The Democratic and Republican parties have dominated U.S. politics since the mid-1800s. In fact, since its founding, our nation has generally been divided by two major political parties. Third parties have occasionally fared well in state or local elections but always fall well short of success at the presidential level. (Think Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party or Ross Perot’s Reform Party.)
Interestingly, George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were among the founders who were skeptical of political parties, which they viewed as potentially destructive to the nation. History has proven their concerns to have been well-founded. However, the antecedent forces that underlie our political divisions (especially race and economics) would deter unity even in the absence of parties. Indeed, one could argue that strong political parties (occasionally) have acted as a check on extreme behaviors.
In any case, divisions in the two parties have reached a boiling point. What was once a lunatic fringe has taken the Republican Party hostage — though the party left the proverbial door unlocked. Meanwhile, an understandably impatient faction of progressives is demanding that the Biden administration vigorously attack structural racism. (There are, of course, factions that represent myriad other interests. They are vocally pushing for change, too.)
I should note that there are differences between what is transpiring in each party. For example, the far left is much less influential among Democrats than the far right is among Republicans. That is the reason that Joe Biden, a centrist, became the Democrats’ nominee over Bernie Sanders. Conversely, the Republican Party is beholden to a man who lost the popular vote twice, was impeached twice and likely cost them control of the Senate. Further, that party embraces racist, conspiratorial seditionists who openly flout democracy. In short, Democrats are at odds based on principled calls for racial and other forms of equity; Republicans are splintering because white nationalism is being challenged as never before. But what if the disintegration of the two parties is just the beginning?
The U.S. could be heading toward the rise of a parliamentary government. In the not-too-distant past, Republicans pretended to lament “balkanization” in America — even as they stoked the fires of division. Today, the intensity that attends various political perspectives might lead people to conclude that a two-party system just doesn’t work for them. Large swaths of disaffected Democrats and Republicans could start organizing around highly focused interests. That is, in a nutshell, how parliamentary forms of government work.
A creation of the British, a parliament is a form of democracy in which a political party (or a group of parties) that has the most support forms a government. In this form of government, the legislature is called a “parliament.” (For the record, this has nothing to do with George Clinton.) The head of that party or coalition is called the prime minister or chancellor. The prime minister appoints people to a cabinet, just as the president does in the U.S. Opposition parties continue to fight for their interests even though they’re not in power. Prime ministers can be removed from power whenever they lose the confidence of a majority of the ruling party or of the parliament. Coalitions, then, are a constant threat to the stability of government in parliamentary systems.
Interestingly, the U.S., which was a colony under a British king, has a constitutional republic with a powerful executive (i.e., president). The president is, generally, less susceptible to the will of Congress than the British prime minister is to his or her party or the parliament at large. Thus, our government is closer to a monarchy than is Britain’s parliament.
To be clear, I doubt that we’ll choose to make the most fundamental change to our form of government in the nation’s history. However, the challenge of factionalism is very real. If I were to offer a prediction, it would be that the Republican Party is going to formally split in the next two years. As it stands, the 2024 Republican nominee will be Donald Trump or one of his loyal supporters. That is anathema to 10-15% of Republicans, which will lead to a split. Unfortunately, Democrats have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. We’ll see if they manage to maintain their sanity by staying together.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.