With all its frustrations, the US two-party system is best

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 19, 2000

No one gets more frustrated with our two-party system than I do. It seems as if it is sometimes impossible to get either party to respond to the will of the people. Good men sometimes get so upset that they throw up their hands and leave. That is what Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire did last year. He declared himself an independent. But then when it was possible for him to become a Committee Chairman (upon the death of Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island), he returned to the Republicans and his colleagues rewarded him by letting him assume the chairmanship position.

Over the years many Senators have been similarly frustrated. When liberals in Virginia tried to purge Senator Harry Byrd Jr. from their midst, he quit the party, declared himself an independent and was subsequently elected and re-elected on the independent banner.

The late Senator James B. Allen of Alabama remained a Democrat - although he was hated by the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate - but he handled his own situation by working with the Senate Steering Committee, the caucus of conservative Senators founded by the late Senator Carl T. Curtis of Nebraska and then Senator Jim McClure of Idaho back in 1974.

I call to mind these frustrations because no matter how awful the situation becomes from time to time, I believe it is still preferable to what is taking place in Israel.

Prime Minister Barak, who only came into office less than a year ago, is on the way to be being forced into new elections because minor parties in his coalition have turned tail and voted to dissolve parliament.

Here Israel is at a most sensitive juncture in negotiations with the Palestinians as well with Syria. Barak suddenly and almost without warning pulled out all Israeli troops from Lebanon. Israel was the de facto protector of many Lebanese Christians who are now seeking refuge in Israel itself to avoid being persecuted by militant Islamic extremists. So while the international situation is heating up, some would say blowing up, now the Prime Minister has to contend with the fact that he may well be driven out of office.

I hold no brief for Barak. But it is the system that is the problem.

Israel is a multi-party state. It has two major parties, if you will. But neither is able to get to a majority in the Knesset or parliament without the help of minor parties and independents. These minor parties often extract outrageous demands from the major party trying to form a government.

In Barak's case, he put together an unholy alliance between the Labor party and right wing religious parties which had contended that the former conservative government didn't do enough for them. Now some of these smaller parties have deserted Barak. Some contend he is getting what he deserved for having put together such an unwieldy coalition in the first place.

Perhaps, but the point here is that Israel created a multi party system where the threshold for getting represented in the parliament is very low.

Germany also has a multi party state but the threshold for representation is high enough (five percent of the total national vote) that only parties with a real constituency end up making it to parliament. In Israel, on the other hand, if you represent six fishermen and a box of bagels you might get in.

That creates such inherent instability that Israel is becoming a place increasingly difficult to govern. Israel's neighbors, many of whom do not even pretend to be democracies, are able to take advantage of the situation.

Unless some of these minor parties can be persuaded to change to change their minds, Barak may end up facing the voters at a most inauspicious time for him.

So as angry as I can get at our system with its lack of progress toward real reform, and as much as I am often tempted to wish that we conservatives had the leverage over the GOP leadership that the religious parties have over Barak, in my sober moments I think otherwise.

The two-party system certainly has its weaknesses but I cannot imagine what the 20th Century would have been like if minor parties were able to bring down the government almost at will. We might well not have won World War II.

We most certainly would have handed the Communists victory after victory during the Cold War.

The solution to our frustration over the unresponsiveness by the major parties is not to balkanize the country with a group of smaller parties. The solution is for those of us with legitimate causes to become far more active in primary elections. The whole GOP establishment in Washington nearly came unglued because New Jersey Assemblyman Scott Garrett gave Congressman Marge Roukema a really tough primary last week. She only prevailed with 52 per cent of the vote. But guess what. She is about the only Republican incumbent to be challenged in a primary in this election cycle. The Democrats experienced one primary challenge as well and in that case the incumbent was defeated.

But that is it. 435 House seats up each election and a third of the Senate and yet incumbents get a free ride. We used to go after incumbents and caused many to fall. Now we don't take advantage of primaries. Heck, we hardly have contests in the general election. Of the 435 House seats up in November less then 40 have contests where the outcome is genuinely in doubt.

So if we don't like how the people we elect vote on taxes or privacy or Elian Gonzales or whatever, we ought to be out there encouraging people to run and backing them with our dollars. That is what Steve Moore and the Club for Growth did with Cong. Roukema. Although they started late, they almost prevailed. Let's be glad we do have a stable system of government. Let's take out our frustrations in the way that the founders of this nation provided. Until we take advantage of the opportunities afforded us in that regard, we have little to really complain about.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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