WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Even with the government shutdown at an end and furloughed employees returning to work, displays of contention from both sides of the political arena are continuing in the ever-ongoing battle of blame between Democrats and Republicans as to who is at fault for causing the shutdown in the first place.
While addressing members of the press Thursday morning, President Barack Obama mentioned the nation’s frustrations with elected officials and their seeming inability to work together, resulting in the impression that members of Congress are, according to some, petty and ineffectual.
“[W]e know that the American people’s frustration with what goes on in this town has never been higher,” he said during his remarks. “That’s not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington.”
Surveys of American sentiments on the matter corroborate Obama’s statements.
A recent poll indicates that the shutdown in particular, as well as recent splits along party lines regarding the raising of the debt ceiling, have left a record-breaking majority of Americans wishing for a third option – a new political party with the potential to better represent the interests of the American populace.
Researchers at Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans are seeking such an option – the highest amount documented in the 10 years Gallup has polled the nation on the matter. Only 26 percent feel that the present two-party system is adequate.
But is that the real solution to the perceived problem of politics as usual? And if so, could the answer already exist in the form of a smaller political party that already exists, or is there the potential for the formation of an entirely new party?
Experts were skeptical of the notion.
“Though flawed, the two parties are broader and more stable than parties in multi-party systems. Either way, you need a coalition,” Andrew E. Busch, a Crown professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, said. “In America, the coalition is formed informally within the parties, and voters know what they are getting.”
He added to CBSDC, “The alternative is to form coalitions formally between parties after the election, and you don’t always know what you are getting when you cast your vote.”
Peter Levine, who is a Lincoln Filene professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service of Tufts University, said that the system, as is, does not encourage voters to stray from the two-party fold.
“An electoral system like ours (in which each district goes to the candidate who gets the most votes in that district) always ends up with two parties,” he said. “People feel that a vote for the third party is wasted, and instead they channel their reform energies into one or both of the existing major parties.”
Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, also asserted to CBSDC that our current election process reinforces the clout of the Democratic and Republican parties.
“The two existing major political parties are not all that good at very many things. One thing at which they are very talented is maintaining their sheer duopolies of the political system,” he said. “Even given voter unhappiness with the way politics are practiced in this country, it’s difficult to see a third party emerging as a counter-force to Democrats or Republicans.”
He added, “What may be more likely is the emergence of individual candidates running independent of those two major parties.”
It’s a combination of factors that experts feel has reduced the possibility of an entirely new political party emerging – especially as soon as the 2014 midterm elections or 2016 presidential ones – to next to nil.
“I feel it is [v]ery unlikely, unless the crisis resumes in December and January – [but it would be s]till unlikely, even then,” Busch stated. “The shutdown has had few long-term economic effects. The longer-term issue is the overall strength of the economy and whether Obamacare can recover from its horrendous start.”
“I don’t think it matters how many people dislike the existing parties. The voting system would have to change to make a third party viable at a large scale,” Levine, who is also the director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts, added. “But I would not rule out a temporary upheaval during which one of the existing parties split in half or lost its market share to a newcomer.”
“The overwhelming majority of members of Congress know their district is drawn to make sure they could and will never, ever lose a general election campaign to a member of the other party. The only way to possibly lose a seat is to a more ideologically extreme member of their own party,” he said. “There is only one exception – trying to compromise, cooperate, or otherwise work with someone on the other side of the aisle.”
California has already made several key reforms to the way in which elections are handled, namely by implementing both redistricting reform and a top-two primary system.
“What we’ve seen here is that those two changes working in tandem created opportunities for candidates who are more willing to reach across party lines,” he said. “If you’re elected [in our current prevailing system], all you have to do to guarantee reelection is to hug your base as tightly as you can. In [California], a candidate has incentive to reach out across party lines.”
The practice of instant-runoff voting in some form has also been implemented in parts of Maine and Minnesota, allowing for individuals from other political parties to stand a chance of currying favor outside of their base.
In regards to the rise of a full party in America’s present political climate, as opposed to a lone individual, Levine did concede that the concept is not entirely out of the question.
“Britain uses the same voting system we do, and they have a third party, the Liberal Democrats. So it is mathematically possible here,” Levine noted. “Certainly, if a powerful third party were to form here, one candidate would be the actual Libertarian Party or a new party with a libertarian ideology. If it combined economic and civil libertarian ideas, it would be different from both the Democrats and the Republicans and might capture a substantial share of the vote.”
Busch observed, however, that the divides among American opinions in regards to finding proper solutions to the nation’s woes will also serve as a significant roadblock in the formation and ascension of a dominant new political party.
“Many Americans say they want a third party, but they all want a different third party. There is no consensus on what that third party should be like, and there are few political leaders available to lead it,” he noted. “If a third party beats the odds and becomes a dominant force, it will only do so on its way to becoming the second party (as the Republicans did in the 1850s). There is really only room for two big parties in the American system, except for short periods of time.”
He added, “There might be some marginal rise for the Libertarians, but more likely a new party [would have the potential to rise in power]. All existing third parties have been around too long and are too narrow to take advantage of the moment.”
“All my life I have heard people predict the rise of a third party. I think it is much more likely that a reform wing will take over one or both of the existing parties,” Levine noted, adding that such revolutions happen “frequently.” “No third party has won a national election since the Civil War, and I wouldn’t expect that to happen.”
In regards to effecting change in the meantime, Schnur placed some of the onus upon the public – in addition to tasking elected officials with modifying both their individual actions and the electoral process as a whole – while suggesting that the notion of America’s aversion en masse to political extremism is somewhat hypocritical.
“We tend to set a high level of expectations for our politicians, particularly when it comes to changing a system that’s become so hyper-polarized. But change is a team sport. It’s just as important for voters to break out of their own ideological end zones as well,” he said. “It’s very easy for voters to construct a media environment that only reinforces what they already believe. If we want our politicians to break out of their ideological straitjackets, we must be willing to set an example for them.”
Schnur added, “If we rely on news and information sources that never challenge us, but only reinforce what we believe and congratulate us for believing it, it’s not very reasonable to ask elected officials to behave any differently.”