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.