Our Three Party Democracy

Creepy admiration for China’s authoritarian government aside, the main point of Tom Friedman’s most recent New York Times op-ed is actually pretty sound: the United States has become something of a neutered one-party democracy.  That is, for those interested in governing – at least on the national level – the Democratic Party really is the only game in town, as the conservative movement’s staunchly anti-government approach has left us with a Republican Party as hyper-ideological as it is lacking in policy expertise.  But because our political institutions are designed around consensus, this makes it incredibly difficult for a single party – even one with clear majority support – to make an enact policy, as consensus requires a good-faith governing partner, which the Democrats simply don’t have.  Of course, this is made all the more problematic by the fact that the nation is facing challenges – nuclear proliferation, climate change, fiscal unsustainability – which require much broader action than what our institutions are actually capable of.

The only thing I’d add to Friedman’s analysis is Chris’ observation – made in the comments – that it is a little inaccurate to describe the Democratic Party as singular or unified in any ideological sense.  In reality, or at least as far as congressional Democrats are concerned, the Democratic Party is more of a loose coalition between a broadly center-left party (based in the Northeast and the West Coast) and a broadly center-right party (based in the Rust Belt, and rural areas throughout the West, Midwest, and the South).  For liberals, this isn’t particularly good.  Under a functional legislative system, where majority rule was given deference, this wouldn’t pose too much of a problem; the center-left party could rely on the center-right party to help craft and pass broadly acceptable legislation (while the right-wing party languished in irrelevance).  The way it stands however, the right-wing party has pretty significant veto power over nearly every piece of legislation, which effectively means that any given piece of progressive legislation has to go through two conservative filters.

To take it back to Friedman’s point though, the fact of our tri-party legislature acts as yet another obstacle to one-party governing, since there simply isn’t enough ideological cohesion and group loyalty within the Democratic Party to pass anything approaching ambitious legislation.  The real solution, of course, is a complete restructuring of our legislature into something approaching a Westminster-style parliamentary system, with multiple member districts and executive branch drawn largely from the legislature.  However, since that is also incredibly unlikely, we’ll probably have to look for other ways to make Congress more responsive to the majority party (like eliminating the filibuster, or revamping the committee system!).

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29 thoughts on “Our Three Party Democracy

  1. Democrats could strengthen their coalition and not have to blame their lack of success on the Right if they would actually pay attention to the rural voices that got them the majority in the first place. Conservative-leaning rural Democrats are the ones that brought the Democrats into power and they are mostly ignored by an urban president and Speaker of the House. They are also the ones that are going to get sacked next year, through no fault of their own, and Democrats will still be blaming it on the wrong people.

    Democrats fail to head rural voices at their own peril.

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        • I’m sorry. Did I miss the part of the election where Obama wasn’t running on a platform of universal health care? If winning a landslide election isn’t a mandate for the set of things you prominently said you were going to attempt to do once elected, I’m not sure the word “mandate” has any meaning at all.

          Also, could someone *please* provide some evidence that conservative-leaning rural Democrats (as opposed to their Blue Dog representatives) are actually opposed to anything Obama is trying to do. They support health care reform, they supported the stimulus… so what’s the point? What I see is a lot of conservatives and libertarians imputing beliefs to people that they don’t actually have.

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          • He also ran on a platform of “net tax cut”.

            He said a buncha stuff. Pick the line out of the speech that was your favorite and explain that people voted for him because they wanted that line in the speech to come true.

            When people explain that, maybe, the American people might have also been engaged in some light “throwing the bums out”, wave them away.

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            • Oddly, that argument will take you to any conclusion you want. Apparently no one ever wins elections because voters want them to. It’s always a complete accident that whoever is President at any given moment happens to be President.

              And, if I’m not mistaken, he has in fact delivered on the tax cut promise.

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    • Crocodile tears. Conservative-leaning rural Democrats (according to most polling) are very likely to support the public option, which is the one thing the “urban” liberals are most often accused to trying to force down peoples’ throats. Democrats aren’t ignoring rural voters; they just don’t have the luxury Republicans do to demagogue everything. It’s tough when you’re actually trying to govern a country instead of throwing a temper tantrum.

      Also, let’s be clear: 79% of Americans live in urban areas, according to the Census. It’s a mark of how deeply deranged our political system is that we have to talk as if rural voters are the motive force in our politics.

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      • If they aren’t important then Democrats won’t miss those seats next year. Right?

        Dems can’t get their agenda passed with a 60-vote majority. How are they going to fare when they are down 4-5 seats?

        What the statistic you pointed out doesn’t revela Ryan is all the people who live in the suburbs, many of whom identify heavily with rural areas, especially in the South. Health reform is not going over well in some of those areas. You would have us believe that the voters love the Obama plan and their elected officials are just gumming up the works. I disagree.

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        • I don’t think they “love” anything. And there’s no such thing as “the Obama plan”, at least not yet. But polling indicates that these folks want some kind of reform, and it also indicates pretty strong-to-overwhelming support for a public option.

          I didn’t say they’re not important. I said the fact that they are shows how deranged our system is.

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          • ‘Reform’ could mean they want o have a smaller deductable on their glasses or for insurance to cover their kids’ braces. My wife and I would like it if our flexible spending account was a bit larger.

            Those are the kinds of ‘reforms’ that people want out in suburbia… but certainly not the kinds of things that liberals are talking about.

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            • There is a pretty strong consensus around universal coverage, eliminating discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and a public option competing against private insurance. Unless we take the radical position that polls are incapable of determining public preference, these are things we already know.

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                • Come on, dude. Time poll:

                  – 63% support universal coverage with subsidies
                  – 56% support public option
                  – 80% support ending discrimination for pre-existing conditions

                  SurveyUSA found 77% support for public option. Rasmussen: 57% oppose the plan if it *doesn’t* include a public option.

                  And so on, and so forth. I’m not making this stuff up. It’s what people say they want.

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                  • And yet… the public option was removed, was it not?

                    While I appreciate the fact that The People want stuff, that appreciation is tempered by what is likely to be voted upon at the end of the day.

                    I’m of the opinion that that which is likely to be voted upon will not be worth writing home about, except to complain.

                    And that’s not even getting into the whole “people want tons of stuff” issue.

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              • Just as a point of fact: It’s not discrimination to deny insurance based on pre-existing conditions. It’s good business practice. If people want insurers to accept all customers then it should A) Not be called ‘insurance’ anymore and B) They need to make health insurance mandatory.

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                • Well, it’s discrimination in the pure sense of the word (as in “discriminating tastes”), and it may also be good business practice. In fact, I don’t think anyone really disagrees that it makes economic sense to refuse to cover such people. It’s just abhorrent.

                  I am indifferent to A (shocking, I’m sure, but I don’t think the words we call things are nearly as important as the things themselves) and I am fully on-board for B.

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  2. “the conservative movement’s staunchly anti-government approach has left us with a Republican Party as hyper-ideological as it is lacking in policy expertise.”
    The Republican Party discovered “just saying no” to government the second they lost the majority, and no earlier. They certainly didn’t govern as anti-government hyper-ideologues: they spent gobs of money and grew the government. They just spent money a bit differently than Democrats do.

    The Republicans aren’t a singular, unified party either. At the height of their power, they too couldn’t get ill-defined entitlement reform past the country’s wary seniors. What would have been your reaction if they accused Democrats of not being “good-faith governing partners” at that time? The Right argued that reform was necessary, sooner not later, and if their idea of reform would help the Republican Party long-term, well, nothing wrong with that. Now that power has switched hands, so have the arguments, but now it’s Dems pushing health insurance instead of Reps pushing SocSec reform.

    Now the Republicans have been relegated to a desperate minority where defection comes at a very high cost with almost no benefit. Should we expect them to roll over and help the Dems pass an orgy of spending and regulation, when the Dems clearly expect this to entrench their political gains?

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  3. This is good stuff, Jamelle. This should give me the push I needed to finish up a related post I’ve had in the queue for a few days. I tend to think that the idea of a three party system has been true for awhile, it’s just that this is the first time in a long while where the third party all has one letter next to their names. The trouble is that this party has held sway for a very long time and represents a particular form of centrism that is anathema to responsive government. More on this when I finish my post, though.

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