by Matthew Hunter
We have a two-party system. Fans of this system say it gives us the benefits of an antagonistic system without the relentless coalition-building that often seems to force foreign nations (with stronger minor parties) into crisis when conditions change. Opponents say that it denies third parties a significant voice in the government of their nation.
Both are correct; the two party system acts to mute dissent and provides the illusion of broad consensus around the party positions. But increasingly, the two-party system is providing another illusion: an illusion of conflict.
As originally intended, our nation’s government could be best characterized as obstructionist. For a law to be valid, it was required to pass through the House of Representatives, and thus gain the approval of the people; then it would pass through the Senate, and thus gain the approval of the state governments; then the President himself would be asked to sign the bill, and he also has the power to block it unilaterally, representing the interests of those who would be required to enforce the law. If a law is passed and signed following that procedure, it must still be enforced by the court system, which can declare it unConstitutional, and by the people individually in each case (in the form of a jury).
The two-party system is an unofficial echo of this theme. A functioning two-party democratic system ensures that the two parties remain approximately equal in strength; the parties themselves act as coalition builders. This approximate equality has consequences in the resulting government. Representative bodies (the House and the Senate) will tend to be closely matched between the parties; as elections are also spread out over time, it will be difficult for a single party to gain control of both legislative bodies. Changes are gradual, with ample time for a party that finds itself losing ground to change strategies and recover. The Presidential race drives the parties further to the center, as they need votes from more than just their own committed party activists.
In theory, the minority party will still be strong enough to put up effective resistance and threaten to take back control from the majority party. The majority is thus encouraged to pay attention to the views of the other side, as they risk strengthening the minority party should they abuse their present position.
In practice, the results have been somewhat different. Unusual situations, such as the Great Depression and the Civil War, have produced great change in our nation; invariably these changes have been in the direction of more and more powerful central government. Once the extraordinary situations have passed, the new balance of power is preserved as if it was the original. Thus, the great barriers to change set in place by the founding fathers to preserve liberty have been perverted to preserve oppression. And public opinion has shifted, too; no longer do we have angry mobs up in arms about taxation, despite the fact that the Stamp Act (which prompted the Boston Tea Party by imposing certain taxes) provided for far smaller levels of taxation than currently exist.
That’s bad enough to be more than a little depressing for liberty advocates. But it gets worse.
Common wisdom says that the Democratic Party advocates for the First Amendment and other civil liberties issues. The Republican Party advocates for the Second Amendment and economic liberty issues. This neatly divides the liberty-oriented voters in half. The implicit assumption is that you can’t support both free speech and free access to arms; you must pick one or the other when you vote. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s a powerfully effective one, and the major parties actively encourage it.
This strategy, when used militarily, is termed “divide and conquer”; if you can split your enemy into separate forces, then you can bring your own forces against the pieces separately rather than facing the entire, unified force. It’s a little startling to see such a strategy being used by both the political parties, in unison, against the cause of liberty — and it is enlightening, too.
Imagine a boxing match with three people in the ring: the two contenders, and the referee. The idea is for the two contenders to duke it out, and the referee decides who wins (in a political boxing match, the only analogies to a knockout are both rare and unpleasant). The referee is also supposed to enforce the rules of the game, so that the final result can be considered a fair one.
Now, anyone who’s actually watched a boxing match knows that sometimes the referee has to get in between the boxers and separate them. Normally that happens when they are clinched, too close to punch, but sometimes they are still punching when the referee has to interpose himself. The boxers aren’t supposed to hit the referee, but sometimes it happens. This is usually an accident and really isn’t worth worrying about, but there are rules against it; those rules prevent the boxers from threatening the referee. When both boxers are relatively decent and honorable folk, it works well, and the only injuries are all in the name of the sport.
But what would you think if you watched a boxing match where the boxers displayed casual indifference to the referee’s rules? Most of the time they pretended to follow the rules, but not very carefully or very closely. Maybe you rarely saw a boxing tournament without some serious violations of the rules, and you knew that the rules had been changed repeatedly to allow the boxers less and less freedom to hit each other, but more and more freedom to hit the referee? Maybe you wouldn’t be surprised when you started to notice the referee getting much more of a pounding than you would attribute to chance.
If both boxers are attacking the referee, deliberately, than the referee can’t put a stop to it by declaring a winner because his opponent broke the rules. Maybe a referee in a boxing match could disqualify both boxers, but if the boxing match is an election, the result would be anarchy. That’s the problem the people of America are facing: we’re trying to referee a boxing match that we can’t win, since both boxers are giving our precious freedoms a legal pounding. What does it matter if the Republican Party only slugs the left side of our body, and the Democratic Party only slugs the right side? We’re getting pounded by both sides, and our whole body hurts.
Maybe it’s time the referee put on some gloves and started hitting back. That’s what the Libertarian party is all about: putting liberty back into the fight. Putting forth candidates and viewpoints that make a difference, that reduce the amount of government interface in the lives of honest citizens. Providing a candidate who isn’t attacking the people’s liberties at all, and delivering a few punches in the other direction while he’s at it.
That’s something the two major parties can’t do. They’ve neatly divided up the electorate while making a backroom deal to keep their hands off the other guy’s programs. To any career politician, government must always be grown, never shrunk; and the two major parties feel that in their bones, however their lips might move when they want your vote. The established power structure will never vote to reduce the power of government while they control a large portion of it. Instead, they trade off the role of boogeyman and savior.
They can play those roles until freedom is little more than a lost memory if we don’t stop them. And the only way to stop them is to upset their false dichotomy: vote for a third party. Voting for a write-in won’t ever add up to enough to matter, and not voting at all is as good as inviting both sides to abuse you; they don’t even have to pretend to protect you then.
So when you go to the polls this November, vote Libertarian. Land some punches of your own. It’s past time we stood up for ourselves.
Matthew builds websites by day and fights for liberty by night. Comments are welcome, and should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in Liberty For All May 21, 2004.