Robert Gehrke: If we want to fix American politics, blow up the two-party system

President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Chang W. Lee/The New York)

President Joe Biden set the tone for his new administration last week seeking to reunite a divided country.

“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” he said, “and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

It was a noble, aspirational inauguration speech and a message this divided country needed to hear. But it won’t be easy, not in a political environment where for years Americans have been pushed into clans and fed resentment and mistrust.

Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska wrote a piece in The Atlantic last week about the reckoning the Republican Party is facing and the soul-searching and house-cleaning that needs to take place to set it in the right direction.

This assumes the Republican Party can be salvaged. It may be too late for that, and there’s another guy who shares that view: Recently unemployed Florida man Donald Trump.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump had discussed creating a new political party — the Patriot Party — as a refuge for his true believers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he’s out of office he comes up with an idea that makes sense. I say that not because it might blow up the Republican Party. I say it because the two-party system is the worst feature of modern American politics.

Our government is so hopelessly dysfunctional that facing a crisis of historic proportions, it took months to pass a COVID relief bill — and that’s just one example. But the larger problem is that the current party structure isn’t about governing at all. It’s about power and holding onto that power by creating a big enough tent.

It has reached a point, however, that in this push to be everything to everybody, the parties have lost any philosophical cohesion.

In what world can you have a Republican Party going forward that includes both Mitt Romney and the people who rampaged through the Capitol looking to take members of Congress hostage? And how does the average Republican feel represented by that party?

The Democrats have an identity crisis of their own, trying to hold together people like Ben McAdams and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

Trying to find a way for everyone to fit means nobody fits well, like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to cram their feet into ill-fitting slippers. It makes sense that nearly a third of Utah voters choose to not affiliate with either party. That number will continue to grow.

That’s because, as humans, we all have different experiences that inform different world views and beliefs. Things aren’t black-and-white, purely Democratic or Republican.

Maybe you are pro-life but believe in a liberal immigration policy and are a dyed-in-the-wool union member. Or you are devoutly religious, love your guns and think the threat of climate change is dire and everyone deserves a guaranteed income. Or you’re a Black entrepreneur who opposes government regulation but believes Black Lives Matter and police should stop shooting people.

None of that matters in our current system. Donkey or elephant, blue or red — those are your choices. Don’t like it? Feel free to throw away your vote.

If your grocery store gave you two choices of toilet paper — both of them bad, like mesh vs. extra coarse — you’d probably find another store, but this is the only store we have.

Hillary Stirling, the newly minted chairwoman of the United Utah Party would like to give people more choices. Both nationally and in Utah, she said, the two major party agendas are driven by the fringes.

“The people on the extremes are the people who are most active, most interested in politics, so they’re the ones who show up and are most vocal,” she said. That leaves those in the middle dissatisfied with their voices, but the United Utah Party has struggled, like all third-parties, to make much headway.

The inevitable result of these two combatant parties trying to remain in power is we end up with pure bloodsport. The incentives are on obstruction and demonization, not collaboration and compromise. It partly explains why we’ve seen the fierce polarization — fueled by media and online outlets that drive the wedge deeper, which in turn are exploited by opportunistic, ambitious politicians.

We’ve seen other parties rise and fade and we have a handful of third parties in place now, but they aren’t viable because the two parties that make the rules have created a system that perpetuates their power. And because they’re the only viable options, they get all the money.

Without money, minor parties can’t put their candidates in front of people, they can’t get on the ballot, they can’t get into the debates, they can’t win — and when they can’t win donors won’t give money.

“Especially the way our current system is set up, it’s either/or. The question that is currently asked is: Who do you want out of these two people?” Stirling said. “There are better ways to do it, so let’s try those better ways.”

Those better ways, though, will take serious structural changes like public campaign financing, ranked-choice voting or electing members of Congress proportionately, rather than from districts gerrymandered to benefit one party or the other.

The other possibility is the rise of a viable third, and maybe fourth, parties, something Theodore Roosevelt’s popularity couldn’t do and that Ross Perot’s money couldn’t do. It’s possible Trump could use both money and a cult-like following to disrupt the two-party system.

Or, perhaps, Biden is right and, despite a track record to the contrary, Democrats and Republicans can come together and chart a new course and we don’t need major reforms to our system. I hope he is right.

Given our recent history, however, it seems more likely that we’ll see more of the same, with the two parties, left to their own self-serving devices, continuing to pull Americans further and further apart until there is a rift that can’t be healed.