(upbeat music) - Political parties.
It's hard to imagine American life without them.
And in our country where two major parties reign supreme the dynamic can feel like good versus evil, right versus wrong or us versus them.
But life isn't black and white.
Are political parties to blame for the polarizing place we are now and what would happen if they disappeared?
(scratching) (upbeat horn music) - [Announcer] America what an end.
(upbeat horn music) We're so used to the never-ending struggle between the Republican and Democratic Parties that it might have surprised you to hear in our episode about electing Supreme Court justices that the founding fathers didn't want political parties in the United States.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson once said "If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go there at all."
So where did they come from?
Well, get this.
Thomas Jefferson ended up eating his words and founded one of the first political parties, the Democratic Republicans.
The answer to the Federalist Party which had formed around Alexander Hamilton and his desire for a strong central government.
- This gets to a brass tax just what is a political party.
This isn't something that's created by a constitution.
These emerge extra-constitutionally, extra-legally.
E. E. Schattschneider called a political party an organized effort to get control of the government.
- Where has this gotten us?
Well some people would say that the political gridlock we experience today is all due to political parties.
Not only are politicians of different parties not getting along, average citizens find it hard to talk to people with differing political views.
According to the Pew Research Center more than half of Democrats say the Republican Party scares them.
While nearly half of Republicans say the same thing about Democrats.
- There's a great book by Lilliana Mason that she wrote that basically talks about how all of our personal values can become deeply intertwined with political ideology.
It used to be in the 60's and 70's you asked parents how did you feel about your children marrying someone of the opposite race.
And a very healthy majority would not be in favor.
But someone of the opposite party, no problem.
Now that has flipped.
And parents are deeply concerned about their children marrying someone of the opposite party.
- Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks or vice versa?
If we created America from scratch today would we outlaw political parties?
Go back to our roots and keep them out of politics entirely.
Outlawing political parties might not be the most practical idea for the US.
After all they weren't a part of our country when it was first started.
But they came into being naturally over time.
- What would it take to outlaw political parties.
What political parties are, are fundamentally not legalized in the first place.
They are just the manifestation of people coming together in a group and organizing their political behavior in a certain way.
If you want to imagine a system that outlaws that you are imagining a system that significantly curbs peoples' ability to express political views and to coordinate their political behavior with other people.
It would precisely be snuffing out the liberty that is both the lifeblood of democracy as well as the lifeblood of parties.
- And focusing solely on Democrats and Republicans leaves out an important factor.
The United States third parties.
They've played an important part in our history too.
- Richard Hofstadter, historian once said that in American history third parties are like bees.
Once they sting they die.
But they do sting.
- They can still hold the major parties accountable.
When a lot of elections are close every vote counts.
So even worrying about potential voters voting for a third party candidate, that gives an incentive for the major parties to try to appeal to those third party voters.
So one important thing that third parties have done in American politics is that they've spurred change within one or both of the major parties.
- So the most famous example of that would be the Whig Party and the Democratic Party in the middle of the 19th century being internally divided over the question of slavery.
It took a third party effort connected to grassroots movements for abolition to sufficiently at the local level threaten to bump them off in elections or to throw the election to the Democrat in a kind of spoiler race.
And in that case the third party ended up essentially taking over the Whig Party.
The Whig Party split so completely that the Republican Party grew in its stead and took a lot of northern Whigs with them.
- What if we diversified the playing field by increasing the number of major political parties?
Giving people more options, more ways to identify.
Would it diminish the prevailing us versus them narrative?
Some experts say in order to do this it would take a rewrite of our political system.
You see in our presidential elections each state except for Nebraska and Maine gives all of its electoral votes to the winning candidate in a winner-takes-all contest.
This discourages citizens from voting for third party candidates because this is seen as throwing your vote away since there isn't a prize for winning even the second most votes.
- So we would need to make changes to election laws in order to help third parties win office.
So each district elects one representative.
And it's just of all the candidates the one that wins the most votes wins that seat.
In those countries with multi-member districts a party that comes in third place can win the third most seats.
In the United States if you come in third place you win nothing, you have to come in first place.
- You have a system where right now invariably the votes are gonna go to the top two Republican or Democrat big party candidates.
The only role that these third parties end up playing tends to be a spoiler role.
In a ranked-choice voting system you have a chance for people to vote for a third party without it playing a spoiler role.
And if enough people vote for that third party as say their second choice you can end up actually having third party candidates win.
- We're looking at Maine for our local matters series.
Next month the Pine Tree State will try out a new form of voting in which people can vote for more than one candidate.
It's called ranked-choice voting.
- So ranked-choice voting is a system where instead of voting for just one candidate you are able to rank all of your candidates in the order of your preference.
And so if my first choice candidate doesn't win my vote isn't just thrown out.
It then accrues to my second candidate.
And if that candidate doesn't get a majority then my third candidate is counted.
And so forth until you get to a majority.
So I'd say the biggest pros are twofold.
One it gives voters more choice, right.
You no longer have a situation when you shouldn't vote for the candidate that is really your number one choice.
So it tends to increase voter turnout.
And it provides different incentives for candidates.
Much less negative campaigning, much more positive and constructive campaigning.
- If people are dissatisfied with the major parties then one thing to do is try to change them.
And one way to change them is through influencing who do they nominate for the general election.
So that's where you can get involved in a primary election.
If you care about the political process you know we focus a lot on voting.
But there's a lot of other stuff you could do.
You could volunteer for a candidate's campaign.
You can donate money.
You can attend a political rally to voice your opinion.
And there's different strategies you can use.
You can either try to work from within a party or you can go from the outsider route.
You can support a third party candidate.
Or you could put more effort in supporting an interest group.
That interest group can then help transform one of the two major parties.
A lot of options that people have when trying to decide where can I get involved to make a difference.
- So what do you think?
Do you think political parties are to blame for many of our government's problems and we should do away with them altogether?
Or should we add more political parties?
Let us know.