The virtues of the two-party system

The virtues of the two-party system

: The accepted wisdom of blog comments and forums these days is that the two-party system is unnatural and even evil and that’s why it’s OK — nay, somehow nobly virtuous — for Ralph Nader (or Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot or John Anderson, in their times) to run, albeit futiley — even destructively — from a third party. And anybody (e.g., me) who complains about that and the impact it has on the real race is accused of trying to stifle free speech and democracy and — gasp! — defend the two-party system.

Well, let me stand up bravely in defense of that two-party system.

First, let’s recognize that this is not Europe or much of the rest of the parliamentary world, where the people elect parties over individuals and where coalitions put together governments (which can easily fall apart) and the winning party, instead of the voters, often selects the nation’s executive. In Germany or Italy or Israel, you can vote from among a few liberal or conservative parties but once you do, the leadership of the government is out of your hands. Still, this does mean that, in Germany, for example, you can vote for the Greens with some confidence and good conscience that, if they’re big enough, they can join with the liberals and in the end, you’re still supporting a left-leaning government and your party leaders are at least part of the government’s cabinet. A vote for the Greens is a vote for the left, not a vote discarded.

That’s not the way it works here, of course. We elect one person for President and that has nothing to do with which parties win elsewhere.

This means that our system forces voters to make a choice — but at least it’s our choice.

When it comes to the presidency, only one person can win. When it comes to Congress, for that matter, only two parties can efficiently win, given our system of majorities and supermajorities needed to get the work of the people done and given the fact that governments won’t fall because of any legislature’s failures or whims and given the size of the country and the cost of running for office and marketing a message here. The same system operates down to the state and local levels.

And that system works. It is more stable and effective than any other you can name.

But, again, the system forces us to make a choice. We get a long time to make that choice. We get a long (albeit too long and too expensive) campaign season to push and support (and defeat) candidates. We get to push special-interest candidates to push the agendas they represent. That is how we build coalitions; that is how diverse interests get represented; that is how change erupts. That is why, for example, Al Sharpton and Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman, losers all, are telling people voters that the best way to change the system and get represented is to do it from within the party, not without. They all tried to win the top spot. But they lost. Yet they all believe they influenced the debate and the election and the winners. So votes for them were still votes for the left and not votes discarded.

But once it gets toward the end, things change. I’ll say it once more: You are given a choice: Do you want George Bush? Or do you want a Democrat. It’s a simple, if sometimes tough, choice. But it’s our choice. To avoid that choice is wasteful and sometimes petulant and immature and occasionally even destructive.

If you truly can’t stand George Bush yet you vote for Ralph Nader and allow Bush to get elected — the first or second time — then you have done worse than thrown out your vote, you have given your vote to your opposition and proven and changed nothing in the process.

If you are Ralph Nader and you say you want to defeat George Bush yet you’re the reason George Bush got elected the first time and you could be the reason he gets elected the second time, well, then you are nothing but an egotistical, petulant, selfish, short-sighted, destructive, pathetic, hanging-on has-been and hypocrite.

Ralph Nader is absolutely free to make his choice to reveal himself to be such a twit. And I am just as free to call him a twit. He can campaign. I can complain. But if he continues to run and if too many vote for him and if those votes could have swung the election, well, there’s no running away from the choice — the moral choice — and and those who voted for him made to avoid the real choice, the mature and necessary choice they were given this election.

But I have faith in the voters that they saw Nader for what he was the last time around. I believe he’ll be humiliated as he deserves to be with a pathetic and embarrassingly small vote this time (and Howard Dean helped assure that outcome today). I don’t think this election will be the mess the last one was.

For the system works. The two-party system works.