Our Political Umbrella Must Stay Open

Third party movements have never been successful in American politics, save once with Teddy Roosevelt as the candidate. We’ve had some qualified (John Anderson) and interesting (Ross Perot) folks who’ve made the attempt, but none since TR who’ve succeeded. There’s a reason. In the “way back” of forming this beloved nation of ours, the founders had some fears. One was of democracy itself.

All men who had experienced the excesses of “democratic” rebellion and revolution, heads on spikes and the like, most of these men wanted a system that had some markers around it. They didn’t want a system that allowed for what we’ve seen so much of around the world, in the past few years, riots in the streets in the name of one thing or another no matter how worthy that thing might be. They wanted a system that would absorb as many of the shocks as possible, one that would have built into it as much shock absorbing as possible. To many of our founders, those who stood in the Madisonian camp, the Arab Spring, the street demonstrations so common in Latin America, Africa, even France, would be seen as abhorrent.

As if by oversight, there is no mention in the Constitution of political parties. In the early goings there were a few more than two, but one thing the leaders on both sides agreed with was that too many could be upsetting to the democratic apple cart. As decades accumulated political expression seemed to be corralled into two voices, sometimes sharp and distinct, sometimes not so much, until by the mid-1800’s we had Republicans and Democrats. Political scientists call this an “umbrella” system. 

In such a system the disparate voices of left, right, and center that coalesced under a set of guiding economic and political principles became a party. These disparate voices huddled under one of two umbrellas. They battled it out at local, state, and national conventions, wrote a platform and ran on it–mostly. Oh there were disagreements aplenty, even an occasional fist fight or use of a real umbrella as a weapon, but no shoe banging or throwing near as I know.

There were two keys to the success of the system. One was the agreement that consensus would rule. Up until recently with the rise of the Tea Party, but for the Dixiecrat movement, it did. And interestingly enough in both cases no new party structure was formed. The Dixiecrats became Republicans changing the colors of the southern states on the political map from blue to red. The other was the Electoral College, about which we’ll talk later in the campaign.

Our Founding Fathers created a Republic, not a Democracy. The European’s chose a different route. They created parliamentary democracies. Using American terms, this would mean that parties would need to meet a threshold of 3-5% of the vote to gain a seat in Congress. There could be a dozen or dozens of parties. You think things are fractious now…..? Additionally the face of politics would change. The parliamentary system has begun to produce seated members of Neo-Nazi, dangerously nationalistic, and dedicated single interest issue-oriented platforms. Two examples, one harmless and one not so much. In Italy a prostitute who for lack of campaign money often rode the roads in a car with her political placard on it all the while driving topless. Her issue was rights for her fellow women of the night. She was elected. In Israel, the religious parties have a strangle hold on the government causing it to take positions not representative of the population as a whole, positions that often-times cause Israel to be reviled by the world at large.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have brought us, if not to the edge of a political cliff, at least to being able to see it.Trump has energized, maybe by luck, maybe by intuition, the angriest amongst us on the right. Sanders has drawn the Democrats far left, if not as far as he’d like to go. The misfortune is that Clinton, who is far more conservative than Sanders, and even President Obama, has been forced to move far enough left of center that she can be handily mislabeled as a “liberal.”

Normally stuff like this is worked out before the convention and in the platform committee. This time I think we face conventions that will more resemble Chicago in 1960 (look it up…) or Venezuela on most any day of the year. If we do as adults to our parties what as children we did to Bonamo’s Turkish Taffy, smash them to pieces, we will end up with a European Multi-party Democracy. With the changing demographics of this nation, could that be the opening to South American style multi-party democracy?

If it is, that “ain’t” good–at least from my perspective.



One thought on “Our Political Umbrella Must Stay Open

  1. A poignant, powerful perspective on the reality that ours indeed is a system (and while the writer is too kind to say it) of where the by-choice-informed lead the by-choice-ignorant…..and with now the Internet giving the latter the banner of anonymity with which to celebrate that ignorance– and attract candidates to appeal to the narrow, rather than cherish the wide. Let’s hope our grandchildren are still around to discuss the difference


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