That noise you hear could be the sound of the American two-party system coming apart at the seams. It probably won’t happen this year or the next, but the signs are unmistakable.
What has become evident is that the supposed “big tents” touted by Republicans and Democrats are no longer big enough.
Not so long ago, the membership in Congress was as white as Antarctica in winter — white, middle-aged to elderly, and mostly well-to-do. The occasional Shirley Chisholms were invariably lost among all those Caucasians.
Over the past decade, however, the diversity in Congress has been catching up with America’s growing diversity at large. Suddenly, a new breed of legislator has stormed the barricades of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and philosophy. As a result, we now have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kevin McCarthy struggling to co-exist as tentmates.
A lot of this new discord is coming from new members, ranging from Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman to Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The message once handed down to Congressional freshmen was short and to the point: “Sit down, shut up, and let your elders do the talking.” But that was before the advent of social media, and Donald Trump wasn’t the only politician to discover Twitter. Often, new members now arrive in Washington with hundreds of thousands of social media followers nationwide.
So while party leaders were once able to keep a lid on the more outrageous proclamations from their membership, we’ve now reached a point where anyone can say anything at any time. Thus, fundamental disagreements that were once aired behind closed doors are now out in the open. The strain is showing on both parties.
In just four years, Trump managed to accomplish what Nixon’s southern strategy and the Tea Party’s arrival failed to bring about, driving a wedge through the Republican ranks. True, the party held together long enough to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial. Still, many members didn’t seem very happy about it (perhaps because the Democrats kept reminding them that they, too had been at risk back on Jan. 6).
The question here is which way a schism might occur. Will those opposed to Trumpism break ranks to form their own party, or will the Trumpists decide to go it on their own? Right now, the latter are very much in the majority, but that could change if Trump’s influence wanes over time.
Meanwhile, the feisty young progressives in the Democratic ranks are growing impatient with their party’s leaders’ measured pace. Nor can these individuals be dismissed as outliers — the party’s Progressive Caucus currently has 100 members in the House, several of whom were prominent among the “managers” of the recent Trump trial. (And, it should be added, just Bernie Sanders in the Senate).
At this point, it is easy to identify four actual political affiliations in Congress — Democrats, Progressives, mainstream Republicans, and what the others might call the Patriot Party. But what is “mainstream” for the Republicans anymore? And what side would liberal senators like Tim Kaine choose if their party were to split asunder?
It is not that unusual for Congress members to switch parties — several southern Democrats turned Republican during the civil rights years, for example. The risk here is that a substantial number of voters might feel betrayed if the person they elected on the basis of party changes sides.
Other House and Senate members have decided to become independents, like Angus King, but they usually caucus with their former party. The current upheaval could lead to something very different, and it raises a host of questions.
Could a new party be created on the fly? Could 50 Democrats stand up tomorrow and announce: “As of today, we are now members of the Progressive Party”?
The obstacles to this would not be legal, but rather the deeply engrained ground rules set down long ago by Congress. Would such a move destroy the Democrats’ majority in the House and Senate, or could these newly minted Progressives continue to caucus as Democrats until the next national election? What about committee positions?
Certainly, the Electoral College as it is currently constructed would be a barrier to forming any new parties, but only in presidential election years. Moreover, all that would be required to fix that would be to change the format so that electoral votes would be counted on a percentage basis rather than winner-take-all. It would also become necessary to open the presidential debates to new parties that have demonstrated national viability.
When you think about it, this country is simply too diverse for two parties. Alabama is nothing like Maine, while New York is nothing like Wyoming. And because these “red” and “blue” regions tend to elect representatives with very different views on many issues, today’s members seem to spend more time arguing with their Congressional colleagues than conducting the nation’s business.
An expansion in political parties could provide a safety valve, enabling Progressives or Trumpists to debate hot-button topics such as climate change or gun laws within their own ranks, rather than needing to convince an entire “big tent.” Then, coalitions would have to be formed and compromises made — something all too rare in today’s polarized “either/or” setup. No longer could one party claim an issue as its own.
To avoid too much fragmentation (some European democracies have as many as a dozen parties), perhaps the Progressives could include elements of the Green Party and conservative Republicans could welcome Libertarians. Or, those two parties could be included in the mix, making six.
All of this would almost certainly energize the general political climate. Right now, a lot of registered Democrats and Republicans feel as though they are out of step with their party of choice. With multiple parties, almost everyone could find a good fit.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."