The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery

The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery
© Greg Nash

My fellow Americans, you can say that you are witnessing history.

I’m not talking about last year’s largely unexpected election of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE. I’m referring to a fundamentally new paradigm in American politics: the death of the two-party system as we know it.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE.

During a recent interview, when asked what he thinks historians will make of his Speakership, the “unchained” former Speaker matter-of-factly stated: “They’ll be talking about the end of the two-party system.”

So, with unexpected insight and scar-grounded wisdom, John Boehner, in a yoda-like manner, identifies what would be the most transformational event for American politics in the 21st century. 


It appears the only thing that’s filtered for John Boehner these days are his Camel 99 cigarettes. 

But you can see the numbers starting to bear this out. An NBC/WSJ poll out last week shows Trump’s continuing strong popularity within the GOP. In fact, Trump enjoys the highest popularity ratings among GOP respondents. He is more popular than the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.), Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE (R-Ariz.), former Trump chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon, GOP members of the House and the Senate, and the Republican Party itself.

But Donald Trump is but one feature of this potential political transformation in American politics. Behold the net negative view of both parties by all respondents (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) in the same poll:

Democratic Party:

  • 32 percent positive and 42 percent negative (net negative of 10 percent)

Republican Party:

  • 27 percent positive and 46 percent negative (net negative of 19 percent)

Clearly, there is opportunity for something else new in our politics beyond Trump.

This poll comes as Democrats enjoyed a strong election night performance on Tuesday. Does what happened on Election Day in 2017 foreshadow anything for next year’s election? Perhaps it is an indicator of energy and salient issues. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to assume they will be successful on election night in 2018.

The more realistic interpretation is that this is yet another example of reaction and rejection: Trump can be seen as a reaction to former President Obama and a rejection of former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE; similarly, the success of the Democrats on Tuesday could be seen as a reaction to Donald Trump and a rejection of the GOP’s failure to govern effectively and inclusively.

Yet, I believe there are larger, more important phenomena occurring within American politics today.

  • Identity is “trumping” party. National politics today is more about how people identify with the candidate than the party. There are complex, identity-based dynamics driving American politics today. That’s why we continue to see various groups vote against their economic interests across the political spectrum and irrespective of class: working class who vote for candidates promoting tax cuts for the wealthy; wealthy, white collar professionals who vote for candidates that want to raise their taxes; and women and minority-owned businesses that vote for candidates who want to increase corporate taxes, payroll taxes, and regulatory costs. What we are witnessing is a struggle for the identity of America itself.
  • Our identity-based politics could lead to an American version of a multi-party system. America no longer has two political parties. We have been witnessing the emergence of something of a multi-party system. In fact, one, at least, has already named itself: the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party. And the hyper “identitization” of American politics is not only driving the fracturing of the GOP. A deep rift has emerged between the so-called “Clinton wing” and the “Sanders-Warren” wing of the Democratic party. The real soul searching for the Democrats will come in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. They don’t have to make tough choices now about who they are. But if the Democrats lose again to Trump in 2020 (that is, if Trump even runs), a new, Sanders-Warren type of party will likely emerge.
  • There’s no party for “the middle:” Even though Trump is gaining with the extreme right and the Sanders-Warren political worldview is increasingly where the energy is among the left, no one represents the political middle. Not only isn’t there a leader emerging to capture that portion of the political “white space,” a “middle coalition” — committed to governance and solutions — is being fractured and diluted by the legacy two-party system and obstructionist strategies by both Democrats and Republicans. But “middle” is increasingly becoming an identity.

So, there is an opportunity to transform American politics in the way that John Boehner alluded to in his “death of the two-party system” quip. But it is not going to happen in Washington, D.C., (per usual), it must happen out in the country — where a “middle coalition” can be formed, incubated, emerge, and injected back into D.C. 

The problem, of course, is that those who are “in the middle” seemingly do not have a homogenous world view and political ideology. But I do think there could be a coherent ideology for a “middle coalition” through a governance-focused approach: one that works toward progressive goals through conservative means. In other words, an approach that prioritizes the whole but does so via conservative, market-based, fiscally responsible means.

Call this “middle coalition” the new “Governance Party.”

In the end, I hope John Boehner is right. Our static two-party system does not meet the needs and varying worldviews of our country today. We must have new ideas injected into our politics, and we need a genuine focus on governance. 

But before a “Governance Party” can govern, a “middle coalition” insurgency needs to coalesce, led by disaffected Republicans, Democrats and independents, in cities, small towns, and local communities. This is the only place from which our politics can be transformed and our country can be renewed.

John Boehner would probably cry and then smoke to that.

Alex Gallo served as a professional staff member with the House Armed Services Committee. He is a West Point graduate, a combat veteran, and a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Huffington Post, The Hill, and Foreign Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexGalloUSA