Is our 2-party system getting dangerous?
On the catastrophic dissatisfaction with America's major political parties
American partisan identification has hit a new low, Gallup poll results published this week reveal. Fully 50 percent of U.S. adults now consider themselves political independents, while the Republican and Democratic Parties each get an even 25 percent of the remainder. Gallup also recently reported a record high of 62 percent of Americans agree both parties "do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed."
Conventional wisdom often holds these shifts are "dangerous to democracy." But what if they're literally dangerous? What if our two-party system is radicalizing people? What if it's left some people feeling so unrepresented in their ostensibly representative government that they consider turning to violence?
To be clear, as much as I also want viable third parties, I'm not saying violence would be justified. I'm simply acknowledging the reality that people who are convinced they have no way to change their government via peaceful means sometimes cease to be peaceful.
This is part of what happened in the sedition at the Capitol in January. It's not the only reason for that riot, of course. The single most immediate impetus was lies from former President Donald Trump and his enablers. But part of why those lies were successful — part, indeed, of why Trump was elected in the first place — was the deep dissatisfaction these Gallup numbers show and the sense of powerlessness that comes from feeling unrepresented by elected officials.
The night of the Capitol riot, I came across an interview with an Iowa man named Leo Kelly, who was among the first inside the building and has since been charged in federal court for his actions that day. I was fascinated because Kelly seems a bit bewildered by what he'd just done. He struggles to explain his thinking and all but pleads with his interviewer to understand why it seemed reasonable at the time. "This is a moment in U.S. history [that is] not unlike the days at the beginning of the country," Kelly says. He continues:
At some point, there's enough illegal behavior, there's enough crimes against the Constitution being committed by the elected officials that — you know, what are you supposed to do? Nobody in the courts will listen. They won't even take a look at the evidence. They just dismiss all the election fraud cases on grounds that there's no standing or whatever. So, at some point, you reach a point, that you just say, like, 'Well how — what — none of my institutions are working. None of this — it's just — what am I supposed to do?' [Leo Kelly via LifeSiteNews]
Kelly is wrong about the courts. And he was wrong to storm the Capitol. But I don't think he's wrong that he's dealing with institutional decline and failure, both in the broader sense my colleague Damon Linker noted in connection to the Gallup poll and, more specifically, in our two-party system.
The Gallup poll found Republicans are more likely than Democrats to want a third party (and, notably, that interest in leaving the GOP is concentrated among pro-Trump Republicans more than the never-Trump wing). But the sense of powerlessness expressed in Kelly's words — What am I supposed to do? — isn't unique to Trump supporters. It's also part of what we saw last summer, when peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police devolved, in some cities, into rioting. "We wanted to symbolize that both parties are the oppressor," said a rioter in Portland in January, when longstanding demonstrations, some including substantial violence and vandalism, resumed shortly after President Biden's inauguration. "We've all experienced firsthand that police violence is police violence regardless [of which political party holds power]." Another rioter agreed: "It doesn't matter who's president: Black lives don't matter; Arab lives don't matter; they don't care about us. They just don't."
Last year, many quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s description of rioting as "the language of the unheard." King wasn't defending or even excusing rioting. He'd deplored it one paragraph prior on moral and strategic grounds, calling it "socially destructive and self-defeating." But he recognized reality. Though himself committed to nonviolence, King knew that conviction isn't universal. Plenty of people wouldn't respond to oppression as he did. Plenty would opt for violence.
We have an easier time, I suspect, understanding the link between violence and (real or perceived) exclusion from political institutions when we see it in history or outside the United States. As part of negotiations to stabilize and pacify Afghanistan, for example, the Afghan government offered to let the Taliban become a political party and participate in lawmaking. It doesn't always work, but some terrorist groups have been successfully integrated into normal political processes this way. Offered meaningful influence on policy, they've stopped or dramatically scaled down their violence (there are some interesting examples of this in Colombia).
Obviously, neither the rioters in Portland nor the seditionists at the Capitol are organized for violence in any way approximating the Taliban or those Colombian guerrillas. I'm not suggesting any undue equivalencies here.
But we don't want equivalencies to start to make sense. When people — especially people who have been volubly promised the right to self-governance — come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that available institutions exclude them from affecting their government, many will eventually go around those institutions. Some will be violent.
Those Gallup polls tell us our two-party system is viewed by a majority of Americans as an exclusionary institution. The parties still get votes — at record numbers — because most people aren't ready to go around just yet. Most people don't want to be violent. Most people don't want to see political violence in our country. Eventually, however, they might change their minds, and a minority could be radicalized even while that majority aversion holds. We should change our two-party politics before we reach that juncture.