Coloring Outside The Lines: The Problem With Our Two-Party System


The last article I wrote about — my idea to run the U.S. government like a start-up incubator — didn’t receive a lot of replies, so it was all the more depressing to see that one of the only reactions was the following:

Conservatives also suggest that government should be destroyed. If deadly bacteria suggested a different way to run your immune system, would you be wise to listen?… Companies don’t always [balance their budgets]. They routinely go into debt to fund investment. The government has a major investment role to play, and should not have to balance budgets just on principle.

I think this completely misrepresents what I was going for, and I’d like to respond to it in hopes of better explaining myself. Firstly, the point of my idea is not to destroy the government at all: it’s to bring it to the local level so that the average person actually has a chance to influence policy. If anything, it is to promote a new flourishing in thought about politics and civil engagement. I do, in fact, recognize that this is a lofty goal.

Also, I don’t think it is a given that the federal government should be hamstrung by a balanced budget 100% of the time. But I think anyone in my generation facing the prospect of paying off our massive national debt would find it hard to believe that the system of ever-rising debt ceilings, etc. that we have now is the best that we can do. If you think the feds are spending most of our money on ground-breaking, truly beneficial research, you’re insane or not paying attention. Also, I think it is fairly telling that every state government but Vermont already has laws that ensure some form of balanced budget. Finally, there is usually a clause in proposed federal amendments allowing a supermajority to overrule such a law in times of necessity, which I think is perfectly reasonable.

My number one hope for this pipe dream of mine is that I can find a way to describe my ideas that escapes traditional liberal vs. conservative paradigms. Many of the issues people spit and spew over today are only arbitrarily divided into “conservative” and “liberal” issues based on what news network you subscribe to. People just have to think for themselves a bit to realize the silliness of this false dichotomy. If you are a staunch Democrat or Republican, this article is probably not going to change your mind about what you believe. I hope, however, that it leads you to at least question blind faith in those parties. Let’s take a different look at some big issues of the day to see if we can color outside the lines a little bit.


Illegal drugs are a boogeyman for many conservatives, but people like Ron Paul are slowly beginning to shake even that notion up. In reality, drug legalization/decriminalization (often thought to be in the realm of the far left), is a conservative idea, too. It drastically reduces the government’s expenditures on drugs and their involvement in our personal lives. In a move that I didn’t see coming whatsoever, Eric Holder just announced that the federal government’s drug policy will begin to shift toward this paradigm by removing mandatory minimums (only took 27 years!), but I won’t let Obama off the hook for not agitating for this sooner. He, of all people, should know about the racist drug war policies that he helped perpetuate until now.


The healthcare policy Obama advocated was surprisingly similar to a program put in place by his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, in Massachusetts. Healthcare is all about compassion, and on both sides of the aisle, all anyone wants out of this debate is something that works. Something that isn’t what we have now: the most expensive healthcare system in the world by a decent margin, that somehow manages not to be any better than other countries’. I’ll just dip my toes in the water as far as suggestions, because I’m not a doctor and I don’t have an informed enough opinion to share it. But it should be clear to anyone that this needs serious levels of innovation, and I would submit that the federal government is not up to that job. That’s why real healthcare reform didn’t start there to begin with.


Some conservatives balk at the thought of policies to increase immigration. But this is the opposite of real conservatism to me – putting the choice of whether a person is worthy of entrance to America solely in the federal government’s hands, usually based on their possession of a college-level degree or personal connections. Does this sound like what conservatives advocate for U.S. citizens? That everyone should get a college degree? Many on both sides of the aisle are on board with policies that promote “quality” immigration, hoping to lure in PhDs and weed out the criminals and janitors. This is merely a form of protectionism and slight xenophobia, which conservatives love to ridicule the federal government for when it comes to trade policy or outsourcing, but forgot about when “the illegals took our jobs.” (They probably didn’t, by the way.) It’s also not very compassionate, from a liberal’s perspective, to say that some people are more equal than others based on what is largely a monetary requirement. Many dirt-poor, downtrodden individuals have made their fortunes in this country. To both sides: what happened to the rags-to-riches American dream? Do you have to be a white American to earn this right? In this case, trying to pick winners and losers is a loser’s game.

Gay marriage

This is a classic liberal-vs-conservative issue that really isn’t. The reality is that any conservative who argues that the federal government should regulate this is an outright hypocrite. The 1st Amendment doesn’t just apply when it forces the government to let you practice YOUR religion. To me, prevention of gay marriage is a clear violation of the “entanglement” principle mostly followed by courts when ruling on the 1st Amendment. That is, that the government should not get excessively entangled in religious affairs. It has been the justification, for instance, in not trying to assign an arbitrary monetary value to churches and religious items (thus their tax exemptions). What could be more entangling than deciding which two human beings are allowed to enter into the most personal of relationships, based on religious scripture? Even Bill O’Reilly admitted that conservatives failed to present a strong, reasoned case against gay marriage. But again, I can’t give Obama credit either, because he conveniently waited until election time to give his blessing.

Foreign policy

Now let’s shift gears and talk about something that the federal government definitely does have business worrying about, namely the national defense, and foreign policy more broadly. Republicans have a lot of dirty laundry on this issue because of the wars Bush started, but the Democrats are as guilty, if not more, because they mostly got the benefit of the doubt until Snowden’s revelations. The reality is that both sides of the aisle have vested interests in the deep pockets of the huge defense industry, and neither is eager to let them go. It’s usually hawkish “strong national defense” Republicans who are the loudest about the necessity of secret surveillance, but this is bold-faced doublethink on their part. Get the government out of our personal lives, and into our personal lives?

Foreign policy has to be much more nuanced than just making unilateral decisions, and giving the world the middle finger when they disagree with us. We have to think about what effect our actions have around the world, which recent history suggests happens more rarely than it should in U.S. policy. Look at the radicalization of people we’ve been waging war on in the Middle East. Radical Islam is disrupting the Middle East as much today, if not more than it did in 2001. It’s not because “Muslims are evil” or any other racist crap, it’s because any population that is invaded against its will, will NECESSARILY hate their occupier. Not because they think all Americans drive Cadillacs and watch pornography, but because we’re killing their sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers.

More recently, look at how popular the U.S. is in Europe Latin America for basically secretly spying on all their communications. I’m convinced that everything the government is doing now to “mitigate” this situation is merely to regain the massive amount of business private American companies are going to lose as a result of THEIR screw-up.

I think that if one of the only responsibilities the federal government had was to actually conduct a reasonable foreign policy, it would make people think about international issues much more when voting for a president. One or two wedge issues often determine the outcome of our national elections, so if yours wasn’t popular this year, better luck next time. Well, foreign policy doesn’t work like that, and you can’t just stick your fingers in your ears and go “nyah nyah nyah” to make the world go away. Not since the internet, at least.

If you agree with anything I’ve said so far, but disagree with some of my more political assertions, that in and of itself should serve as a logical argument for why you would agree with what I’m saying most generally: no one has all the answers all the time. Anyone with enough time on their hands could present an argument against almost everything I’ve said above, based on their own beliefs. But that’s my point. Many of these issues are subjective, so let’s stop pretending they’re not. We don’t have good metrics to measure their “effectiveness” when scaled for every person’s individual temperament, so it’s silly to assume that the federal government will one day reach The Policy that is Utterly Infallible and Believed By All.

I submit that the federal government should try to concern itself more with the policy-EVALUATING business, not the policy-MAKING business, to really find out what is and isn’t working for the many, varied people of this country. This could be a whole new paradigm for governments around the world, and we could be pioneers in good government all over again. John Boehner rarely says something worthy of more than a chuckle from me, but I think he might actually be onto something with his assertion that maybe the federal government should be judged, not by how many laws they pass, but how many they repeal.


One conclusion that I am forced to draw is this: a two-party system is not good enough to represent the diverse objectives of such a huge population as the U.S., unless they are more regionalized and less focused on “the party line.” This drags out my next conclusion: if parties aren’t going anywhere (unfortunately I suspect they aren’t), then we have to find some other way to introduce more nuanced policy options than “YES” or “NO,” distributed seemingly at random between the 2 parties. The hypocrisy that results from trying to force everyone and everything into either a blue or a red tube is inevitable. For me, the solution is giving states more autonomy to experiment outside of the constraints of the national party system. From this process, my hope is that the two-party system will fade naturally instead of artificially.

Generally speaking, I think we need more room to FAIL sometimes if it means we get to test our assumptions more often, and readjust to the actual situation at hand. In fact, we already fail a lot. We often don’t look at these as lessons, but as chances to attack the other side for screwing up. Or we don’t do anything at all, and just give up. But the stakes are much higher at a national level, and much harder to deal with the consequences of, than at a state level.

Think about the incubator metaphor. You don’t go yelling at some young entrepreneur about what a moron he is because he didn’t manage to build the next Facebook in 3 months. He has big dreams. It’s your job to help him build it, and test his assumptions. You let them try it their way for a little while, and if their way clearly doesn’t work, then you offer your advice, and if they choose not to take it, it’s on them. When a start-up misses its revenue projections, the good mentors and investors don’t immediately throw them out with the bath water unless something is seriously going wrong. They lay out the things they see as untenable, and set expectations for their continued support. They don’t abandon them without reason, but they cut their losses when it’s obvious something isn’t working. At the same time, they also usually try not to micromanage and control everything the start-up does. They realize that chances are, the people they invested in should be trusted to handle themselves, or they shouldn’t be there.

This thinking has some precedent in the 21+ drinking law and the requirement of set speed limits on highways, where the feds yanked states’ road funds as punishment for non-compliance. I think it’s the height of ridiculousness that these two particular policies were ever mandated from a federal level, but I’ll spare you my ingenious solutions to these problems. Overall, an adviser role seems like a much more sustainable model than the idea of an enigmatic control freak like Steve Jobs setting every single aspect of policy based on what he thinks is best from his perch above everyone else. To see what happens when you rely on enigmatic leaders to drive success, look at how excited everyone is about Tim Cook right now. Or, more glaringly, look at the (even worse) humanitarian catastrophe that North Korea has ballooned into after Kim Il Sung.

In fact, this enigmatic leader model isn’t even how the presidency works now, but our national dialogue makes it seem so. Around election time, the president often seems to be imbued with godlike abilities, when in reality the most effective presidents usually just do what their advisers tell them to. Thus the key to being a good president is having good advisers and considering their advice, not having the best ideas yourself all the time.

Why don’t we transfer this thinking to the states? 10 guys sitting in a room in D.C. can’t possibly have that much an advantage in knowledge or experience over 500 guys sitting in 50 different rooms, competing and collaborating with each other.

The oft-touted idea that we’ll end up with 50 incompatible standards is bunk in today’s world. There aren’t any benefits to creating difficulty for difficulty’s sake, so an inherent incentive exists to make things relatively compatible, if not exactly the same, from state to state. Business thrives when regulations aren’t constantly in flux, so that adds its own inertia to changing laws for “funsies.” At America’s inception, a letter was not necessarily a sufficiently speedy way of spreading information for this to be viable, whereas the process of transferring and editing a law in its full form could be as easy as sending an email containing a Google Doc today. Even back then, however, the Founding Fathers wanted to reserve powers to the states.

Politicians aren’t all as stupid as some would have you believe, and the successful ones are often very capable of latching onto a good thing when they see it. This isn’t a zero-sum game where states benefit solely by throwing each other under the bus. The point is to try different things that will benefit your state without hurting others. It’s also to learn from your neighbors’ successes and failures without having to try them yourself.

And now we arrive at the federal government’s other main responsibility besides foreign policy: to maintain good relationships between the states. Unfortunately, in what I would argue is a case of severe mission creep, today the federal government tries to regulate basically anything that could relate to more than one state, which is essentially anything, thanks to the internet.

We can’t let some states get away with murder, but will it really ruin your life if a state you don’t live in decides to change their policy on medical marijuana or a host of other subjective issues? Hopefully not. In fact, in a perverse sense, this is your chance to prove that you’re right, kick back, and smirk. And if you’re wrong, you bear no responsibility for REJECTING it yourself; you simply didn’t advocate FOR it yet, so it’s a lot less painful for your ego to admit your “failure.”

I want to preemptively answer two objections I can think of before I end this beast.

If you’re thinking “but we have representatives for a reason!” I will merely point you to historical Congressional approval ratings to try to illustrate how crazy it is to suggest that things are peachy the way they are today. Given these pitiful approval ratings (about 15% right now), the rate of incumbency in Congress is, in a word, ludicrous. Contrast this with the presidential approval rating, where you’re probably either supporting “your” candidate (with “your” ideas) which you have a lot of philosophical investment in for whatever reason, or decrying the candidate who beat “yours.” Presidents peak and fall, but as you might expect, the average of all presidents’ average approval ratings, as recorded by Gallup, is roughly 54%. I can’t find an average historical Congressional approval rating as easily, but you can see very clearly from the chart I posted above that it’s not 50%. In fact, it has only ever broken 50% for short periods during Clinton and Bush 43 since 1974.

In evaluating Congress, you are evaluating the effectiveness of two groups in coming to an agreement that everyone can be happy with. You’re not asking “how well did my party do,” you’re basically asking “is our representative government working?” Well, as far as I can tell, the answer is no, not in its current form.

The other objection I can see is “this isn’t any different than what we already have.” You’d be exactly right, if by that you mean a Constitution that divides responsibilities in a very reasonable way given the difficulties of reaching consent within a gigantic population. If, however, you mean that the government’s current interpretation of the Constitution as it is implemented today is 100% in line with the Founding Fathers’ intentions, go check out the original USA PATRIOT Act with a copy of the Constitution handy and see what you think.

I want to end on this analogy. If you accept the theory of evolution, think about how it works in nature. Almost every change in genetic code is a net neutral or failure. You get a lot of birds with one wing, or humans with tails, or other abnormalities, but sometimes you get a perfect, delicious strawberry. Untold millions, billions, trillions of different organisms were born and died before we were even a POSSIBILITY. The early stage life forms that later evolved to allow our existence weren’t looking at a blueprint of homo sapiens as a plan for what to build next. Things just kept changing over time and we eventually emerged, not as an inevitability, but by random chance.

We’re in a similar position with trying to set policy: figuring out what works and doesn’t in a country with too massive a population to effectively measure, and with no clear indicator of what “success” means to every individual. As I see it, the way we’re conducting our affairs now is akin to watching one lonely monkey and hoping he grows up into a human some day.

Yes, there will be failed experiments. I’d argue that there are already plenty of massive failures that we’re locked into on a federal and state level right now. But as I see it, the point of the federal government should be to focus on learning lessons from when things DO fail, to help prevent future failures. The federal government should make suggestions, and CUSHION states’ falls when they attempt something unsuccessfully, instead of trying to prevent them from ever falling down in the first place.

It’s not like they can anyway.

You should like Thought Catalog on Facebook here.

image – acameronhuff