Want to understand America’s political dysfunction? Then get outside your traditional mindset. The world’s superpower isn’t gridlocked and fractious because of President Trump or the split control of Congress. It’s increasingly unable to act decisively because no one has figured out how to navigate its seven-party politics.
That’s right – seven parties, not two. Beneath the surface, there are seven distinct factions which in any nation with proportional representation would be separate parties. And we know how hard it is to create working governments in those cases – just look at the recent examples of Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands. Once one unlocks the structure of America’s true party system, its difficulties are much easier to grasp.
One familiar party is the ‘Democrats’. While this sub-party would share the same name as the current major party, in its shrunken form it represents the centre-Left elements in American politics. This group shares many of the same objectives as the other leftist sub-party, the ‘Progressives’, and differs primarily on issues of tactics.
Both favour cultural liberalism, action on climate change, and a host of other issues. Democrats, however, often seek compromise and slower reform measures while Progressives demand immediate change. Democrats are also open to working with other parties while Progressives uniformly oppose that if it means making any concessions at all.
The parties combined would likely poll between 35% and 43% of the vote in a multi-party system. We don’t know, though, which faction is larger than the other. That’s what the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination fight will establish. Historically, Democrats have outnumbered Progressives, but recent data shows the Democratic Party shifting leftward at a rapid pace. Come next year we may find that Progressives finally overtake Democrats in size for the first time in history.
The ‘Moderate’ party would represent the most centrist minor party. These people are very similar to Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Holland’s Democrats 66 Party, and other smallish parties of the European center. All of these parties draw their support from well-educated and relatively well-to-do people. All favor economic globalism and multi-culturalism in some fashion.
They are less economically Left-wing than either the Democrats or the Progressives and are less dogmatically pro-market than any of the parties to their Right. Like their European brethren, they would poll between 5% and 10% in any given election and would, in America’s actual two-party system, often determine the winner. Their votes in the 2018 midterms are what gave the Democrats such resounding success.
The ‘Republicans’ would be the first, and the most centrist, party on the American Right. They would be comprised of the business elites and the more economically free-market element of today’s Republican Party. Internationally they share much in common with the moderate factions in Australia’s Liberal Party, Britain’s Conservatives, and Germany’s CDU.
They are too opposed to higher taxes and business regulations to feel comfortable in the centre-Left and are more traditional in their social outlook to feel comfortable in the Moderates. They are the party of George Bush and Mitt Romney, and in current politics are the pillar of what is often called the ‘Republican Establishment’.
They are, however, far less than half of the current Republican Party. Prior to Donald Trump’s emergence, they were at rough parity with the two parties to their Right, the ‘Conservatives’ and the ‘Christian Democrats’. But since Trump’s rise, they are a distinct minority in the current GOP because of the President’s new party, the ‘Americans’.
The Conservatives and Christian Democrats might share names with European parties, but their platforms are distinctly American. The Conservatives are really the Tea Party, and they embrace a small government, low tax worldview that struggles to find voice almost anywhere else in the world.
The Christian Democrats represent America’s large evangelical Protestant population, which is larger and theologically more traditional than virtually anywhere else. The closest examples would be Northern Ireland’s DUP or Holland’s SGP – parties with strong, unyielding social conservatism and firm roots in the Reformed tradition. Combined they would likely get 15-20% of the total vote, around the same proportion as the Republicans.
The final party, the ‘Americans’ are the United States’ version of Europe’s blue-collar populists. Strongly nationalistic, they are hostile to globalism (which in the US takes expression in hostility to global trade pacts and illegal immigration) and are suspicious of continued American military involvement overseas.
They are a fiscal hodgepodge, favouring lower taxes on the middle-class, higher taxes on the rich and on corporations, and continued or increased spending on most social services. They would likely get only about 10% if they were on their own, but joined with the Conservatives and the Christian Democrats they effectively operate a coalition government through the White House and its Congressional allies.
One could imagine a host of potential coalitions emerging if America actually had a multi-party system. On many issues, especially those involving trade and immigration, Democrats, Moderates, and Republicans form a natural alliance. On others, like corporate regulation and social spending, Progressives, Democrats, and Americans are natural partners. When it comes to foreign affairs, Conservatives, Christian Democrats, Republicans, and Moderates could easily team up. And on cultural issues, a Christian Democrat-Conservative minority government could easily be supported by Republicans and Americans via a confidence and supply agreement.
America’s politics are complicated by the fact that none of these pairings is formally possible. ‘Moderates’ can be found in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses, for example, but partisan pressures prevent them from cooperating easily. The same concerns prevent ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ in Congress from teaming up. Any attempt to do so would meet with strong opposition from ‘Progressives’ or any of the three more ideological parties on the Right. This in turn means the cooperating members could lose their re-election in their party’s primary election, a fear that prevents compromise from even being discussed.
But without the formal outlet of creating a new party, tensions are building up within the existing parties, making cooperation more difficult as any minority faction thinks it can seize the upper hand in the next election. That more than any other factor is why American policymaking is gridlocked and dominated by the Presidency even when one party holds all the cards.
A two-party system has always been thought to make governing easier, but that is true only when public opinion is more homogenous than today. To understand the ebbs and flows of modern US politics, it is this seven-party framework that provides a more accurate lens to look through.