The Breakdown of the American Two-Party System

Trump’s hyper-nationalist propaganda strikes a cultural chord steeped in the myth that capitalism is the economic bulwark of freedom. Yet reality is not as malleable as myth. In fact, capitalism has led to unsustainable economic and social inequalities as well as the degradation of ecosystems and global warming. Faced with these crises, the U.S. two-party system is politically bankrupt, its instability marked by raw political nerves, belligerence and elected office-holding obsession by Washington’s power brokers.

The Republican Party is in a corner. The party is pleased that Trump has reduced corporate taxes and taxes on wealthy Americans as well as deregulated corporate behavior and weakened environmental protections. While many Republican Party leaders and Wall Street executives may be concerned with Trump’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric and obsession with trade wars, they seem very satisfied with the gains the president has handed to them.

And, now, Republican leaders want to cut social programs to balance the budget that the party’s tax policies helped worsen. But the future of Republicans is bleak. Trump has effectively hijacked the Republican Party and many Republicans are concerned that the Faustian bargain they have struck with the president may ultimately weaken their party. They can only hope that multiple Democratic candidates and raucous Democratic in-fighting will divide them and allow Republicans to keep control of the House and Senate and win the presidency in 2020.

Indeed, the Democratic Party is splitting. As the corporate class and the wealthiest dig in under Trump, the Democrats seem alternately flummoxed and impotent. Since the late 1980s the party has moved rightward and been effectively relegated to a “loyal opposition” role by emerging populist politics. The party’s weakness is obvious: it offers no clear alternative political vision. Democratic leaders speak only in generalities about important issues including health care, minimum wage, regressive taxes, military expenditures and others. Mainstream news reporters and analysts often wonder where the Democratic leadership is in these politically tumultuous times.

The Democratic national platform may specify goals but the party leaders are not willing to speak out about specific political alternatives. They fear alienating independent and fringe voters. They are particularly sensitive to being seen as “tax-and-spend liberals,” as purveyors of “creeping socialism,” as “soft on violent crime,” or as “welcoming immigrants.” As the Democrats did in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party hides and waits for Trump to shoot himself in the foot. Its “progressive” leaders, moreover, struggle to get footing in superficial personality politics of Washington.

The time is ripe for a progressive third party to build a following. As the Democratic Party falters in finding its bearings and the Republican Party threatens to weaken social programs, young people are ready to pursue leftist alternatives. They do not fear socialism as many older voters do. The “anti-establishment” 2016 primary vote is a clear indication that the nation is ready for progressive politics. Trump, Cruz and Sanders (generally anti-establishment advocates) won approximately 27,000,000 primary votes while Clinton, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich (generally establishment advocates) won about 22,000,000 primary votes. This statistical comparison is even more compelling because both parties at the national level preferred establishment candidates over populist ones. That is, until Trump outmaneuvered the Republicans. Still, the Democratic Party was so harnessed to Clinton that it defeated its own populist candidate.

Savvy political strategists know that the history of capitalism is peppered with anti-democratic actions. Global capitalism has allowed an international corporate class to acquire tremendous political power across nations. Wealth has been concentrated to unprecedented levels. It is, furthermore, the principal marker indicating who controls the reins of government in any nation.  In the U.S., according to the New York Times, the richest 1 percent now controls more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans.

Yet it is the bottom 90 percent that holds over 70 percent of the private debt and is the most vulnerable to global economic volatility and to the massive storms, tide surges and wildfires accompanying climate change. Public regulation of wealth distribution and the health of ecosystems is the only way to manage these crises. Progressive Americans must get behind a third party with a strong left politic in order to appeal to those who have been most hurt by global capitalism. Only then, can the nation chart a more promising political course.

John Ripton writes political essays and research articles. He holds a Masters in International Affairs and PhD In History. John's work has been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and other publications in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Read other articles by John.