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What if the US had a five-party system?

The Trump years have wrecked the Republican Party, and the Democrats are pulling in different directions. But it doesn’t have to be this way, writes Andrew Naughtie

Tuesday 19 January 2021 21:44 GMT
The House of Representatives certifying Joe Biden’s election victory.
The House of Representatives certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. (EPA)

In his farewell address, George Washington famously worried that politics would descend into “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge” – driving people to seek “security and repose” in a despotic leader, elevating himself “on the ruins of public liberty”.

Two centuries later, failed autocrat Donald Trump is leaving both the US and his party in an abject state.

The Republicans didn’t just lose the presidential election and two crucial Senate seats in Georgia; they also saw a massive swathe of their base latch on to virulent, violent conspiracy theories that run directly counter to the norms of peaceful democratic politics. As a direct result, the Capitol was stormed and trashed by Trump supporters convinced their president won an election he plainly lost.

It was a Republican president who encouraged them. Worse still, that process was eased and accelerated by many elected Republicans themselves – and unlike Trump, many of those to blame will remain in office for years to come.

Unsurprisingly, there are bitter divisions over what needs to happen next. The GOP electoral base is still devoted to Trump, and whether or not he runs in 2024 – the Senate may yet bar him from holding office again – most Republicans running for the Senate or House will not hold their seats if they stray from what’s become the party line.

Zoom out though, and an even more obvious question presents itself: why are these people in the same party in the first place?

Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in his 2019-20 impeachment, shares the GOP Senate caucus with Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who spoke against certifying the election results even after the Capitol was stormed and trashed by a mob of Trump supporters. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach him after the Capitol riot, sits in the House with Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon believer who wore a “Trump won” mask to her swearing-in.

These are not philosophical bedfellows. Whatever agreements they have here and there on policy, they follow different political creeds and hold themselves to different standards. And after the events of 6 January, neither side seems likely to back down.

The situation is nowhere near as critical on the Democratic side, but the divisions there also go beyond simple policy disagreement. The party’s underperformance in November’s Congressional elections kicked off a round of finger-pointing whose bitterness was obscured by the chaos coming from the White House.

Having won the presidency, (just) kept the House and (just) taken control of the Senate, the Democrats are under pressure to keep step, not to clear house. But the last two presidential primaries have been nothing short of enraging for many involved, on the left in particular. And when the party’s star begins to fall again, those resentments will heat back up.

Trump or no Trump, this is an excruciating moment for both parties. It’s also a particularly American situation. Other countries have their problems, of course, but very few run a two-party system this rigid.

Tied together

In Denmark’s last general election, the two biggest parties combined captured less than 50 per cent of the electorate, with the rest of it split 12 ways. Spain now sees five parties reliably pulling in double-digit results. Ireland’s three largest parties effectively tied in the 2020 election, resulting in a coalition between old rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as they manoeuvred to keep Sinn Fein out of power.

Even the UK, where upwards of 75 per cent of voters backed Labour and the Conservatives at the last election, is well-stocked with other parties who can and have held the balance of power in recent years.

The US does have other parties, of course, and they do make a national impact. (Just ask Al Gore, who might have won Florida in 2000 were it not for Ralph Nader.) Nonetheless, the system all but excludes them: at the 2020 election, 97 per cent of the vote went to Mr Trump and Joe Biden.

Coalitional multi-party politics can be infuriatingly procedural, and can make for weak and unstable governments. It can also dilute parties’ influence and identity to a point where their core voters are no longer invested.

But its advantage over the American system is that it can help avoid the polarisation of issues into two arbitrary columns. As things stand, Pew Research data shows that American voters are profoundly divided on issue after issue – and also on how important they consider any given issue to be.

The stage is set for a Biden-Trump debate (EPA-EFE)

The two-party system has plenty to answer for here. Because the parties need to take stark positions to differentiate themselves, highly complex debates that will never be truly resolved are warped into zero-sum battles, and the most emotive ones rise to the top of the agenda largely because that’s where the parties can best compete for voters.

As things stand today, both party platforms are essentially bundles of issues that don’t necessarily have much to do with each other. In a vacuum, there is no logical reason why a voter who badly wants to see Roe v Wade repealed should care either way about environmental deregulation. But since at least the 2000s, to vote Republican has been to support both.

Take abortion. According to historical Gallup polling, the proportion of Americans who believe abortion should be illegal under any circumstances has remained below 25 per cent since at least the 1970s – and yet overturning Roe v Wade remains a shibboleth for many Republicans, particularly in primaries where they are competing for a hardcore base.

So it goes with gun control: a clear majority of Americans support what many call “common-sense” gun safety laws, including universal background checks, but with only two political options and a small but vocal lobby controlling vast amounts of money, parties and candidates have no incentive to approach the issue elastically.

So what if things were different? What if, as in much of Europe, American elections were followed by a period of dealmaking and coalition-building that melded two, three or more platforms into a governing agenda more tailored to the electorate’s wishes?

Imagine what politics would look like if Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene could go their separate ways – and if Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weren’t competing for slots in a party hierarchy with the likes of Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer.

There are lots of ways to slice this. So here’s one – a five-party system, ranked from left to right,

Democratic Socialists

To the left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders (REUTERS)

After years of being sidelined at the ballot box, the US left is now winning races up and down the ballot under a socialist brand. The Democratic Socialists are not in fact hardcore socialists by international standards; the three planks of their platform are a strong government-backed welfare state, immediate government-led action on climate change, and assertive measures to tackle wealth inequality and structural racism.

Many of their goals are endorsed by Progressives and Centrists, but they disagree profoundly on means and on fiscal policy. Aside from the usual left-right divisions over taxes and deficit spending, the Socialists are divided from other left-wingers by their view about what government is capable of doing more competently than private organisations and how the private sector as a whole should be treated.

At the extreme, the Socialists also have a justified reputation for backing the politics of protest over pragmatism, especially when it comes to economic justice and racism. Along with their rigidity about many of their ideas (tax reform, for instance), this has made it hard for them to forge alliances with Progressives at critical moments. They usually blame the Progressives for this, and are cynical about their motives.

Progressive Democrats

Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris (EPA-EFE)

A much broader church than the Socialists, the progressives’ precise orientation can be hard to pin down year-to-year. Like the Socialists, they focus on equality of opportunity and social freedoms, but are far more technocratic and less sceptical of free markets and corporate enterprise. However, unlike the centrists to their right, they are increasingly concerned about the social impact of wealth inequality and are fully open to radical action on climate change.

Because the Progressives are less doctrinaire than their left-wing counterparts, they find it easier to manoeuvre into coalitions or confidence-and-supply agreements with centrist moderates. However, this in turn relies on the centrists fighting off increasingly strong socalist challenges in previously safe seats.

And while the progressives can reliably partner with either the Socialists or centrists issue-to-issue, they struggle to pull both of them into three-way coalitions. More often, they have found themselves forming a relatively strong minority government with the centrists – sometimes even short-lived majorities.

Centre Bloc

Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney  (EPA-EFE)

The Centre Bloc began life as a group of mainstream Conservatives too disgusted by their party’s behaviour to stay, but too conservative to join either of the Democratic parties. Because they are a small group, their strategy is to shore themselves up in the (mostly safe) seats they hold and try to broker alliances and compromises where they can.

The centrists are celebrated by some progressives for their principled stand, but many on the left are less impressed, having not forgotten their long history in right-wing governments that they did not see fit to challenge. They remain conservative on many issues, particularly economics, and it is hard to envisage them signing up for a three-way governing coalition where the Socialists will have a serious influence.

The Conservatives

Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming (AFP via Getty Images)

This tendency used to be the Republican mainstream, particularly in the late 1990s and 2000s. At the basic level they are pro-business, prioritise national security, support military intervention, and balk at gun control. Their historic social conservatism has abated over the years as the country and the law have tended progressive.

When Trump came on the scene, the Conservatives first shunned him, but then failed to coalesce behind a candidate of their own. When Trump crossed the threshold to become the national right-wing candidate, it became clear that the Conservatives and America First stood a chance of forming a governing coalition, which they ultimately did.

But the Trump era has been hard on them. Many of their members were defeated by the right in 2016 and the left in 2018, and many have since begun gravitating left or right. Rising stars on the right that the Conservatives had hoped to coax into the fold are not yet ready to spurn the far right, while the party’s association with Trump makes it too toxic to win over even a few centrists.

America First

Trump supporters storm the US Capitol in his name (EPA-EFE)

America First is irreverent of expertise and science, particularly environmental science, and disdains so-called “identity politics” and the discourse of social justice. It mounts attacks on core democratic institutions and the so-called “deep state”, but has a relaxed attitude to the exercise of executive and judicial power to the extent they can be turned against political enemies.

Specific priorities aside, a key philosophical division between America First and the Conservatives is that America First’s priorities are defined negatively. Its leaders talk mainly about crushing their enemies, defeating other ideologies, and undermining or destroying state institutions that they see as obstructions to their goals.

At the darker end of the scale, some tendencies in the party openly embrace unvarnished racism and nativism, including white nationalist and antisemitic conspiracy theories. Some of its hardline elected members openly espouse conspiracy theories and endorse violent action against political adversaries, public figures and supporters of other parties.

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