Happiness, the first new official assessment of global wellbeing in twelve years came out—and the United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, had dropped in its previous ranking of fifteen. It was no longer in the top twenty countries; now, it was ranked twenty-third, behind the United Arab Emirates (22) and Slovenia (21). Intriguingly, had the list only polled Americans over sixty, it might have appeared in the top ten; with Americans under thirty, however, the USA would have been ranked as low as sixty-three, reflecting deep discontent amongst younger people.

You can’t generalize too much about such rankings, of course, but it’s not surprising that the countries that do top the list tend to have significantly smaller populations, as well as robust social safety nets that contribute to this societal sense of wellbeing. Still, there’s something telling about America’s positional plummet, particularly for younger citizens, who are less likely to casually accept the disheartening status quo. And, regardless of age, it’s hardly a shock, is it, to be told that America is a country defined by political anger, anxiety, and uncertainty. For me, America feels downright politically claustrophobic—and I, too, feel that something significant—and systemic—needs to shift.

It isn’t just that I’m disheartened at the prospect of a repeat of 2020’s matchup, or that Trump’s chances may well be even better than four years ago, or that his myriad crimes remain largely unpunished, that no bad behavior, in some voters’ minds, is truly too much. It’s the country’s very political structure that I’ve come to see, finally, as the central problem, as a driver of some of our direst divisions.

In America today, you see, it’s difficult to believe you really have much of a choice in who you vote for in presidential elections. We may not be beholden to a single authoritarian regime, but we are unquestionably stuck, mired so deep in a familiar system that most of us have taken the mire for granted. What I mean is that we don’t really have much choice. We have only two choices when you get down to it—and, for the most part, we really only have one, given how far apart each party’s platform has grown from the other.

Countless media segments reinforce that sense of futility, repeating the by-now-quotidian claims that America is divided, that compromise has become unthinkable. Certainly, much of this is true. Yet few who make this claim point to one of the most obvious sources of national division: the long, seemingly unshakeable American tradition of a two-party system, and the ways of thinking and acting that this tradition creates and normalizes in its citizens.

Regardless of your political affiliation, you’ll still realistically end up needing to vote for one of two major political parties.

This enduring tradition of red versus blue, after all, is practically guaranteed to engender grief and grievances, to pit one group against another. It is a system where one must absolutely win and another absolutely must lose, with little room for nuance, compromise, or ideological complexity. It is a system in which Othering and tribalism emerge not as mistakes but as inevitable outcomes, a system, in other words, perfectly primed for the dysfunction we see each day in Congress, whereby our elected officials often seem to care more about scoring political points with their bases than actually getting legislation signed, where politics is performance rather than an attempt to solve problems or improve lives.

And it’s a system I can’t really escape. Regardless of your political affiliation, you’ll still realistically end up needing to vote for one of two major political parties; the others that occasionally get minor media attention, like the Green Party or the Working Families Party, do technically exist, but are never treated like viable options, spoken of primarily in terms of how many votes they may siphon from the Democrats or Republicans rather than as credible alternatives to either.

Voters may indeed have multiple candidates within the Democratic or Republican parties to consider, and many states allow voters to write in candidates’ names—though most only allow the names of registered candidates to count, and a handful outlaw write-ins altogether. And because of the winner-take-all system, it’s never seriously in doubt that a Democrat or Republican will end up in charge.

For many Americans, this system may seem laudable. It simplifies one’s political choices considerably—you merely choose one box or the other—and allows for that most definably American of things: a victor in a combat. Given the country’s divisions, your choices may be simpler still, with a significant portion of Americans knowing well before Election Day who they’ll back because the other side has become truly unthinkable, and to even entertain voting another way has come to truly feel like a sort of sociopolitical blasphemy.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary American elections lack surprises or uncertainties. When you actually study the statistics of American voting in the past few elections, you’ll find fascinating nuance about how groups vote, and how no party, ultimately, can take any group for granted. Who will vote for whom is never, ultimately, a foregone conclusion—though it is a foregone conclusion, at least for now, that whoever is elected will be a Democrat or Republican.

I wish we had more choices. Not abstract options, like writing in a third-party candidate’s name we know will never win, or merely picking between a handful of Republicans and Democrats during a primary, knowing the ultimate battle will only be between red and blue.

It’s that binary—red or blue—itself I dislike, you see. I’m no fan of binaries in general, which rarely, if ever, capture the nuance and murkiness of life. And America has long been obsessed with its binaries, with its color-lines and simple categories for ethnicities and genders on forms that don’t describe the many people like me who don’t necessarily neatly fit into one box or the other, its history histrionic with attempts to oversimplify people, places, and politics alike.

But America’s current political binary can’t last much longer as it is. It’s straining at the seams. Each major political party, you see, consists of a plethora of people whose views diverge sharply, ranging from centrists and moderates to progressives on the left and far-right theocrats on the right, divergences that tend to dilute the power of both the centrists and further-left or further-right groups alike. To me, the increasingly clear truth is that neither party can brook such vast internal divisions (though the GOP has come a bit closer by pressuring its members to fall in line behind Trump). What we end up with are four, or more, political parties trying to fit into two—and that can never really satisfy anyone, so we end up attacking our opponents to score political points rather than creating lasting progress.

Imagine an America where political conversation and compromise weren’t quaint, quiescent notions, relics of romanticization.

As it is, our tacitly two-party system makes it feel normal, if not outright necessary, to demonize the members of the other political party—at times of heightened tension, as now, to demonize them in the starkest Manichean terms of good versus evil—and to see each election in violently stressful terms, for each election under such a worldview sees victory as safety and loss as an existential threat. (And, in a world where polarization has resulted in authoritarian strongmen like Trump, those existential threats are all too real.) The binary has become a battering ram against the door of the soul.

I’d like to dream of a better system. Imagine an America where you don’t just have one of two choices, Democrat or Republic, but six or seven or eleven, each distinct, each unconstrained by the norms of a larger party they are trying to fit themselves within like round pegs into square holes because they are not trying to fit themselves within anything but a party that represents them, that truly represents them. Imagine being able to vote for a progressive party that is wholly committed to such ideals, unconstrained by centrists; moderates, too, could vote for their own interests more easily.

And imagine, then, that we no longer rely on such an egoistic winner-take-all system, but one where each political party is awarded a proportional share of power based upon their performance, so that no one party “rules” when an election is decided, but must form coalitions with the other well-performing parties to succeed. Imagine an America where political conversation and compromise weren’t quaint, quiescent notions, relics of romanticization, but necessities for passing legislation, as no one party is likely to dominate the House or Senate as is the case now.

Of course, such systems exist, in various forms, in many other countries, and I know well that coalition governments are not panaceas. And it’s unquestionable that many Americans want something different, as evinced by the ever-larger number of people open to supporting a third party and the increasing visibility of certain third-party options, most notably the No Labels ticket and the We the People party, the latter catapulted to popularity largely by the well-known surname of its candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. I don’t write this to express support for these third parties, particularly not for the conspiracy-obsessed RFK, but I find his recent public statements about running as a third-party candidate telling.

“Our independent run for the presidency is finally going to bring down the Democratic and Republic duopoly,” Kennedy recently told a crowd in Oakland—and while he only currently appears on the ballot in Utah and has little chance of winning the election, his explicit nod to breaking the red-blue binary reflects something that’s in the air. Many Americans are clearly tired of that binary, yet voting for a third party in 2024 will almost certainly do little more than send a message on the one hand, and help Trump on the other.

Political change of this scale is profoundly unlikely—but I have a strong suspicion that I’m not alone in desiring it.

Still, the more visible other parties become, the more plausible that dream of coalition-building becomes, even if it may be decades off. What a change such a system would represent in America, not just in how our government looks, but in how we end up viewing each other. Elections would remain consequential, and divisions would still exist, but perhaps that ridiculous macho need to dominate the other party and take the whole victory for oneself would fade, at least a bit. And, from there, we might begin to truly see political partnership outpace partisanship.

I don’t write this with the expectation that anything will change anytime soon. In all likelihood, we’ll keep on this track for another few years, growing more and more polarized and McCarthyistic until the current vogue for purity culture and ideological absolutism wanes, or until tribalistic violence erupts.

But here’s the simple, if surprising, truth: we actually don’t have to keep doing things the way we’ve done them before. Political change of this scale is profoundly unlikely—but I have a strong suspicion that I’m not alone in desiring it. And perhaps the first step towards it is to take a great risk if you believe in it in 2028, or whenever the time may feel right: to vote for another party altogether. I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t even recommend it for this particular election, given the risks involved in a repeat Trump presidency. But I don’t want to wait forever. I want to dream of an America with a new system—and breaking the trend of the red-blue binary is perhaps the first step, along with advocating for a systemic shift.

Let us dream, then, you and I. For all of its historical and present horror alike, America is also a place self-defined by a dream, a place conjured up in a colonial blood-fever at once absurd and awesome in its existential possibilities. If America can create itself and its wild dreams, well, it can certainly dream up something else.

So I’ll keep imagining that America-That-Could-Be, an America I believe we deserve after far too long of binaries hurting us all, because this dream isn’t just about me and you in the next elections in our lifetimes but about the kind of country we want for those in lifetimes yet to come, for those who will be there when we have long since been ushered back by Death to the binary-less universe. (Well, assuming no apocalypses, climactic or political or zombie-led, derail that vision.)

It won’t be perfect; no system or thing can be. But it’ll be better. It’ll almost certainly make us a little happier, internally and on world indices. And for me, for now, better feels more than enough.

Gabrielle Bellot

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