A Democrat in a two party system

John Scalzi, as he periodically does, is responding to reader questions, and one was on his attitude toward Republicans.  If you’re familiar with Scalzi, then you can probably guess that his attitude toward Republican politicians isn’t generally positive.  I found a lot to agree with in his post, notably on his social positions such as being pro-choice and supporting same sex marriage.

Although unlike Scalzi, I’m interested in having the social safety net in the US more than “slightly” better.  I personally wouldn’t mind an European “cradle to grave” type of welfare system, with universal healthcare, free (or at least low cost) higher education, and a robust public pension system, among other things.  Yes, it would mean higher taxes, but in evaluating that, we have to take into account how much we each already spend personally on healthcare, education, retirement, etc, and how well that’s currently working for us.

Anyway, the thing that caught my attention with Scalzi’s post was all the effort he seemingly engaged in to avoid labels like “progressive”, “liberal”, or “Democrat”.  Of course, Scalzi isn’t at all unusual in this sentiment, so I’m not picking on him in particular with this post.  It’s a very common impulse.  People will espouse many positions, while making sure everyone knows that they’re not actually a member of the party that most aligns with those positions.

Well, I am a Democrat and a progressive liberal.  I accept those labels.  And, as I described in my midterm election post, I pretty consistently vote Democrat.  I don’t do this because I agree with the Democrats all of the time (for instance, I thought their opposition this week to free trade was misguided), but because I disagree with them far less than I disagree with the Republicans.

I recognize a simple fact.  America is a two party system.  It’s been a two party system for virtually its entire history since the Constitution was ratified.  The only exceptions were a brief period after the War of 1812 (when the Federalist party disintegrated under allegations of disloyalty), and in the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War (when the Whigs disintegrated as the slavery issue convulsed existing factional lines).  Within a decade or two after each of these events, the US had settled back into its two party structure.

The ideological stance of the two parties change over time.  (In the 19th century, the Republicans were often the progressives and the Democrats the traditionalists.)  In our political system, with power separated among different branches of government, long term political alliances are necessary to accomplish anything.  Governing coalitions are built within the two parties, instead of in a unicameral legislature as often happens in democracies with proportional representation.  This makes these coalitions long term, with the rare generational changes in them referred to as “realigning elections.”

So, you can bemoan the reality of the two party system, but it’s unlikely to change unless we overhaul the Constitution.

If you vote for a third party candidate,  you’re almost always giving aid and comfort to the major political party on the other end of the ideological spectrum from that third party.  In other words, from a pure game theory strategic point of view, you’re causing the country to effectively move further away from where you’d like it to go.

Now maybe you’re a centrist, with your disagreements more or less evenly balanced between the two major parties.  If so, then avoiding either label makes sense.  But maybe you simply don’t follow the issues closely enough to know which party you are more aligned with.  If so, I suggest googling around; there are sites that will help you with that.

Most people, if they look at their long held political positions, will find themselves aligning more with one of the major parties.  Once you’ve identified that party, it makes sense to support it.  Yes, the other party will occasionally have more attractive candidates, and the party you align with will occasionally have less attractive candidates, but the reality is that all politicians, once in power, have to take care of their political allies, since they need them to accomplish things.  To ignore this is simply to ignore history.

So again, I’m a progressive liberal and a Democrat.  I’m not so partisan that I don’t think Republicans occasionally have good ideas, or that Democrat occasionally have awful ones, but on balance, with our current politics, the Democrats are by far, at least for me, the lesser evil.

I should note that I’m a progressive within the political spectrum of the United States.  If you transplanted me into another country where the value of science, social equality, reproductive freedoms, and a universal safety net were already part of the bipartisan consensus, then as a capitalist, I might find myself aligning with that country’s fiscal conservatives.  But, as Scalzi noted, viewed from an international perspective, US politics are currently shifted so far to the right, it will probably be a long time before there’s much chance of that happening here.

17 thoughts on “A Democrat in a two party system

  1. You characterize, as do others, the the Democratic opposition to the TPP is “opposing Free Trade.” How do you make this characterization? Do you know what is in the TPP? Apparently it is a bad deal, full of pork for multi-national corporations. Much of it has nothing to do with trade (I say apparently, as none of us can see it). Why is opposition to a bad deal, painted as opposition to Free Trade itself?

    And you say this as if Free Trade is a declared “good thing.” Can you name a single major economy that was built on Free Trade? (Hint: there are none. All were established under various protectionists schemes (which sounds bad to our ears but is actually necessary. Remember Japan/ How we could not sell rice there, or beef, or produce, or cars? They built the second largest economy in the world that way. China is still doing it, which is why we are attacking China with the TPP.) Free Trade is an offensive weapon of wealthy nations against poorer ones. They get our “advanced” goods at prices that will prevent them from developing the capacity to make such things for themselves and we get their natural resources, many of which cannot be replaced, regrown, etc. Free Trade policies are basically “stick to your knitting” orders that fix people into what they are doing now. Free Trade, being a “good thing,” in and of itself is a conservative meme with no basis in fact that has been bought into widely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems pointless to debate the details of an agreement that neither of us are privy to. But I can’t help noticing that the people opposed to it are the ones who typically oppose free trade agreements. I suspect union contributions have something to do with it (just as Wall Street contributions have something to do with many Republican positions).

      On free trade more broadly, just as it makes sense to listen to the vast majority of climatologists about global warming, it also makes sense to listen to the vast majority of economists (conservative and liberal) on free trade. Economics isn’t a zero sum game where A only makes a living at B’s expense. If A and B both focus on what they’re best at, they can both do well. That’s basic market driven economics, but it applies to nations as well as people.

      Because free trade benefits everyone broadly, we don’t always perceive its benefits as much as we do the people who get displaced by it. But we know those benefits exist through decades and centuries of economic data. Addressing one of your examples, most of China’s growth came after they opened their economy. Of course, they’re often not fair, as many nations aren’t, but that’s what free trade agreements are all about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I generally, but not always, align with the progressive views. But I definitely have some conservative streaks, and I see the value of certain conservative approaches. At the very least I believe both are necessary to balance the excesses of the other.

    I’ve wondered for a long time about the dual nature of life. I wonder if we need to see things as having only two sides, pro or con, yea or nay. This may be tied to a fundamental Yin-Yang aspect of reality. It’s strange that third parties ultimately all fail. (Although, as I understand it, other cultures often do have multiple parties.)

    Maybe it’s just what I call “number line” thinking rather than “vector thinking.” With the former, you have to pick a spot on the line, and your position is reduced to that single pick. Worse, the situation is zero-sum. One position “loses” to the extent the other “wins.”

    Vector thinking removes the zero-sum aspect and allows a position to reflect multiple thoughts about a given topic. But most people never learn to think that way.


    1. That’s a good point. Seeing politics as a unidimensional thing masks all kinds of complexities. Someone can be a social liberal but an economic conservative (or vice versa), or an environmentalist that believes in a strong national defense.

      I think the reality of the major parties is that they are messy coalitions of constituent interests, not philosophical schools. People often get disillusioned when they act in their constituents’ interests instead of according to some ideological ideal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Seeing politics as a unidimensional thing masks all kinds of complexities. “

        Yep, exactly. A lot more information in a velocity vector than a speed scalar. There is also the way it can remove an implicit zero-sum view.

        “People often get disillusioned when they act in their constituents’ interests instead of according to some ideological ideal.”

        Not to mention that, as with all organizations of any kind, the first necessity is its own survival.

        I may usually vote Democrat (and rarely third party for the reason you mentioned), but I refuse to align with (let alone donate to) either one.


        1. I actually do occasionally donate. In my case, it comes from the fact that I live in a very conservative state. Republican Presidential candidates are going to carry it, which under the electoral college effectively neuters my vote, except for a minute effect on the perceived popularity of the candidates from the popular vote. Donating is a way for me to reclaim my voice.


          1. Sure, I can understand that! I wonder if technology will ever allow a true democracy. One voice, one vote.

            There are arguments about whether that would actually be a good thing, but the electoral college has always bugged me.


          2. There’s been a movement for several years to do an end run around the electoral college, by attempting to have states put laws in effect to commit their electors to whoever wins the popular vote. If enough states with electors totalling at least 270 did it, the electoral college would become irrelevant. Even if every state just apportioned their electors according to the popular vote in that state, it would minimize the chance of a mismatch between an electoral and popular vote majority.

            I also read something a while back pointing out that there’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents us from having thousands of representatives in Congress. Only logistics prevented it in the past, but modern technology could easily overcome those issues today.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. In the UK, the choices available to us are quite different. There is no reason why political parties have to divide along the same fault lines in different countries.


    1. I thought about you and the UK when I wrote the last paragraph in this post. Honestly, you guys’ politics are different enough from ours that I’m not sure which party I’d have been for if I lived there.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I think something like instant runoff voting would probably be necessary (but likely not sufficient) to expanding beyond two parties.

    Why should we be limited to two parties anyway? Life isn’t binary. Choices often fall along a spectrum (if not a plane, or space…)


    1. I’d love it if there were an instant runoff. It would allow us to consolidate all the primaries and general election into one big hairy election and get it over with. I’m not sure it would break the two party system though, at least as long as we continued to have three branches of government requiring long term allies between them to be effective.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I generally align myself on the Democratic side of things (if we’re talking about the whole spectrum of issues), but I’d be open to voting Republican depending on what (and who) I think would be better for the country at that particular time. I know that seems strange and wishy-washy, but I like to take into consideration the big issue of the time and what needs the most correction. I’m not particularly worried about abortion, for instance, in comparison to health care and education. (That’s not to say I don’t have opinions about abortion or that I don’t care about it, but just that it’s lower on my list of concerns.)

    That said, I’ve never actually voted for a Republican. Maybe someday, but the way it’s looking, not anytime soon.

    Your last comment about voting in another country struck a chord with me. I’ve often thought about that. People in Europe would find me very conservative I think.

    “I personally wouldn’t mind an European “cradle to grave” type of welfare system, with universal healthcare, free (or at least low cost) higher education, and a robust public pension system, among other things. Yes, it would mean higher taxes, but in evaluating that, we have to take into account how much we each already spend personally on healthcare, education, retirement, etc, and how well that’s currently working for us.”

    Agreed. I sometimes think of moving, but then I think of all the little things I’d miss about America. Big Gulps, for example.


    1. I’m the same way. I have a variety of issues I care about and often have to prioritize them in voting. Something I didn’t mention in the post, is that when I was younger, I did vote Republican a lot. I was never a conservative, but I did perceive them to be better at national defense during the cold war. (If I’d known what I know now, not sure if I would have come to the same conclusion.) But as the cold war receded, economic stewardship and the social safety net became more important to me, and I’ve never seen the Republicans as credible on either one.

      It’s hard for me to imagine ever permanently moving to another country. The US can often be maddening, but I suspect once I got settled in another country, I’d eventually be annoyed by many of its aspects as well; grass is always greener and all that. And US culture, for better or worse, is my culture. Plus, most of the alternatives would involve cold weather, which I’m not a fan of 🙂


      1. After I wrote that comment, I thought about how I would vote for a Republican who was against abortion so long as he or she was for universal health care. Then I said to myself, “fat chance that’ll happen.”

        I also had the thought about cold weather! It’s like you’re reading my mind. I thought about England (which would mean lots of traveling to wonderful places by train…love love love), but then there’s the cold and rain and conversion to pounds. Canada? Too cold. My choice would be southern France, but then I’d have to talk frog all the time, deal with public transport striking every other day or so (although I did lose weight when I had to run five miles to my 8am Plato class), argue that peanut butter is not”dégueulasse” (disgusting). The bonus would be being able to take Geordie into the mall and order a beer while smoking a cigarette. (I don’t actually smoke cigarettes much anymore, but I’d definitely start up again if I could light up in the mall.)

        Liked by 2 people

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