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Dave Helling: Two-party system is stacked against outsiders

Columnist Dave Helling writes: America has a two-party system because Republicans and Democrats cheerfully co-opt outsider rhetoric at election time, leaving no room for outliers such as Greg Orman, who this year ran unsuccessfully for U.S, Senate in Kansas as an independent. Look for that trend to continue in the next presidential election cycle.
Columnist Dave Helling writes: America has a two-party system because Republicans and Democrats cheerfully co-opt outsider rhetoric at election time, leaving no room for outliers such as Greg Orman, who this year ran unsuccessfully for U.S, Senate in Kansas as an independent. Look for that trend to continue in the next presidential election cycle. The Kansas City Star

The man who ran Greg Orman’s U.S. Senate campaign says he’s still OK with his candidate’s refusal to declare a party preference in the campaign’s closing days.

In fact, Jim Jonas said last week, Orman should have pledged to remain fully independent if elected, not caucusing with either party under any circumstances.

Republicans on a post-election panel at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics scoffed. They said Senate is a two-party institution with no room for such an outlier.

They probably were right. The two-party system seems more firmly cemented than ever in American politics.

There are many reasons for this. Election laws are written to protect ballot access for the two parties — only Republicans and Democrats qualify for taxpayer-subsidized primaries in Kansas, for example. Legislative duties almost always are divided along major-party lines.

More fundamentally, though, America has a two-party system because Republicans and Democrats cheerfully steal outsider messages at election time.

The two parties, it turns out, are adept at co-opting outsider rhetoric while offering something minor parties can’t: a chance to win. That’s why most Libertarians and tea-party types eventually gravitate into the GOP orbit while anti-business populists and environmentalists usually end up in the Democratic column.

Such a big-tent approach takes skill. Successful major-party candidates must assemble coalitions. Republican candidates must reconcile their anti-tax, anti-spending wings with their Main Street business constituents. Democrats have to unite social liberals with skeptical labor leaders and economic populists.

When it works, that kind of coalition-building yields victories at the ballot box, reinforcing the two-party dynamic, but it also produces more centrist candidates. In 2016, that means consensus presidential nominees like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

Watch for narrow-issue partisans to complain about this over the next few months. Give me Sen. Rand Paul or Sen. Ted Cruz, they’ll say, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren — 110-proof whiskey, not watered-down beer.

Such a clear-choice presidential election would be highly entertaining and potentially informative. At this distance, though, it seems unlikely.

Our two-party system usually produces a centrist outcome. When the dust settles on the 2016 race, the Cruzes and the Warrens — like Greg Orman — probably will end up on the outside, looking in.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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