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Politics. Economics. Morality. Religion. And Everything In Between.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Two-Party System Part 1: Why It Sucks, and Why We're Stuck With It ... For Now

In case you've been living in a spider hole in Tajikistan for the last year or so, there's a massive political battle over the debt ceiling going on in Washington. Supposedly, if the government doesn't raise the debt ceiling from $14.3 trillion to $14.7 trillion by August 2, it will default on its debts, the value of the dollar will plunge, the economy will tank, the dead will rise from their graves, fire and brimstone will rain from the sky, and all hell will generally break loose.

I'm skeptical that the proverbial feces will impact the rotary air impeller as hard as they say it will if we don't raise the debt ceiling in time. The Republicans in the House of Representatives are, too, which is why they're playing fiscal policy-chicken with the Democrats by refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling until the Democrats agree to cut spending by a "significant amount." The Holy Grail for Republicans is the $4 trillion that would be cut over 10 years by the Paul Ryan budget, their own proposal to curb spending. However, like Borat's "retard brother" Billo, "they will never get this!"

Here's the deal: Republicans want to gut entitlement spending (pensions, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security), which together accounts for a whopping $2.2 trillion in spending. They are unwilling, however, to carve up their own sacred cows by cutting defense, another $900 billion annual expenditure, or eliminating corporate subsidies and tax breaks and raising taxes on the rich as President Obama has proposed, which would raise an additional $700 billion in annual revenue. Therefore, deficit-reduction talks have stalled. Republicans and Democrats both refuse to compromise on spending that they hold dear, and the country continues down the road to fiscal insolvency.

The solution? We need people in power who don't march in lock-step with either party. This is easier said than done, though, because of the way modern elections work. Congressmen in the House of Representatives, the lowest-level elected officials that hold national office, still run in districts that contain, on average, about 700,000 people. Roughly 400,000 of those will be registered voters. Senators, on average, must run before a statewide audience of 2-10 million registered voters, while the President himself campaigns before some 200 million voters (sadly, usually only half of them will turn out). For a politician to reach his entire potential voting base these days, he has to use a TON of expensive radio and TV advertising.

Big national political machines like the Republican and Democratic parties have money. They also have nationally televised and reported on events at which prospective candidates can make names for themselves. They hold official primaries that help build candidates' recognition before elections. Furthermore, they have armies of politically astute campaign workers at the ready to give their candidate the best possible chance of winning the election. Political aspirants usually have two choices: either they pledge allegiance to a big political party and receive its money and resources in exchange, or they get steamrolled by someone who has. Thus, the political machines propagate their own philosophies across the land, while independent thinkers get squashed.

As we have seen, this leads to political deadlock, because we're stuck with two parties with completely opposite and irreconcilable philosophies that can't compromise on anything. Why? Anyone who deviates from the party line moves away from his own party's core voters and risks being defeated by a more orthodox candidate in his party's primary. If this occurs, it becomes almost impossible for him to win the general election because 1. he has lost the support of the machine, which has since been transferred to one of his opponents, and 2. he's probably still more politically similar to the person who beat him in his own primary than he is to the opposing party's candidate, so he and his replacement will split his own party's vote, allowing the other party's candidate to win a cheap victory.

The only people who can overcome the high "barriers to entry" of the two-party system are those who are rich, powerful, and/or famous enough to get their voices heard without the help of the machine. One such man was Jesse Ventura, an actor who ran as an independent for the Minnesota governorship and won. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic senator who drifted to the center and (predictably) lost the Democratic primary, went on to win the general election as an independent because his long tenure of service and national reputation as a principled centrist gave him a much higher profile than either his Democratic or Republican challengers. Ron Paul, a Libertarian in Republican guise (whose virtues I have previously extolled on this blog) continues to hold down his Congressional seat by virtue of being a very big, experienced fish in a small pond.

How do we send more unconventional thinkers to Washington so we can actually solve our problems instead of just prolonging them? Here's a hint: think about the problems such candidates faced, and how those who managed to surmount them did so. To be continued, readers...

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