Opinion The Center Can Hold

Moderates in America Should Not Give Up on Political Reform

Tearing down the two-party system is still the best way to defeat polarization.

Washington DC
View of Washington DC with the United States Capitol in the distance, February 17, 2015 (Matt Popovich)

Regular readers know I believe the two-party system in America is one of the root causes of the country’s many political problems: extreme partisanship (but weak parties), polarization, a politicization of the judiciary and an unwillingness by lawmakers to rein in presidents of their own party, to name the four most urgent.

What are moderates to do? I propose reform.

Ideally, these various changes would break up the Democratic-Republican duopoly. Countries in Northwestern Europe prove that multiparty democracy produces better outcomes.


I admit this is all a little far-fetched. (Although only a few of my suggestions would require constitutional reform.)

Too far-fetched, argue Steven Teles and Robert Saldin of the Niskanen Center. They urge moderates to stop wasting their time on reforms that aren’t going to happen and third parties that aren’t going to win and concentrate on building up moderate factions within the two major parties instead to give America a “more deliberative, entrepreneurial and productive political system.”

Teles and Saldin recognize that the design of American institutions may be exacerbating political polarization and that changing them could make it easier for moderates to compete.

But they believe the real reason moderates lose is that “their adversaries … actually do the hard, long-term work that democratic politics rewards.”

That’s true, but that’s true everywhere. Reasonable people in the center are usually in the majority, but they care more about their families, their homes and their jobs than they do about politics. That is how fanatics end up with disproportionate power. They organize. They join political parties. They donate. They vote.

Multiparty systems don’t have fewer fanatics or more engaged centrists. But they disperse the fanatics across multiple parties and encourage moderation and compromise, because no single party is ever able to form a government.

Moderates are not alone

Political reform in America also doesn’t rest on the shoulders of moderates alone.

When Echelon Insights, an opinion research firm, asked Americans how they would vote if they had not two but five parties to choose from, it found (PDF) that Republicans would split more or less evenly between a Trumpist nationalist party on the far right and a traditionally conservative party in the mold of Ronald Reagan on the center-right.

Democrats split three ways, with the largest group preferring a center-left party in the mold of former president Barack Obama, a smaller group preferring a far-left Green party and a smaller group yet preferring a culturally liberal and globalist “Acela Corridor” party.

The last group may have disproportionate cultural and financial power, but it’s still the smallest. (Which is why political observers doubt the presidential bid of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will go far.)

If you assume that chances of reform rely entirely on this “Acela Corridor” faction, then, yes, it would be hopeless.

But it doesn’t.

If Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party proves permanent, the one in five Americans who prefer a Reaganite conservative party could split.

If Bernie Sanders fails to win the Democratic presidential nomination a second time, the 10 percent of Americans who want to vote for a candidate and a party like him could split.

Add the “Acela Corridor” voters and now you’re at 40 percent of Americans who are unhappy with the two parties. That’s a formidable (if hypothetical) alliance for reform.