Don’t get Marla Thompson-Kendall started about America’s two-party political system.
“They’re both ineffective,” the Riverdale resident said of the Democratic and Republican parties. Although she’s voted for Democrats over the years, she remained open to what Republicans had to say and even came to appreciate some Republicans such as former president George W. Bush.
“He had Republican views but he wasn’t spiteful and vindictive or condescending. He just went in there and did the right thing for the most part for the people,” she said.
But now she’s losing patience with both parties.
“It’s just internal fighting. They come into office and say ‘I’m going to do everything I can do to make sure [the other party] doesn’t get their agenda across. Thompson-Kendall, an adjunct business professor at Life University, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “There needs to be a bridge-building kind of system because right now there’s a major disconnect.”
Thompson-Kendall thinks a third party could be the solution. “I’m all for it – because in the past 10 years we haven’t gotten anything done,” she said.
Thompson-Kendall isn’t alone in her frustration with today’s polarized political landscape. Fewer Americans are aligning with either Democrats or Republicans. In fact, a December 2020 Gallup Poll found that only 31% identified as Democrats and 25% as Republicans, while 41% considered themselves independent. What’s more, a majority of Americans – six in 10 – want a third party option, a separate Gallup Poll showed.
The two-party system has dominated American politics for most of the nation’s existence, enduring through wars, civil, and societal upheaval. But lately, American politics have been paralyzed by legislative logjams, political extremism, racial strife, and a recalcitrant ex-president still refusing to acknowledge his 2020 election loss, sparking the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The divide is only growing between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, foreign affairs, and plenty of other issues, according to Pew Research Center’s studies over the past few years.
While lawmakers nationally and locally continue to lock horns, many Americans are tuning out. One in four are “politically disengaged,” and nearly 70% are distrustful and disillusioned with politics, falling in the “exhausted majority,” according to a report looking at the polarized political landscape during the Trump administration from More in Common, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which promotes finding common ground among voters.
With public support for a third party at an all-time high, is the two-party system still viable, despite over 150 years of dominance?
Even with all of its current flaws, America’s two-party system is not going away anytime soon, says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, who’s written about American politics for over 50 years.
“If you want stability, the two-party system is going to promote that,” Bullock told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Multi-party systems give voters a much wider range of choices, but they have their own problems, Bullock said, pointing to Israel and the Netherlands.“There’ve been examples in Holland where it’s taken more than a year after the election to figure out who’s [running] the government.”
With as many as 14 competing parties, ”nobody comes anywhere close to getting a majority,” Bullock explained. ”Once the election is over, you don’t really know who’s going to be governing the country, he said. Instead, the different factions must start negotiating “to see if they can somehow stitch together an agreement among various parties to get to a 50% majority of the legislature.”
But Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde isn’t counting out a multi-party system for the United States, because of the strong voter dissatisfaction for the two-party one. Mudde is an expert on European politics, particularly populism and political extremism in Western democracies.
“Very few of the more established [European] democracies have two-party systems, as very few countries have a first-past-the-post electoral system like the United States,” where the winner is chosen by a simple majority, Mudde, a professor in the School of Public & International Affairs at University of Georgia, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
The U.K. is one of the few that do, but its two-party system also has attracted many opponents, Mudde said. Its biggest advantage is that it’s easy to understand since the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, he added. “It also tends to produce clear winners and losers, which many people also like and understand.”
While U.S. elections generally produce clear winners and losers, the two-party system still is leaving many voters unhappy.
“A very large percentage of people are not represented – at times even majorities – which is less often the case in multiparty systems,” Mudde said. “International research has shown that, on average, people in two-party systems are less satisfied with their democracy than those in multiparty systems.”
Despite the appetite among voters, creating a path for third-party candidates faces daunting odds, especially in Georgia which has the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the country, particularly for local Congressional races.
Last month, the Libertarian Party of Georgia asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to re-hear its challenge to a state law that has prevented a third-party candidate from getting on the ballot for a U.S. House seat for over 80 years.
“Voters in Georgia and elsewhere ought to be free to vote for people who are not in the two major parties if they so choose,” the Libertarian’s lawyer, Brian Sells, told Atlanta Civic Circle. But, Sells said, “the rules are made by the Democratic and Republican parties–and most politicians I’ve ever known preferred not to have competition.”
Libertarian candidate Angela Pence is putting Georgia’s ballot-access law to the test, running for the 14th Congressional District seat against Marjorie Taylor-Greene, the polarizing Republican incumbent. But it’s a long shot. Pence must collect 23,000 voter signatures for her name even to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“We have a plan in place. It’s daunting,” Pence told Atlanta Civic Circle.
What will it take to break the current political impasse? Bullock thinks it could take a crisis to convince enough political leaders they need to “join hands for the good of the country Leadership will say it’s better for each side to get half the loaf rather than nothing.”
Meanwhile, Thompson-Kendall says she’ll continue to vote for “the person who represents my interests. If that’s a Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter.”
Lately, that’s been Democrats, she added. “Republicans used to have concrete goals that made sense, but now they’re all [for] Trump.”
Thompson-Kendall also said she’d like to see term limits instituted in Congress and more mentoring and coaching to prepare new candidates. “People don’t need to be running for office forever and staying in those offices until they die,” she said. “I’d like to see some new blood come in with some fresh ideas because what we did in 1924 is not what we should be doing today.”
“People don’t need to be running for office forever and staying in those offices until they die,” she said. “I’d like to see some new fresh blood come in with some fresh ideas because what we did in 1924 is not what we should be doing today.”
As for moving beyond the current political chasm?
“I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “The only way we’re going to be able to do it is if we get out and vote. We have to vote those people out of office who are not doing what we need them to do.”
What can be done to address America’s entrenched political divide?
Read what one Time magazine columnist suggests here.
Read what two top experts on democracy, conflict, and governance have to say here.