Beyond Left and Right: A Multi-Party American Political System

With the election of Donald Trump, everyone’s assumptions about how the American political system worked were upended, including and especially the pundits and think-tankers whose job it is to know such things. I would like to at least offer a simple explanation of why so many were looking at things the wrong way: our two-party system limits the way we think of political ideology, especially in a society so vast and diverse as the one we inhabit today in the 21st century United States of America. And maybe, just maybe, the two parties running the show were more alike than any partisan would like to admit. This left a lot of ideologies that felt unrepresented. Hence the rise of Sanders on the left and Trump on the right to challenge those who held power for so long and assumed the range of policies and ideas they were discussing in the halls of power represented the entire spectrum.

As Trump attempts to work with a Republican Congress, the tension inherent in the different parts of the coalition are blindingly obvious. The House Freedom Caucus simply doesn’t like Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan clearly does not really like Trump. Trump has threatened to support primary challengers to members of the House Freedom Caucus for not going along with his plans. Steve Bannon thinks Paul Ryan is the enemy (no really, he has explicitly said so)[1]. At this point I think Paul Ryan’s dog is iffy on Paul Ryan. This is not a personal attack on the Speaker, who was brought in for the very reason of healing the divide of the warring factions already present. The point to all of this is that there is very little ideological cohesion on the right. The GOP finally has the big tent it wants, but as they say, be careful what you wish for….

As a well-regarded political theory known as Duverger’s law posits, our voting and representation system makes having more than two parties for any stretch of time near impossible[2]. This means that we won’t have a parliamentary system any time soon. We build our coalitions before elections, which is why our primaries are much more onerous and we draw out elections for as long as we do. After the elections are over parties tend to close ranks and compromise behind closed doors. This is also why we have much less theatrical shouting like we see in countries that build coalitions after elections such as the British Parliament. American political parties value the illusion of a united front. I think, however, the normally closed door process that happens when parties deliberate might benefit from some transparency, as we are now seeing with the very public failure of the AHCA. Republican in Name Only (RINO) used to be an insult, but it might just be an accurate way to describe a group of politicians whose views diverge so widely.

This brings me to my main point. Let us imagine a political world in which we are not constrained by the paradigm of right/left or Republican/Democrat. What might this world look like? My general view is that we would see four parties emerge (excuse the working titles and attempt to drop any connotations you may have of them): Libertarian/Constitutionalist, Centrist/Corporatist, Populist/Nationalist, Socialist/Green. The tension in the current GOP is occurring because they have a large portion of three of these ideologies under its tent, and they often come into conflict. If these three ideologies were allowed to run as their own parties, however, they would likely pick up some support from current Democrats,  leaving the Democratic party with nothing but their far-left socialist wing. It would also drop the pretense that Rand Paul and John McCain have all that much in common. Lets take a look at what these four parties might look like:


  • Libertarian/Constitutionalist: This party believes in maximum personal liberty, very limited government, and the rule of law as currently enshrined by the Constitution. They also are suspicious of law enforcement and foreign armed intervention as a rule. They would believe not only in ending the War on Drugs but also the War on Poverty due to a belief that federal intervention tends to create more problems than it solves. Federal Reserve skeptics may fit in here as well. They likely would be for marijuana decriminalization at the very least and likely full legalization. Many would be for the legalization of all drugs for any use whatsoever. They believe in the free movement of both people and goods across borders. Social issues are a bit of a mix, as a strict libertarian does not believe the government should not have a say in marriage at all, and that government should neither support nor restrict any religious ideology. They also believe in freedom of association, so you should be free to bake or not bake a cake for whomever you choose. This group would also be the strongest proponents of gun rights for reasons of personal liberty.


Likely Members: Most of the current House Freedom Caucus, to include Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and Mark Meadows. Also Rand Paul and the Koch brothers.


  • Centrist/Corporatist: Politics as usual in the past 30 years or so has been dominated by this segment. This segment generally believes in capitalism but also allowance for some regulation and wealth redistribution by the government to correct the perceived inequities they see as caused by capitalism. They realize that the government owning the means of production is probably a bad idea but are not always averse to subsidies, regulation, taxes, and heavy influence by the federal government. I would guess that in foreign policy, many of the hawks would reside here. They also are generally in favor of free trade and globalism, as it benefits the corporations they see as a net social good if regulated properly. They also are for relatively open borders. Free from hewing to the populists and libertarians, they would likely pick up some business-friendly Democrats. They would not favor an outright ban on firearms but would favor heavily controlling and regulating them.


Likely Members: Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton (yes those two names are side-by-side), Bill Clinton, The Democratic Leadership Council of the ‘90s, Corey Booker, Charles Schumer, John McCain, George W. Bush, John Kasich, 80% of my MBA peers.


  • Populist/Nationalist: This segment has obviously received a lot of attention in the last election cycle. A heretofore unrecognized large amount of the GOP hews to this ideology but so do the so-called  “blue-dog Democrats”. This party stands for the American worker, believes in restricting trade for their benefit, and restricting immigration for both economic and security reasons. They are far more union friendly than either the corporatists or the libertarians. This group’s nationalist streak makes it not only appreciative of both the military and law enforcement, but also less critical of some of their bad actors’ abuse of power. They do believe in law and order and are likely to trade liberty for some security. As Trump has proven, however, they may believe that the nation building campaigns we have waged abroad were a waste of our time and resources. The general sentiment would be akin to “why are our boys fighting for someone else’s freedom?” that characterized the more isolationist trend typical of US politics before the WWII era. This group is likely to pick off the blue-dog Democrats that saw their representatives decimated in the elections of 2010 and 2014. Its nationalist streak unmoored from the centrists or the libertarians could become susceptible to ethno-centric or racist elements, although this is not necessarily central to their ideology. I predict those with religious/social issue concerns would find the most likely place here, although it is not all definitive. American populists would likely favor gun rights, as they see them as a check against the oligarchs that enjoy outsized privileges, as well as for a hunting lifestyle that they are more likely to pursue than any other segment.


Likely Members: Donald Trump, Steve King, Steve Bannon, Howard Dean, Joe Manchin, Jim Webb, any rust-belt or coal country Democrat.


  • Socialists/Green: Free from the moderating forces of the populists and centrists, this party would fully embrace the socialist mantle. They would likely call for the nationalization (or at least public-utility model) for several industries deemed essential to the public good. They would likely start their nationalization efforts with single-payer healthcare. Much like the populists might embolden racism, the socialists may embolden full-on totalitarian communists. They would also be the most likely to call for strict environmentalist policy. The social justice crowd would also find their most likely home here, although they might form a coalition with the libertarians on civil liberties and criminal justice reform issues. This group would also be the most likely to favor an outright firearms ban.


Likely Members: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jill Stein


  • Wild Card: There are certain politicians that do not fit neatly into the model, likely because political realities have forced them into compromises they don’t actually believe, or they have adopted the tactics of another segment to further their aims (think libertarian types using the somewhat populist tea-party). That is why you will see a lot of party leadership on here.


Members: Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Ronald Reagan


Not to sound too much like a Republican, but I would like to dwell on Ronald Reagan for a second. He is THE exception that proves the rule for my thesis. The current aches and pains that the GOP is going through are a symptom of the success of Reagan 30 years ago. He united the libertarian Goldwater-ites, the religious moral majority, the corporate profiteers, and the war hawks all under one banner. He managed to convince the populists, the libertarians, and the corporatists that they weren’t so different after all. The American right at the highest level internalized this to such a degree that they forgot there were any major differences at all. To be fair, he had the Soviet Union as a convenient foil for all these groups. Such a powerful common enemy does wonders for cohesion. Even after the fall of the Soviets, there were several factors that delayed facing the inevitable splintering of the broad coalition on the right. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis appeared to have trumped Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” at this time. A great economy and the first Republican congressional majority in decades during the ‘90s, a foreign terrorist enemy that momentarily galvanized the entire country, and a perfect liberal bogeyman in Barack Obama delayed the inevitable realization that there were real ideological differences in the coalition.


To close out, I would like to leave with an apt quote from George Washington’s farewell address[3]:

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

On that note, whether we generally agree with Democrats or Republicans, let us dispense with the “spirit of party” as Washington so masterfully said. Let us really dive into why we believe what we believe. Let us realize that which party we chose to identify with when we signed our voter registration card does not define us for all time. We all see how ridiculous it is when people get violent at sporting events because your team wears the blue jersey and the other person’s team wears the red jersey. On some though certainly not all political issues, let us realize that our conflicts are only slightly less arbitrary. Above all, let us embrace a more tolerant pluralism, and find a better way to think about our common interests.

-Matthew Maughan







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