Partisan political system is inaccurate and counterproductive

By Benjamin Clabault

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Citizens will flood to public locations around the country Tuesday to continue the great American tradition of voting. As usual, they will pick between candidates of the same two political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans.

The two-party system has been such a constant feature of American government as to become the unquestioned norm. Politics, it seems, has always consisted in a ceaseless battle between the same two sides, uniformly divided into standardized sets of opinions. But it takes only a small amount of reflection to realize the absurdity in a system that requires citizens—if they want their vote to matter—to jump wholeheartedly into one ocean or the other.

The Republican Party, we’re told, in their 2012 platform, stands for smaller government. It opposes the “entitlement society” and seeks to provide “opportunities, not outcomes.” The Democrats, meanwhile, represent a more involved mode of government. They want to build an economy “from the middle class” with a commitment to “respect differences of perspective and belief” among Americans.

Unfortunately, the situation is much more complicated than this summation suggests. On a number of issues, the “small government versus big government” categorization of the parties does not seem to fit. Take the parties’ stance on drugs, for example. It was Republican President Richard Nixon that began the “war on drugs” and Republican Ronald Reagan that enlarged it, leading to incredible rates of mass incarceration. Democrats, meanwhile, have routinely advocated for drug policy reform and the decriminalization of marijuana.. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, in 2013, 59 percent of Democrats thought recreational marijuana use should be legal while 60 percent of Republicans believed it should be illegal.

But why would the Republican Party, champion of an unobtrusive government, want to intrude into the recreational habits of individuals? The anti-drug policy is a reflection of traditional conservative values. They want to protect the status quo, especially with regard to social issues. But, as with drugs and many other debates, their commitment to upholding their own traditional values clashes with their supposed “small government” principles.

These discrepancies in partisan politics are not surprising, given the increasingly complex identities of the parties. In their 2012 platform, the Democrats heralded the upcoming election as “not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties, but between two fundamentally different paths for our country and our families.” But does the making of our country’s future really consist of two divergent paths? It shouldn’t. As American voters, we should not have to choose between institutions with such hardened, uncompromising views.

Furthermore, the Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a standoff on most key issues, seemingly more interested in winning political battles than effectively running the country. This past congress has been famously derided as the “least productive in history,” with partisan politics to blame and the parties only seemingly moving farther away from each other.

The House of Representatives, for example, has become incredibly polarized through the efforts of state legislatures to “gerrymander” districts for favorable partisan outcomes. Dominant parties in a state can intentionally redraw the district lines to ensure that their party is guaranteed success in future elections, but by doing so create an environment that only encourages increased partisanship because of the enhanced importance of primary elections. Candidates know that they don’t have to compete or compromise with anyone on the other side, so instead they focus on defeating opponents from their own party, often by championing their ideological purity. Debates over which candidate is a “true Republican” or “true Democrat” distract from the actual issues and perpetuate unproductive discussion in the political sphere.

This country has been dominated by the same archaic political parties for too long. As Americans we need to understand all public policy decisions cannot possibly fit into such a neat ideological binary. The coming decades will likely bring unprecedented challenges, from rampant inequality to environmental concerns. It’s time for us to stop squabbling and meet these challenges with common sense and clarity.

Benjamin Clabault can be reached at [email protected]