The Two-Party System

In 1780, John Adams, anticipating what kind of politics might develop in the new American republic, warned of the dangers of "two party" politics. "There is," he said, "nothing I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting issues in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political issue."

This year, in the midst of much criticism of the two main parties, Professor Lisa Disch of the University of Minnesota has written a book entitled The Tyranny of the Two-Party System. Her attack on the two-party system is frontal. She challenges the labeling of the Republican and Democratic parties as parties and also their claims of having governed the country successfully.

The two-party system, she points out, has become more than a thing. She challenges its status as something we can invoke casually and dare not challenge. It is in face, she says, "nor more than a name for a feature of our reality," when, in fact, "It forms the very fields to which it only refers," and thereby escapes critical examination and review and becomes a covering word for a complex of "alleged" facts regarding the inevitability of third party failure (and the wastefulness and futility of third party votes) and about the superior accountability and stability of two-party democracies."

In the roughly 60 years since the end of World War II, the two-party democracies have not proved to be more stable and more effective than established multiple party democracies. The two dominant US parties, Democratic and Republican, have survived because of protective federal and state laws and Constitutional fixed terms. Only two presidents of the last eight elected have served the eight years allowed under the Constitution.

The record of the governments produced by two-party politics has been less than inspiring. Both parties gave continuing and irresponsible support to the anti-communism of the 1950s, competing with each other to establish which could be more extreme. Both gave continuing support to the Vietnam War -- first through Truman in aiding the French; then through Eisenhower in sending advisors; then through Kennedy in sending special troops to protect the advisors; then through Johnson in sending over 500,000 combat troops; then through Nixon who extended the war into Cambodia. Both parties took turns under the two-party system in controlling the government in the years following World War II, during which time the US went from being the most trusted and appreciated nation in the world to being the target of terrorists and the object of hatred on every continent except Australia, New Zealand and North America.

Both of the protected parties share responsibility for failure in unsuccessful wars in Cuba, Vietnam and Cambodia, and for lesser wars, incursions and engagements in South America, the Middle East, Southeastern Asia and Africa. And the domestic record of the governments produced by two-party politics is not much better. It includes such things as the savings and loan scandal, the stock market and corporate financial scandals and a national debt that is out of control and eroding the future financial stability of our nation.

Both parties supported provisions in the Federal Election Reform Act of 1975, which opened the way to making corporate PACs a major source of campaign funds, and corporations the dominant force in the creation of public policy.

Of more serious consequence, in the long run, is their opening the way, and aiding the growth of military power over non-military power in both domestic and foreign affairs. DeTocqueville, in his book on American democracy written 175 years ago, warned that in a democracy a military establishment too large to meet current military needs would become "a little nation apart." He predicted that it would have its own political, cultural, economic, educational and other institutions, comparable to and competing with similar institutions in civil society.

In his farewell address in 1960, retiring President Eisenhower warned us that the changes DeTocqueville had warned of had already occurred. "In the counsels of government" he said, "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military-industrial complex. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."

The military establishment did not fade away after WWII, as it did after WWI. It expanded its operations in both the military and non-military affairs of the country. The secretary of defense at various times assured us that we were prepared to fight three kinds of war -- nuclear, conventional and guerrilla -- and "fight two wars like that in Vietnam and still have butter." Military missions to foreign countries became quasi-diplomatic. Schools supported by the military duplicated civilian schools. Military grants for research and study became more common. A structure for the handling of educational programs developed within the military establishment. Medical and hospital services developed. New GI insurance programs were introduced. The Corps of Army Engineers took new duties. The retail service of the PX grew until at one point, only Sears & Roebuck among retail establishments was larger.

Despite this record, the two-party system is still invoked as the keystone of US politics. Newspaper editors defend it with editorial certainty, declaring that the US is a "two-party country," as the editor of Pravda might have declared that the Russia of times past was a one-party country. Gerald Ford, when president of the country, said that he believed in the two-party system when he signed the 1975 Federal Election Campaign Act. He said he thought the bill was unconstitutional, giving the "two-party system" standing above the Constitution.

In 1975-76, the League of Women voters gave up its vow of non-partisanship in order to give exclusive TV coverage to Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. It thereby risked its non-political virginity by affirming its belief in the "two-party system." Seven out of eight Supreme Court justices made their declaration of belief in the "two-party system," as in a kind of Thomas More act of faith, justification for their approval of the 1975-76 federal election amendments presented to them in the Buckley vs. Valeo legal case. The court by its action established the first federal two-party system, thus demonstrating the operation of Parkinson's Law that institutions that are failing naturally seek to prolong their lives and make up for failure and weaknesses by seeking legislative props.

More and more military men and women appear in corporate offices. The former army chief of staff appears as secretary of state and a former corporate officer and congressman as secretary of defense. Language and title changes are not overlooked. World War II was fought under the direction of the War Department. To the surprise of many, both in the military and out of it, the department emerged in the Appropriation Bill of 1947 as the Department of Defense. Why the name of the department was changed, and by whom, was never explained. We now declare, not "war" but "national defense," whether in Grenada or Iraq. We conduct incursions rather than invasions.

The independence of the military from civil control was further advanced when the two-party government allowed the draft law to expire during the Nixon administration. A voluntary mercenary system for gathering military personnel came into play. The danger DeTocqueville foresaw in a large standing army was that as the military became less democratic, it could become less reflective of the general population, more isolated from it and more ready for war. He predicted that the military would be drawn from the poorer and less educated in society and that what he called "the elite" would avoid military service. With the War Department now called the Defense Department, a military officer seeking funds need only ask for money to be used for defense (of which there can never be enough) and not have to mention or respond to questions about war, real or potential. There is no limit to what a country might spend on defense. Like the animal in Kafka's "Burrow," if we listen we can always hear a scratching sound.

The military establishment has not left anything to chance. In 1965 the army contracted with Douglas Aircraft for a study called "Pax Americana" to determine what might be necessary to impose an American peace on the world.

Then the drive for standardization and unification that came with the secretariat of Robert McNamara was accepted despite the fact that he had, as president of Ford Motors, failed in his attempt to make the Edsel the "everyman's car" of America. As secretary of Defense he had tried unsuccessfully to get the three branches of the armed services to adopt the TFX fighter air plane, and to have the Marine Band absorbed into the Army band complex. He failed in a final effort at unification, which may still be waiting in the files or on a computer somewhere, namely to have a single religion for everyone in the armed services, thus eliminating the need for separate ministers, priests, and rabbis. It was projected that persons leaving military service could go back to their pre-military religions, or take their military religions with them, along with their fatigues.

There is little evidence that the two-party system has dealt very successfully with either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iraq war.

The crowning failure of the two-party governments is that they have not produced a presidential election process that did not leave the nation dependent in its choice of a president on the five votes of politicized Supreme Court justices and a Florida winner-take-all law, weighted by the votes of Cuban refugees and the votes of refugees from New York state tax laws.

Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2004 The Progressive Populist