Our Three Party Democracy
Creepy admiration for China’s authoritarian government aside, the main point of Tom Friedman’s most recent New York Times op-ed is actually pretty sound: the United States has become something of a neutered one-party democracy. That is, for those interested in governing – at least on the national level – the Democratic Party really is the only game in town, as the conservative movement’s staunchly anti-government approach has left us with a Republican Party as hyper-ideological as it is lacking in policy expertise. But because our political institutions are designed around consensus, this makes it incredibly difficult for a single party – even one with clear majority support – to make an enact policy, as consensus requires a good-faith governing partner, which the Democrats simply don’t have. Of course, this is made all the more problematic by the fact that the nation is facing challenges – nuclear proliferation, climate change, fiscal unsustainability – which require much broader action than what our institutions are actually capable of.
The only thing I’d add to Friedman’s analysis is Chris’ observation – made in the comments – that it is a little inaccurate to describe the Democratic Party as singular or unified in any ideological sense. In reality, or at least as far as congressional Democrats are concerned, the Democratic Party is more of a loose coalition between a broadly center-left party (based in the Northeast and the West Coast) and a broadly center-right party (based in the Rust Belt, and rural areas throughout the West, Midwest, and the South). For liberals, this isn’t particularly good. Under a functional legislative system, where majority rule was given deference, this wouldn’t pose too much of a problem; the center-left party could rely on the center-right party to help craft and pass broadly acceptable legislation (while the right-wing party languished in irrelevance). The way it stands however, the right-wing party has pretty significant veto power over nearly every piece of legislation, which effectively means that any given piece of progressive legislation has to go through two conservative filters.
To take it back to Friedman’s point though, the fact of our tri-party legislature acts as yet another obstacle to one-party governing, since there simply isn’t enough ideological cohesion and group loyalty within the Democratic Party to pass anything approaching ambitious legislation. The real solution, of course, is a complete restructuring of our legislature into something approaching a Westminster-style parliamentary system, with multiple member districts and executive branch drawn largely from the legislature. However, since that is also incredibly unlikely, we’ll probably have to look for other ways to make Congress more responsive to the majority party (like eliminating the filibuster, or revamping the committee system!).