The Mid-Terms Will Be America’s First Taste Of A Parliamentary Election
It’s normal in places like Britain, Canada and Australia for voters to cast ballots for a party, not a politician.
America’s system is different. While some states allow straight ticket voting, many of us have to go through the ballot and chose the candidates that we support.
But as the mid-term elections approach next week, party identities are the clearest they have been in modern American politics — the Republicans swinging to the right, the Democrats to the left, locked in a bitter war with each other.
Caught in the middle, American voters will be acting differently than they have in the past, as I explained in my essay for ABC Australia.
Many people are vowing to vote only for Democrats, or conversely Republicans.
The result will be seen as either a protest vote, or one of support, for the ultimate political personality, Donald Trump.
In a sense, this will be America’s first true parliamentary election, a real break with our political past.
Since the 1860s, American politics has been dominated by a two-party system.
It has been common during the 20th and 21st centuries for the houses of Congress to be controlled by one party, while the White House is controlled by another.
The voting patterns reflected a number of things. First, more Americans vote in presidential election years than in mid-term election years, and that usually means independent voters have a greater voice in choosing a president.
Presidential candidates make their cases on a national basis, while individual candidates for Congress focus on the issues in their districts and their states.
For decades, the two parties seemed close enough in outlook that many Americans felt comfortable voting for a mix of candidates from each, meaning that Congress and state legislatures had representatives from each party.
The whole thing was held together by consensus, or what more cynical observers might call a “quid pro quo”.
Democratic presidents have needed to cajole Republicans to pass their most cherished initiatives, as Barack Obama did with a national health care plan in 2010.
Republican presidents reached out to Democrats at times for assistance. Ronald Reagan was known for his friendly ties to Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, although O’Neill bristled at the thought that they were too cozy.
Only in the last quarter century, since Republicans won control of the US House and Senate in 1994, has that bipartisan sensibility begun to erode.
A referendum on Trump
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to understand why the world thinks the United States is polarized, and the public discourse seems that way.
Trump kept up his heated rhetoric and tirades over the media, despite the killings of 11 people in Pittsburgh on Saturday, and pipe bombs allegedly sent last week by one of his fervent supporters to key Democratic leaders.
In truth, there are plenty of moderates left in the US, even though it is not fashionable in the heat of this battle to claim the middle ground. Right now, however, they have no champion, meaning the polarity gets much of the attention.
One of the most often-repeated phrases on social media is that the election will show “what America is made of.” It’s used as often by Mr Trump’s supporters as it is his opponents.
One thing is clear: although he is not running, the election will be a referendum on Mr. Trump himself. And while it may be uncomfortable for some people to vote in the fashion of the British from whom America broke free, that is exactly what many will do.
Minority parties can be spoilers
To be sure, America is not at all likely to become a place where small parties are able to prosper or grab significant numbers of votes.
In fact, when third parties become involved in U.S. politics, there have often been unintended consequences.
In 1912, the Progressive Party nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt, amid dissatisfaction with the policies of his Republican successor, William Howard Taft.
Even though Roosevelt remained personally popular with many Americans, some were suspicious of his decision to run as the nominee from the Bull Moose Party, as it was nicknamed.
At the time, no American president had served more than two terms, even though they were allowed by law to serve four, and Roosevelt faced accusations that he was unable to let someone else steer the ship.
In the end, he and Taft split Republican voters, leading to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
In 2000, consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran as the nominee of the Green Party, collecting 2.74 per cent of the popular vote.
That might seem miniscule, but it also was the year that the election was won by Republican George W. Bush, by the thinnest of margins amid legal challenges that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
A number of Democrats still believe he was a spoiler that cost Vice President Al Gore the presidency.
More recently, in 2016, independent US Sen. Bernie Sanders, running as a Democrat, won the primary contests in several states. Many of his supporters never embraced the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, which may have been a factor in her loss to Republican Trump.
Weakening the center?
Last year, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson wrote that the country was already being governed by a shadowy parliamentary system. And he didn’t think it was going to work out that well:
“We should not be surprised that there is confusion and paralysis,” Samuelson wrote. “For decades, the United States governed itself by a system that favored centrist consensus — not always wise, to be sure — whereas our invisible parliamentary system does just the opposite. It empowers the fringes and weakens the center.”
The two-party system, after all, has managed to endure through wars, social upheaval, and now, the tumult of the Trump administration.
That was the point of the American Constitution itself, wrote Alexander Hamilton in №15 of the Federalist Papers, published in 1787:
“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author who tweets @mickimaynard. A version of this essay first appeared at ABC Australia.