The Hidden Problem with the Two Party System in US Politics

The two party system, as it exists today, stacks the deck against the majority of US citizens. That is not to say that its existence or current state is the be-all and end-all of problems with our particular brand of democracy. To be sure, there are plenty of others. But this problem is one that we all too willingly bury under a trash heap of other problems, accepting it as unchangeable even if we dare to acknowledge its danger.

There are three conclusions we must draw in order to recognize the biggest problem with our two party political system:

1) There is a capitalist class in the United States that is both very small and very wealthy
2) The interests of the capitalist class are inherently at odds with the majority of US citizens
3) The two party system, in its current state, protects the interests of the capitalist class

If you will allow, the remainder of this article will attempt to support each one of the above conclusions in full. But before we can do that, let us address several key points that will serve to more fully illustrate the current situation.

First, that there exists today a great many democracies the world over who are not held captive by a two party system and yet face the same level of unhealthy political upheaval should make clear that adapting a healthy party system will not be the magic pill that cures us. The current unsteadiness of the global political climate points to a fragmentation of all major political parties more than it does to the shift of voters toward any single way of thinking. Major parties are getting weaker, not stronger.

Second, to those that will raise the notion that the Greens and the Libertarians on the national level, or the Working Families or Constitution parties in certain states, or the all-inclusive Independents, disprove the very basis of this article, that we have a two party system, let it be said that both the Democrats and the Republicans have made it altogether impossible to establish a third major party. By implementing a series of “reforms” at the local and national levels — onerous requirements to get on the ballot, lack of access to televised debates or public financing, winner-take-all outcomes — the two major parties have established themselves, as of 2017, as the only parties ever in contention in the majority of political races.

Now, onto those three conclusions mentioned above:

1) There is a capitalist class in the United States that is both very small and very wealthy

Talking about class, and class politics, in the United States has always been frowned upon. People shy away from it because they consider it dangerous, in opposition to the theory that we are one people, with one clear set of morals and values. But there is danger in ignoring class.

Inequality in the United States is greater now than at any point since before the Great Depression. The wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% own just 7%. Relative to other advanced nations, the United States currently ranks near the top as one of the most unequal countries. Most of the economic growth of the last 20–30 years has gone to people at the very top — the CEOs, business owners, investors, etc.

In addition, economic mobility in the United States is at an all-time low. One of the key pillars of the American dream has always been that no matter who you are, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can build wealth and achieve success. But the US ranks behind most of Europe and Canada in terms of how likely someone whose parents are in the bottom wealth bracket can move up. The biggest determinants of future wealth are past wealth, who your parents are, where you grew up, the color of your skin, etc.

The very wealthy, whether they created it or not, are the beneficiaries of a system that allows them to set the rules by which we all live by. They are insulated from middle and working classes below them, taking advantage of a system that allows them to grow their wealth while everyone else struggles to maintain. Since 1979, incomes of the top 1% of Americans have risen by an average of 275%, while incomes for the middle 50% have gone up less than 5%.

The average net wealth of all Americans is close to $70,000. For the top 20%, the average wealth nearly 10x as high. And for the top 1%, it’s nearly 100x that.

It should be clear by now that ultra-wealthy live in a world by themselves. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

2) The interests of the capitalist class are inherently at odds with the majority of US citizens

The reason that inequality is a dangerous thing (and the country’s framers knew this) is that too much inequality would lead to a divergence in interests between different classes of society. At the time of the drafting of our Constitution, England had the House of Lords and the House of Commons for just this reason. Most countries recognized that different classes had different needs and that a government set up to serve both was necessary.

The United States, at the time, was a small, sparsely-populated agrarian society with very low inequality. But it has since grown to become the world’s leading economy, and since the end of the Great Compression — the years following World War II when the economy boomed and inequality shrunk — we have seen our inequality grow.

The capitalist class, which has seen the majority of economic growth in that time, is interested in lower business taxes and less government regulation. They want to be able to manage their businesses and grow their fortunes unimpeded.

This is directly at odds with the needs of the majority of American citizens, who rely on Government services big and small, national and local, in order to manage from day to day. Whether that means traditional safety net programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance, or direct investment in things like education or infrastructure.

Government can be a force for good in peoples’ lives. The US has proven that in its own past, and other countries continue to prove that today. But taxes and regulations, the chief issues the capitalist classes have taken aim at, are the things that help and protect most in the working and middle classes.

3) The two party system, in its current state, protects the interests of the capitalist class

If we agree that the United States is home to a wealthy capitalist class, with needs and interests in direct conflict with those of the large majority of citizens, how can one argue that the two party system is designed to protect them?

The United States is a capitalist country. There is no arguing that. It is one of the nation’s founding principles. And every action the government has ever taken has been to defend capitalism against forces it sees as a danger — communism, socialism, protectionist policies, et al. With the spread of globalism since World War II, the US has helped establish worldwide organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations. These efforts have been about expanding the reach of capitalism and facilitating businesses as much as anything else.

When many people think about the two major political parties in the United States, they see one side — namely, the Republican Party — as pro-business. But the truth is that policies favorable to corporations and global capitalism have been pushed aggressively by both parties. Remember that it was Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who fought hardest for large international trade agreements, NAFTA and TPP.

The Democratic Party is a center-left party, with its major standard bearers — Clinton, Obama, Pelosi, Schumer — proudly waving the capitalist flag and looking with trepidation at people moving further to the left on economic issues, such as Bernie Sanders and those who continue to support him. Starting in the early 80s, with the rise of neoliberalism and the new democrats (or third-way democrats), the party began to advocate for a more balanced budget and market economy tempered by government intervention (mixed economy) along with a continued emphasis on social justice and affirmative action.

Nancy Pelosi, answering a question from a college student just this month, said, “We’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.”

And so if we can admit that both parties are pro-business, that both are capitalist and will work to defend corporate interests, we can see that neither truly represents the majority of US citizens outside of the capitalist class. Because when the interests of the working class or the middle class run up against the interests of those at the top, and we’ve already seen that they will, what’s good for business is good for both parties.

That’s the key — the two party system, the way it operates today, inherently favors those at the top. And the voters who would like to see that change have very few options available to them. They can vote for candidates who, like Bernie Sanders, are determined to change the party philosophy from the inside. They can vote for third-party candidates who, because of the way the two party system dominates politics in this country, have very little chance of winning and/or making a difference.

Voters whose beliefs don’t align with either major political party are forced to play a sickening game of “lesser evilism”, voting for one of the two parties simply because they’re not the other guys. A healthy third party, fourth party, and more, would make for a more representative democracy and allow room for the voters who can’t help but feel left out of the equation today.