Living in a world where both major political parties appear to be blundering toward the End Times, choosing to be an active member in either isn’t easy. With the GOP fracturing and the Democratic Party remaining weak-kneed, it almost seems like we need alternatives. New parties, different parties, more parties.
The truth of the matter is, we don’t.
A few of those who know me – and who are reading this – know that I have dabbled with the idea of either joining or outright starting a political party. When I was young I was interested in both the Constitution Party and then the Green Party, parties whose platforms couldn’t be more different. Last year, I’d considered helping start-up a Progressive Party modeled on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Party” of 1912. While all of us involved like the idea, it never made it past the development stage.
But now, I’m going to argue that we don’t need more parties. That more options isn’t better. That a plethora of political parties isn’t what we need. That a two-party system, while not ideal, is good enough.
Why? Simple; human psychology. More political parties would make us unhappier than if we just kept the two we have.
At a TEDTalk in 2005, psychologist Barry Schwartz argued that too much choice doesn’t give us more freedom. It takes it away.
Schwartz says we lose freedom when we have too many choices because we spend our days contemplating our decisions. We often either choose then regret our decision, or never choose at all, which is worse. With a wide variety of choices, he says, there should be a perfect one for each of us but, there isn’t, and that’s part of the problem. Our expectations conflict with reality.
When it comes to political parties, our perfect party would only include one member: ourselves. Nobody sees exactly eye-to-eye with anyone else.
Alina Tugend would agree. In an article for the New York Times, Tugend writes that while “it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue, they are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.”
Tugend added that one study states that while “the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory…in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” The trick, she writes later on, is to ask yourself, “would I be happier elsewhere?” not “could I do better?”
A Monty Python sketch best illustrates the problem of political choice. In the film “Life of Brian,” several political groups are all dedicated to the same goal: freeing the Holy Land from Roman occupation. The viewer is introduced to the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee and the Popular Front of Judea. But which one do you choose?
Brian, the films protagonist, chooses the People’s Front of Judea. In a darkly comical scene, Brian attempts to unite members of his faction with those of another. The two groups end up battling one another, shouting the name of yet a third faction, before slaughtering each other. Their choice was an ultimately detrimental one, made all the more poignant considering they were fighting for the same cause. While some of the groups were more active than others, having too many groups left their shared goal in a state of perpetual paralysis; they all died and the Romans were still in Judea.
At present, in the United States there are only two viable political parties. No matter what anyone says, the Green Party is not a contender. The Tea Party doesn’t count because it operates within the preexisting framework of the Republican Party. It isn’t a standalone party. A separate non-Republican affiliated Tea Party would be about as effective in politics as the Green Party.
Is this the best we can do? Is a two-party system ideal? In theory, no. Echoing Schwartz, I’m sure that somewhere out there is the perfect number of political parties for the United States. But you know what? We’ve had only two parties for most of our 200+ years of history and it’s worked for us so far. Is it perfect? No, but it’s good enough.