With Election Day less than three weeks away, one constant theme has been the vicious conduct of the two parties and the growing polarization of the country. Yet the popular image of partisans ripping each other to shreds obscures the reality that more Americans identify as Independents (42%) than either Republicans (25%) or Democrats (31%). This raises a question: Is it the country that’s polarized or just the two parties that run it? Whatever its shortcomings, the two-party system has provided remarkable political stability – usually by emphasizing political horse-trading over ideological purity – for a long time. The last president elected from a new party was Abraham Lincoln in 1860 when the country was on the eve of Civil War.
The major criticism of the old system was that the parties made compromises in order to build broad-based coalitions, and so they didn’t “stand for anything.” Yet the broadest coalition in our history was Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, which somehow managed to include labor unions, southern segregationists, northern blacks, populists, "urban ethnics", rural farmers and women. While it made some ugly compromises on racial segregation, it simultaneously prepared the way for the Civil Rights movement. What’s amazing is not that the party ultimately couldn’t survive its contradictions, but that it held them together for 40 years. And whether you like the New Deal’s legacy or not, it certainly got stuff done.
I used to disdain the old politics – the backroom deals, the compromises, the quid pro quo. They're looking a lot better from here.