Pundits often point to ideological extremism as a cause, if not the cause, of the dysfunction currently paralyzing our political system, especially as it manifests in the chambers of government in Washington, D.C. The ideological base, the party faithful now wield too much power, particularly in promoting the most extreme candidates in party primaries.
I would suggest, however, that it is not so much ideological extremism as the fact that our two-party system less and less reflects the genuine diversity of political ideas professed by various segments of the American population. Basically, we continue to try to fit square pegs into round holes. The pegs simply do not fit.
Probably the most discordant note playing in the current system is the attempt to contain social and economic conservatives within a single party, the Republican Party. While many social conservatives have come to embrace economic conservatism, the same cannot be said about the reverse situation. Many economic conservatives are social liberals and oppose government legislation on lifestyle issues, such as the continued criminalization of marijuana or the prohibition of gay marriage. Libertarian or Libertarian-leaning individuals do not make ideal partners for the largely Christian, and often evangelical, segment of the Republican Party. This is at least in part why Ron Paul generated great enthusiasm among a small and vocal group of followers but found it impossible to capture the Republican Party as a whole.
Within the Democratic Party, we have the clash between those, such as the Blue-Dog Democrats, who embrace centrism and those who claim the mantle of the "Democratic Wing" of the party. Further to the left are those who lean towards a European-style socialist democracy. And there are plenty of people on both ends and across the political spectrum who do not feel comfortable belonging to either major party. The growing number and percentage of self-identified Independents demonstrates this.
In brief, our Two-Party System is something of an anachronism and does not match our ideological diversity. What we ought to do is scrap this system and replace it with one consisting of four major parties. Even this will not cover all Americans, but it will certainly encompass more of us and within a more rational framework.
For what might these four major parties stand? I would argue that a sensible division would include a Libertarian Party, a Social Conservative Party, a Liberal-Left Party, and a Centrist Party.
A Libertarian Party would attract those Americans who embrace both economic conservatism and social liberalism; although the Libertarian voice has become stronger in recent years, this has not translated into widespread electoral success.
A Social Conservative Party would be a comfortable home for the many religious conservatives who do think the government should play an active role in areas of social and individual behavior.
A Liberal-Left Party would attract a sizeable group of individuals who think the Democratic Party leans too often to the center. They see someone like President Obama not as a Socialist, but rather as a moderate who compromises too easily with the Republicans. Such a political party would also attract religious liberals, who think government should be active on social and economic issues, such as poverty and homelessness.
Finally, a Centrist Party would capture a broad segment of the population, from conservative Democrats to the dying breed of liberal Republicans, and probably many alienated citizens who now call themselves Independents. New York Times columnist David Brooks might be a champion of such a party, where people would see government as capable of doing good, but within carefully drawn limits.
There are two serious problems with this proposal.
First, it is a wacky, impossible idea. And yet, is the current system not even wackier? Does its growing dysfunction not demonstrate that it is becoming impossible? A four-party system will be possible if some courageous political leaders take steps to break away from the current system to form these parties. There is political risk involved, but what of political courage if all fear even to make an attempt?
Secondly, our current winner-takes-all approach to elections will not fit well with a four-party structure. We would need to implement and experiment with alternate approaches, to make our political system more representative. Imagine, for example, statewide elections for the House of Representatives and State Legislatures, where seats are allocated according to the portion of votes received by each party. In this way, the scourge of partisan gerrymandering could be removed, and our elected officials would represent a broader variety of viewpoints.
Critics might worry that a multi-party system of this sort would lead to a greater instability more characteristic of parliamentary systems. And yet, this risk might reap much more productive government compared with the wonderfully stable gridlock we have now.