Commentary: It's more than a two-party system


The problem with the American two-party system is it assumes all Americans can be placed in one of two parties.

We allow third parties to stick around for a while, mainly to give us something to speculate about between the political conventions and Labor Day. Then it’s Republican or Democrat.

It makes political life easier when we don’t have to bother with nuance. You either are or you are not. You are either like me or you are different. You either are worth listening to or you are not.

All is reinforced during elections when we hear mostly from the loudest voices on the left and right and assume they speak for half – give or take – of the voters.

And then we conclude that America is increasingly polarized.

But every few years the pollsters at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press take a closer look at the opinions and beliefs held by Americans and rediscover that we aren’t an either-or nation.

The U.S. is a collection of political subgroups – some that identify with familiar political parties and some that very pointedly do not. Elections aren’t contests between right and left. Winning candidates and winning parties, instead, are those who attract enough voters from these subgroups to make up a majority.

Once they win, each knows (or should know) they will eventually lose when enough voters in those subgroups shift back to the other party.

Want to play? Go to Pew’s website (people-press.org) and click on the article titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue.” Before you read it, take the quiz. You have to force yourself to pick between two statements when you might agree or disagree with both. Just pick the one that comes closest to how your feel. Take a look at our Political Buzz blog (blog.thenewstribune.com/politics) to see where others were placed.

From right to left, Pew designated this year’s groupings as Staunch Conservative (“Highly engaged Tea Party supporters”), Main Street Republicans (“Conservative on most issues”), Libertarians (“Free market, small government seculars”), Disaffecteds (“Downscale and cynical”), Post-Moderns (“Moderates, but liberal on social issues”), New Coalition Democrats (“Upbeat, majority-minority”), Hard-Pressed Democrats (“Religious, financially struggling”), Solid Liberals (“Across-the-board liberal positions”) and Bystanders (“Young, politically disengaged”).

Bystanders aren’t even registered to vote, so Pew spends little time with these mostly young, relatively poor Americans. Among the rest, no group holds more than 16 percent of voters. To get to a majority, therefore, parties have to mobilize those inclined to support them and then fight over the growing number of independents (libertarians, disaffected and post-moderns).

“For political leaders in both parties, the challenge is not only one of appeasing ideological and moderate ‘wings’ within their coalitions,” Pew concluded, “but rather holding together remarkably disparate groups, many of whom have strong disagreements with core principles that have defined each party’s political character in recent years.”

It might just turn out, then, that in any year the candidate who attracts the most disaffecteds wins.

From its polling of more than 3,000 adults in February, March and April, Pew found these voters are cynical about government yet want more government help for the needy even if it moves the country deeper into debt.

And they move back and forth at elections, making up part of the Republican’s 2010 majority but being lackluster supporters of GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.

I find it a bit disturbing that the role of kingmaker should fall most heavily on those who are “highly critical of both government and business,” who “believe the country can’t solve many of its important problems,” are the least likely to have a passport and most likely to have a high school diploma or less.

I took the quiz and ended up in the Post-Modern category (though, in a different mood and on a different day I could have different answers to several of the questions).

Now I just need to figure out who the Post-Moderns are going to nominate next year.

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