On Tuesday Intelligence Squared US held a debate on the proposition that “The Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable”. David Brooks and Arianna Huffington argued for the motion, Zev Chafets and P.J. O’Rourke against. I’ve included the video of the debate at the end of this post.
I argued for the two-party system to be broken up last year - Republicans and Democrats: Too big to succeed.
Chafets and O’Rourke won the debate in terms of swing (scoring is based on a vote before and after the debate) but the final break down was 50% in favor, 40% against and 10% undecided.
Huffington started with a somewhat lame opening argument, claiming that we’re somehow at a unique junction in history where our problems really need fixing:
“so while the two-party system might have been okay during the ordinary times, we’re not living in ordinary times right now.”
Overall, she focused too much on current issues rather than the systematic functioning (or not) of government.
O’Rourke, as one might expect, was amusing in refuting the proposition but the thrust of his argument is that nobody could do a better job, the public isn’t that interested, the system is broken but why bother trying to fix it:
“I would simply concede the debate if I were able to imagine some other political party or independent candidate – left, right, or fanatically middle-of-the-road – who would do a better job.”
For a free market demagogue like O’Rourke this is incredible. This is like claiming in 2007 that AltaVista and Yahoo! while not perfect are as good as search is likely to get so why would we need Google?
Brooks really got to what I see as the nub of the issue. He argued that politics is full of good people who want to to the right thing being made into worse people by having to conform to brutal tribal party affiliations:
“But they’re in a tribal mentality in what – what they can achieve is severely limited by the tribal sort of Tutsi versus Hutu nature of our politics of the current two-party system.”
This brings Romney’s desperate distancing from the individual mandate to mind.
Also from Brooks:
“The University of Maryland had a very interesting study where they took Tea Party people, they took liberals, and they said, “Here’s our budget problem, you deal with it.” And the Tea Party people acknowledged that they had to raise taxes, and the people on the far left acknowledged some spending had to be cut. They could all do it. But the two-party system can’t do it.”
Finally Chafets cited the US being in the 90th percentile of the World Bank’s Index of Governability as some sort of argument in favor of the status quo. I guess it depends on your definition of governability – being able to reliably elect a government versus having that government actually represent the interests of the electorate once in office.
Here’s the video: