End of the two-party system? Not likely.

Feb 27, 2018

Last weekend, Ohio Governor John Kasich became the latest to say it: “We may be beginning to see the end of a two-party system,” he said on an ABC public affairs program, adding

“I’m starting to wonder if we are going to see a multi-party system at some point … because I don’t think either party is answering people’s deepest concerns and needs.”

Those remarks might have been self-serving. Kasich, who two decades ago was seen as just another conservative congressman, has become the symbol of a supposed moderate Republican Party, or at least a rational and sane alternative to what we have now.

There’s been talk of Kasich running an independent campaign for President with Colorado Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper as his running mate.

Well, he’s far from the first political figure to predict the demise of the two-party system, and he’s been around a long time. He was an investment banker before serving many years in Congress. But when it comes to the two-party system, he’s almost certainly wrong.

And here’s why. Now, I think it’s entirely possible we could have an independent candidate elected president in our lifetimes. We nearly did so in 1992, when for a while, H. Ross Perot led both major party candidates, and might well have won except for some extremely erratic behavior, including getting out of the race entirely for a time.

But here is what would happen the day after an independent were elected President – or for that matter, Governor of Michigan. They would immediately have to affiliate with one of the two major parties. An independent President Kasich would face a Congress with 535 members, all but two of whom are Republicans or Democrats.

Without the support of a major party, his chances of getting any program enacted would be pretty close to absolute zero. This would be even truer in Lansing, where there’s a distinct feeling that if one party said the sky was blue, the opposition would immediately oppose this.

The reason third parties are effectively shut out has to do with our system, which has evolved so that we think in dualistic terms; we have one party in power, and another opposing them, and every few years they switch. We have no history of multi-party coalitions, as in Europe.

Changing this would take billions of dollars, and almost certainly decades.

Someone would have to create a new party and then work patiently to get its members elected to office at the state, local and congressional level. If it did meet with some success, the temptation would soon be overwhelming to merge with one of the two major parties, perhaps in return for the major party changing its platform on the key issue or issues that mattered most to the insurgents.

Indeed, this is what has happened time and again throughout our history. The parties themselves have also changed. Sixty years ago, Vermont was the most Republican state in the union; Mississippi, totally Democratic. The opposite is now true.

American major parties are not especially ideological, though both now are more than they used to be. Kasich isn’t wrong about there being vast dissatisfaction with both parties. But capturing and transforming one has historically been the model for change.

And of course … someday I may be proven wrong.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.