“This is the most confusing presidential election in my memory,” a young friend of mine said to me the other day. And yes, at first glance, things seem quite unusual, even for a year when both parties are having competitive primaries. After all, neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders, who are each doing remarkably well right now in their respective bids for the Republican and Democratic nominations, seem at home inside those parties.
Trump is a nominal Republican who was just forced to sign a pledge to back the Republican nominee (in the event it isn’t him), and the GOP establishment has to hope that he still doesn’t bolt to run as an independent. And Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Senate Democrats but who styles himself a “democratic socialist.” Given the Democratic party’s long-standing support for the “free enterprise system” and the role it played in the last few decades of the 20th century helping deregulate major industries like banking, trucking and the airlines, Sanders’ bid for its nomination certainly seems more than a little incongruous.
But here’s what’s actually going on. There are actually four parties in American politics: two that dominate the news, and two shadow parties that lurk on their edges. Most of the time the four party system is hard to see, because the two smaller parties have very few elected officeholders and the big two benefit in all kinds of ways from artificial rigging that keeps the smaller ones from gaining more attention. But right now the popularity of Trump and Sanders is making the hidden a bit more visible, and it makes me wonder: What if we had a more open and competitive system? And where do those of us who want a more effective and efficient government fit in?
The two dominant parties are obviously the Rs and the Ds, and as long as big money controls who can run a viable campaign for major office, these two will act as a mutually-reinforcing duopoly. (If you don’t think it’s a duopoly, consider these two facts: most candidates for the House of Representatives run without a financially viable challenger, meaning they have 10 times or more their opponent’s funding. In 2012, 40% of all state legislative seats went unopposed.)
Of the two dominant parties, one, the Republicans, is dominated by big money donors in alliance with older “values voters” who care mostly about social issues like gun rights, banning abortion, and maintaining the traditional patriarchal family. The other party, the Democrats, is dominated by big money donors in alliance with younger “rising electorate” voters who care mostly about gay rights, women’s health, and social tolerance. Both of these parties care about governing, because that’s where the spoils of the system rest. Corporate Republicans seek the spoils in tax breaks for the rich and connected, plus heavy defense spending. Corporate Democrats seek the spoils in providing social benefits to the elderly and the poor, plus heavy defense spending.
The sources of their money vary somewhat — the Republicans are favored more heavily by the energy and defense sectors, for example; the Democrats by the tech sector and trial lawyers. Finance, insurance and real estate used to bet more or less evenly on both sides, but that’s tilted more to the Rs of late. Despite their apparent differences, sometimes the two parties’ corporate wings act in alliance, uniting on such issues as bailing out the banking system, free trade deals, preserving tax loopholes for the rich, expanded funding for the military-industrial-national-security-prison complex, and war.
Waiting in the Shadows
The shadow parties are quirkier. The right’s shadow party has been quite visible in recent years, under the banner of the Tea Party movement. It’s riled up about “illegal immigrants,” hates Obama and is terrified that America is no longer a white, Christian country. But it’s not a unified bloc: it includes libertarians like Rand Paul who question the NSA and America’s foreign empire as well as evangelicals like Mike Huckabee who really think the Bible is literal gospel and God chose America to rule the world.
The left’s shadow party last bubbled to the surface during the heyday of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and at its best it has powered social and economic justice campaigns like the fight for a $15 minimum wage or the Dreamer movement for immigration reform. In some states like New York this shadow party has gained some traction in the form of the Working Families Party, taking advantage of laws that allow cross-endorsement between parties. But it’s also not a unified bloc: divisions over how to prioritize issues of race, gender and class keep arising. The recent flash-points between Bernie Sanders’ supporters and BlackLivesMatter activists are just a recent example of that dynamic.
A side comment: I suspect that there’s a fifth party in the wings that might be called the GSD Party, or the Getting — it Done Party. It’s almost completely invisible because nearly all of its core members are legally prevented from partisan political activities. But it’s the people who actually make sure our places work and the important stuff gets done: teachers, cops, firefighters, health workers, soldiers, and civil servants, plus the million-or-so people active in the civic renewal movement (per Peter Levine’s great book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For), plus the civic hackers working on local/city/state/federal better government. Some of these people are dependent on foundations or work for 501c3 organizations, which keeps them from being explicitly political (imagine if we got rid of that stupid part of the tax code).
These old-fashioned doers and new-tech “peer progressives,” to use Steven Johnson’s term, aren’t are not very political, either because they are stuck inside broken systems or, if they’re younger or luckier, because they are routing around those broken systems. But they don’t quite fit anywhere on the four-party landscape because what they represent isn’t big government or small government but effective government, and we-government. In 2012, the question of who might be our first “tech President” briefly surfaced as a way of talking about the candidates’ positions on Getting — it Done, but so far in the 2016 cycle, it looks like that topic has been eclipsed.
One interesting aspect of our invisible four-party system is that occasionally the two shadow parties make for strange but effective bedfellows. Thus it was Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul who led the push in the House of Representatives to make the Federal Reserve somewhat more transparent in its proceedings; the two sides had different reasons for wanting to challenge the Fed but a common path to achieving their goal. Likewise the anti-war left and the isolationist right sometimes find common cause in blocking presidential adventurism overseas (see Obama’s threat to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons, most recently).
The Silly Season and Social Media
In quote-unquote normal times, the presidential nomination process has generally flowed inside the two main channels of the Republican and Democratic parties, with representatives of the shadow parties occasionally running strong challenges to each major party mainstream. Over the years, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern. Right about this stage in the process — about a nine to fifteen months before the actual election — is when the dominant parties often appear weakest and real or would-be mavericks pop up.
Sometimes this happens because the mainstream media spins up a putative candidacy — think of the bubble for Colin Powell in 1995, the silly season in 1999 when every from then Republican Senator Robert Smith to Patrick Buchanan, Cybil Shepherd and, yes, Donald Trump let their names be floated, or the Unity ’08 effort to woo Mike Bloomberg into running.
And sometimes it happens with real candidates running inside the major party mainstreams but trying to break out of their boundaries. Think of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, or Ron Paul in 2008.
In this context, the only things that are new about Trump and Sanders is just how far the boundaries seem to be stretching. Because Trump is a billionaire and a celebrity (and a social media rock star to boot), he seems to be immune to the usual pressure the Republican party’s big money wing places on its candidates to toe the line on economic issues. Thus in addition to viciously baiting immigrants and women, he’s also a staunch defender of government programs Republican elites dislike, like Social Security and Medicare, but that much of the Republican base relies on. He’s even open to raising taxes on the mega-wealthy and hedge fund poobahs! How unlikely. (Or rather, how revealing this is of what the the Tea Party base cares most about: keeping government benefits for themselves, and keeping “undeserving” people like immigrants or people of color from getting them.)
Likewise, because Sanders is a long-serving member of Congress and because the Internet enables small-donor fundraising for popular outliers, it’s been much harder for the corporate media to marginalize him the way it treated past progressive challengers like Jesse Jackson. He too has made maximum use of social media, going back to his years in the Senate as a star on Facebook, and he too seems immune to the gravitational pull of big money inside the Democratic party.
Where will this all end up? In all likelihood, the stronger poles will defeat the weaker ones, and Trump and Sanders will fade once the big, expensive primaries start coming and the field gets winnowed. I think Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are still the favorites to win, respectively, though I wouldn’t rule out each of them being supplanted by a slightly fresher face (Rubio? Biden?). There’s no chance that Sanders will bolt to run as an independent, and little chance Trump will — unlike our last billionaire independent to run for president, Ross Perot, Trump’s race-baiting has made him radioactive to moderate independent-style voters and he must know that his odds of winning a three-way race as the candidate of the racist right aren’t very good. And Trump hates losers.
But imagine for one moment if the two-party duopoly were abolished, and we had a four-party system: the Trump Tea Party, the big business Republican Party, the technocratic liberal Democratic Party, and a Sanders Socialist Democratic (or “Working Families”) party. Imagine if we let these parties “cross-endorse” or “fuse” with each others’ candidates while maintaining their own ballot lines and identities (as used to be the case until the late 1800s in America); imagine if we adopted proportional representation (like we used to have in many cities, including NY) or instant-runoff or ranked-choice voting; imagine if we included all ballot-qualified candidates in TV debates; imagine if we had non-partisan redistricting commissions that ended the practice of gerrymandering; imagine an end to expensive ballot petitioning requirements for getting on the ballot that so hinder new and minor parties; imagine giving candidates who demonstrate a baseline level of support with a large number of small donations enough public matching funds so they could run viable campaigns without having to beg big dollars from the rich. (Imagine if more of the great civic hackers and organizations now working on upgrading government service delivery put their minds to upgrading our systems of representation.) Imagine, most importantly, not just an independent maverick winning for president under these conditions but dozens of them also in Congress.
I bet politics in America would be a whole lot more invigorating and we’d be seeing all kinds of surprising coalitions form, and we’d have a much more free-wheeling set of debates underway about actually solving our country’s problems instead of the hand-sitting and finger-pointing that our incumbent representatives are so good at. Sure, the Trumpists would have a share of power, but so would the Socialists, and I bet we’d see a lot more Getting — it Done, too. The two-party duopoly doesn’t just deliver stability, it also chokes off possibility and makes innovation in government harder because it skews incentives and makes it easier to blame others for failure than to risk success.
So while I know it’s just a fantasy, I can’t help wishing that Trump and Sanders stopped pretending to be things they aren’t. Let them both go independent at the same time, and let’s see what America really wants for its future.