What Happens to the Two-Party System Now?

It’s not too soon to say it: the Republican Party, if it keeps doing what it’s doing, is finished.

It is a matter of political direction and demographics. Politically, the Republicans stand for a vision of American culture that didn’t quite work when it was current, more than half a century ago, and certainly wouldn’t fly today. Mostly because of this, the Republican Party is older than all other active political parties. Most Republicans are over 50 years old. Being older, they are dying faster than other voters. From this effect alone, they are losing 1 percent of their voters every two years.

And that is not counting the lifestyle factors that may speed up the Republican attrition. Republicans as a group are skeptical of science, and so are more likely to be obese and smoke cigarettes, and those are the two key lifestyle distinctions that often make the difference between dying at 50 and living to 100. Nor is it counting the movement of voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. In the last 8 years that has been around half a million voters — in Pennsylvania alone.

The Republicans cannot easily attract younger voters to replenish their ranks because their policies are so unfavorable to young adults. In the 2004 election season, the Republicans created the appearance of a youth movement by paying college students to pose as Republican activists. In 2008, there was no such pretense. The Republican Party this year made no apologies about being old-fashioned and old.

A decline of 1 percent is big in two-party politics. The two-party system is a battle for the middle of the political field. Once your support falls below 40 percent, you are no longer a player. The Republicans were already falling behind in 2000 and 2004, when they squeaked out two of the narrowest presidential election victories ever. They pulled in 46 percent in this month’s election. After a decline of 4 percent from here, they will be a strong presence in only 20 states — not quite enough to function as a national party. Another 4 percent, and it will be only 15.

In a two-party system, a party in decline typically tries to make itself more attractive to centrist voters, but the Republicans are showing every sign of doing just the opposite. There is a broad movement within the party to run a religious extremist, perhaps Sarah Palin, for president in 2012. Senate Republicans are talking up the advantages of “out-and-out opposition” as they redouble their efforts to block progress on just about everything.

There is a culture war dividing America, and the Republicans honestly don’t realize how medieval and dangerous their views seem when they go to places like the suburbs of Cleveland where no one really wants the country turned upside down. The Republicans really believe they have broader support than they have. And they still have enormous piles of money backing them up. As hard as it is to predict politics ten years in advance, it is hard to imagine what could stop the Republican Party from staying the course until there is really no hope left.

To make a two-party system work, though, it takes two viable national parties. But there aren’t enough conservatives left to populate a viable political to the right of the newly cautious Democratic Party, no matter how such a party is structured. The more plausible outcome, then, is that the Democratic Party becomes the new conservative party, with a new party eventually emerging to its left, asking for faster changes. This could easily take 20 years, though, and in the meantime, the United States would effectively have a one-party government.

It is easy to point out the reasons why one-party government doesn’t work. Actually, the two-party system many of all the same problems — it is just not quite so obvious about them. And so, I believe now is the time for the United States to switch to the multiparty approach used by most of the civilized world.

It is not as big a change as it would seem. In fact, it involves restoring one of the basic principles of democracy that we might not have realized we had let slide. That is the “majority rules” concept, which requires that the winning candidate have more than 50 percent of the vote. This is already in place in a few states, and it can be done at little expense everywhere else. All it takes is redesigning the ballots to let voters vote for more than one candidate, ranking them by order of preference. A voter can vote for their ideal candidate first and a safe or consensus candidate second. After the election, the least popular candidates are removed from the contest one by one until a candidate has a majority — a process sometimes referred to as an “instant runoff election.”

In a multiparty system, a party does not have to have 40 percent support to be part of the process. A major party is one that has about 12 percent of the vote. With a multiparty system, the Republican Party can continue to be relevant even as its support drops into the 30s and 20s. And in a multiparty system, it will be easier for a new liberal party to emerge to keep the Democrats in line.

A multiparty system makes it easier to keep a viable political discussion going. That is the reason other countries use it. And that is the reason it makes sense for the United States now.

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