The Dual Dysfunction of the Major Parties

Justin Stapley
The Liberty Hawk
Published in
4 min readOct 27, 2020

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The prudent approach of supporting the best of two alternatives fails to accomplish its purpose when both parties are in thrall to extreme elements and instead present us with a least worst scenario.

Many responsible citizens make an excellent case for the virtue of prudence, which is itself an important principle and value. A past leader of my church (I’m a Latter-day Saint) once made the following argument regarding the two-party system and I have long found value in his advice:

“I have found through long experience that our two-party system is sound. Beware of those who are so lacking in humility that they cannot come within the framework of one of our two great parties. Our nation has avoided chaos…because men have been able to temper their own desires sufficiently to seek broad agreement within one of the two major parties, rather than forming splinter groups around one radical idea. Our two-party system has served us well and should not be lightly discarded.”

Again, this speaks to the principle of prudence, that we should seek ways to channel our passions and assert our principles within a coalitional framework. So, generally, I would have to say that I agree with the prudential argument. This approach and its considerations are a large reason why I took so long to leave the Republican Party despite my frustrations with Trump and Trumpism.

But, I do think this principle of prudence is conditional on the healthy function of political institutions. The quote I offered has several key elements that traditionally have defined the strength of the two-party system. Particularly, it is that the system encourages individuals to temper their desires and work within a framework that creates broad agreement.

I submit that our two major parties are no longer functioning properly and have failed in their roles as moderating institutions in our political system.

Traditionally, if one or the other party fails to fully curb their extreme element, the other party would adjust to absorb discontented constituencies as it continuously sought a broader coalition. This would serve to marginalize the party in thrall to extreme elements, who would then be overthrown by moderating elements seeking to reassert viability and relevance.

This is not how our two parties are operating today. Instead, the moderating influences of both major parties have simultaneously grown weak. This has created a dual dysfunctional scenario where both parties are afraid to fully disavow, let alone excommunicate, its extreme elements. Instead of adjusting to absorb alienated constituencies, both parties play off of each other’s excesses and reject any form of substantive moderation as a surrender to their opponents.

In this new scenario, each year and each election creates a wider and wider gulf between the parties. More and more Americans find no easy home in either party. Instead, they are forced to choose which party presents the least worst alternative. Americans are made to feel they have no other choice but to embrace a “lesser of two evils” approach.

But, of course, politicians don’t run for office because they see themselves as “lesser evils”. Politician runs for office because they think of themselves as greater goods. Regardless of our true reasons for voting one way or the other, the victor always interprets their victory as a powerful mandate. They push the needle further, their political opponents respond with even more hysterical rhetoric, and the cycle of institutional decay, the kowtowing to extreme elements, and the marginal drift away from healthy moderation continues.

So yes, I agree that in normal times and with healthy political institutions, the prudent approach many suggest is indeed the proper path. But given the current circumstances, what would normally be the prudent approach instead feeds the very problem the two-party system traditionally avoided.

While choosing the best of two alternatives encourages moderation in healthy political parties, choosing the least worst of two alternatives enables and furthers extremism in dysfunctional political parties.

When both parties are simultaneously in thrall to extreme elements, the only prudent choice remaining is to simultaneously reject them. New institutions and parties must arise, operating on the traditional principles of moderation, or the two parties must at least be robbed of the mandate that feeds the dysfunction by forcing them to win with only a small plurality of votes, weakening their authority and legitimacy until they are forced back into healthy moderation and proper coalitional efforts.

To save the republic, we must break the cycle of dual dysfunction. We must re-build the two-party system with parties and institutions that serve the purposes the two-party system has traditionally served: to temper desires and enable a framework for broader agreement.

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Justin Stapley
The Liberty Hawk

Student at UVU, political theory and constitutional studies. Editor/Owner of The Liberty Hawk. Weekly newsletter and intermittent podcasting at Self-Evident.