After being dominated for so many years by two-party competition, our political system appears as if it could not sustain any other structure. Mainstream American political ideology falls along one dimension, from Democrat to Republican, Liberal to Conservative. The public has been polarized, the media has been polarized, and perspectives that don’t fit into the one-dimensional spectrum are marginalized.
I set out to investigate the effect of our nation’s political structure on the student body, originally expecting to see two polarized masses: Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. But by delving into party loyalty, personal ideology, and voting patterns, I’ve found that the grand schism I expected to exist did not.
“I like to engage in political discussion and keep an open mind,” said Kyle Curtis, sophomore and president of the College Republicans group on campus. Curtis and his contemporaries, a small bastion of conservatism on our dominantly liberal campus, do not fall within the stereotypical conservative stigma. They welcome ideas that challenge their own, and their club meetings draw attendees not interested in groupthink or unyielding conservative views, but in thoughtful political dialogue.
“I don’t explicitly subscribe to a party, which is why I go out of my way to be in College Republicans, because they strive to be a [forum] for debate,” junior Rachel Frank said.
The Young Democrats group on campus exhibits similar notions of moderation in their political views. When asked if she would ever elect a candidate of the opposing (Republican) party, Shelby Woods, senior and president of the Young Democrats responded to the question by saying, “I’m a moderate, so it depends.”
While things are a lot more civilized at the UW, the legacy of fierce two-party competition runs deep in United States history; the very founding fathers who warned against the dangers of ‘faction’ during the birth of the nation were in fact engaging in a two-sided battle of factions themselves, Federalists against Anti-Federalists. Back then, ideological disputes between politically affluent men were often settled in duels, sometimes ending in death. Today, we are subjected to negative campaign ads and endless bickering in debates. I’m not entirely sure which I prefer.
The most unfortunate effect of this constant clash of giants in our political system is that oftentimes, minority voices are drowned out in the din. Third party candidates are somewhat prevalent, but the attention they garner is never quite enough to threaten the Democrat-Republican hegemony. Luckily, the UW is home to quite a few groups seeking to change that.
“I subscribe to the Socialist Alternative party because the two-party system is broken,” said sophomore Preston Sahabu, primary officer of the Socialist Alternative group on campus. Sahabu represents a growing tide of alternative views, from the Green Party to the International Socialist Organization, that appear to be on the road to possibly challenge the powers that be. In nearby House District 43, Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant is well on her way as a vanguard for third parties here in Seattle. She recently won approximately 9 percent of the primary vote as a write-in, beating out the other third party candidate for a run at the dynastic representative Frank Chopp who has been elected as representative since 1995.
“People don’t feel like their voice, their vote is heard,” Sahabu said. “[We hope] to change that.”
For all the criticisms of our political system, it would be a shame to dwell on the negativity without shedding light on some of the benefits. (Yes, there are benefits.)
“People will argue that the two-party system creates stability,” said Mark Smith, a political science professor. “[Other systems] create coalition governments, which are often unstable and create governments prone to falling.”
Also, clearly drawn party lines allow for an easy heuristic approach when it comes time to cast your ballot. It is very common for citizens to simply vote down party lines throughout the whole ballot. A party label may be superficial, but it does convey a lot of information about a candidate. Their general ideology, goals, and beliefs all sit with party alignment.
The availability of such a label simplifies the voting process for those that do not have the time for, nor interest in, doing actual research.
Whether you like our current electoral system or not, it is most likely here to stay for a while.
“Some kind of electoral revision [would be necessary],” Smith said. “Mere discontent is not going to do it.”
When people ask me what political party I identify with, I tell them I’m a pragmatist. That means I value progress, practicality, and results over ideology. Politics shouldn’t be about forcing your ideals or morals on someone else; everyone is different, and everyone operates with a different set of internal rules. Politics should be about keeping a state running, providing for the common welfare, and extending the hand of peace and safety to all denizens of a country.
But you’ve given me faith in the political process, UW. Your zeitgeist of modernity, your voice of moderation, and your compulsion to change what you see as broken are all necessary in the governance of our nation. Just as college students in previous decades have been winds of change in the nation’s political agenda, it is now our turn to vote, run for office, and advocate for change. The nation direly needs it.
Reach opinion writer Josh Waugh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter:@joshawaugh
Please read our Comment policy.