How Did Our Two-Party System Die?

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The American two-party system, once the bedrock of our democracy, is dead. Organizations called “Democrat” and “Republican” continue to operate, but they no longer represent broad national interests.

Americans who consider themselves to be middle-of-the-road or moderate voters clearly outnumber supporters of the far left or right. But the two named parties represent only their extremist constituencies and ignore the positions of moderates.

Extremist wings in each party have forced most moderate leaders out of power. Voters who support moderate positions have no power in either party. Most of them are registered Independents and follow no national leadership. Their only choices are extremists who typically use moderate rhetoric to win elections but seldom fulfill their promises.

Who’s Driving the Bus Now? And How Did they Take Over the Two Parties?

Our electoral system’s decline began long before the era of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

An obscure Georgia politician on a TV game show early in the 1970s foreshadowed the transformation. When Governor Jimmy Carter appeared as a contestant on “What’s My Line?” a panel of celebrities didn’t recognize him or guess his job, even though the host introduced him by name.

Realizing that he was nationally invisible, Governor Carter and his staff created a bold new strategy to win the White House in 1976. Until then, each party selected its nominees at a national convention. State primaries were quiet events with low voter turnout and minor impact. Primary results affected the first convention ballot, but candidate selection normally occurred on later ballots. State parties had changed some rules before 1976, but few people recognized their importance. A switch from winner-take-all to distributing results proportionately to multiple candidates became a difference-maker in several states.

Governor Carter and his supporters executed a plan to compete aggressively in every primary, adding to his delegate total with several second and third place finishes, while coming in first in several states. He quietly eclipsed better-known candidates and arrived at his Party’s national convention with enough pre-committed delegates to win the nomination.

Carter’s smart strategy awakened future candidates in both parties, turning early state primaries into national news events. This new political calendar then evolved into a much longer primary cycle, and much more expensive campaigns. Campaigns soon became so expensive that traditional donations were too small to fund the large organizations required for each candidate.

Some of the world’s richest individuals and organizations recognized the opportunities for power, became dominant donors to their favorite candidates, and assumed the powers of kingmakers. Though political leaders intended the primary changes to take the decisions out of the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms,” the unintended consequence was to switch the power to “cash-filled caves.”

Like President Carter, the next successful presidential candidate intended no harm to his party. But Governor Ronald Reagan faced a very difficult campaign climb, and his organization turned to new resources, religious leaders with voter-followers known as Evangelicals. Though religious leaders had a long history of endorsing candidates, their new role providing major funding to Reagan made them part of the kingmaker class of the Republican party. This new financial involvement enabled faith organizations to drive positions on social issues like abortion rights, gun rights, gay rights and personal privacy into national politics.

A few years later, liberals had continued to torment Republicans regarding the Watergate scandals of the Nixon presidency. The extreme right punched back by impeaching President Clinton for perjured testimony regarding his marital infidelities. This unprecedented attack created liberal outrage and vows of political revenge.

The election of the year 2,000 created a virtual tie that the Supreme Court broke with a legal decision favoring George W. Bush, titular leader of the right-wing. The left was now livid.

After these perceived assaults and others that followed from each side, both parties became captives of their most militant forces. Angry attack-politics replaced legislative compromise in both parties. A group of radical constitutionalists and religionists calling themselves the Tea Party, won elections that brought them to power over the Republican party.

Equally militant groups from the left amalgamated support from Pro-choice organizations, street demonstrators like Occupy Wall Street, and minority constituencies like Hispanics and African Americans, to assert control over the Democrat party. With the electoral system now controlled by the extreme wings, most traditional moderate leaders could no longer win their parties’ nominations, and retired from elective politics.

Believing the bellowing of the media, following the loudest newsmakers from each side, voters have also absorbed constant disinformation from both sides, communicated through social media. Influenced by this deluge of extremist rhetoric, pundits and poll watchers conclude that Americans are angry at Washington, and want an outsider to become president.

Unstated in that analysis is the role of Big Money in driving primary polls and election results. Along with huge campaign financing by power-seeking individuals, the Supreme Court added gasoline to the hot mix with the Citizens United decision. The ruling of the court opened the door for Political Action Committees (PACs) to spend unlimited funds from profitable corporations, unions, and other organizations. The ongoing result of unlimited money in political advertising is that successful candidates must ultimately provide access to their financial patrons, who become behind-the-scenes powers in government decisions.

The toxic mix inflaming the political process has vaulted two of the least likable and least qualified candidates in American history to compete for the presidency. Examining Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump carefully, we find that they are shockingly alike. Both are the results of a two party system that has gone awry.

Neither candidate has a consistent political core. Each of them will say whatever comes to mind without regard for the truth. They each create illusions of support from moderates with contradictory rhetoric that changes with the speed of a Twitter tweet. And each of them has an attack-first mentality without regard for fact or fairness.

That may be the epitaph of the American Two Party system. Or perhaps Americans can hope that a few wealthy patriots put love-of-country above personal power and form a legitimate third party. Only a third party can challenge the excesses of extremists from each side, recreate a voice for moderates, and breath life back into our once-great electoral system.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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Author: Steve Vachss

Steve Vachss has enjoyed a career that permitted him to perform diverse roles. He has been a reporter, a broadcaster, an editor, a tech executive, a tech marketing consultant, and entrepreneur-founder of a company providing online business services. He’s also a US Army veteran. Through all of these experiences, his first love has always been writing. Prior to creating “The Victory that Wasn't,” he wrote literally hundreds of online articles, web pages, and “how-to” books, as well as guest editorials for print media. Born in Stamford, CT, he now lives in Dublin, CA, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb.

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