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When it comes to party colours, Americans are always painted in the news as dramatically polarized. The current electoral system that groups most Americans into one of two parties leaves little room for the representation of diverse interests on either party platform. In fact, a great deal of in-fighting goes on within the Democrat and Republican parties, with voters and elected officials often being split on a number of policies. As Financial Times contributor Edward Luce writes, “[Republican and Democrat] contempt for each other is exceeded only by their antagonisms within.”

Despite the number of “third parties” that dominate local political circles, the U.S. polity has been anything but kind to non-Democrats and non-Republicans. At the state and national levels, only one Independent representative and six senators have served in office since the turn of the 21st century. The Independent candidate of greatest international fame is likely Senator Bernie Sanders, who has switched in and out of Democratic party membership over the years but will be running once again as an Independent in the 2018 mid-term election. Though his style of politics has been consistent regardless of his party ballot, Sanders’ socialist-democratic leaning is often associated with the losing camp of the 2016 Democratic primary election.

In 2016 there was a significant shift towards independent and non-traditional voting attitudes. Specifically, 47 per cent of Americans claimed they would consider voting for a third party in the months leading to the presidential election, which was up 7 per cent from 2012. As one of the only functioning two-party political systems in the world, the U.S. remains an anomaly among Western democracies, where most operate multi-party and sometimes proportionally representative governments.

The lustre of the two-party system may be fading faster than international observers predicted. One might note that, despite the rapid passing of 117 laws in the first year of the Trump administration, overwhelming gridlock has led to the first government shutdown with a party in full control of the House, Senate, and White House since the Carter Administration. Additionally, a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis found that independent-identifying voters made up 39 per cent of the American population. While this affiliation makes it impossible for independent voters to participate in primary elections in many states, the same study found that voter independence is more popular than ever among millennials, with 48 per cent of 18 to 33 year olds identifying as independent.

In the news today, international headlines overwhelmingly represent the view of either Democrats or Republicans. Mainstream news coverage of hot button political issues rarely seems to venture far from the two-party platform to represent the opinions of non-partisan voters. Perhaps this is a pragmatic matter, as the opinion of an unelected libertarian official is unlikely to grace the floor when a new bill is being debated in the Senate. The wealthiest American corporations and families typically put their hordes of money behind either red or blue initiatives, leaving much less funding to raise awareness of political pet projects from the Constitution Party or American Green Party, for example. But so-called third parties and organizations still garner significant followings. Five million people voted for third parties in the 2016 Presidential Election. As one Minnesota Post writer notes, America is a “four or five party country jammed into a two-party system.” Is it time for the American political image to get a face lift?

The question deserves exploration now more than ever, with a sitting President who has donated to both major parties over the years, claiming no adherence to a single party platform. If, theoretically, the two-party system was to break in the near future, what would successful parties look like? One author notes that a major difference between the American and European Green Parties is their willingness to compromise; after a decade of infighting within the German Green Party, the realist “Realos” won party leadership by prioritizing electability over ideology. Through a willingness to compromise and a more welcoming proportionally representative electoral system, the German Greens were able to form a successful coalition and win federal leadership from 1998 to 2005. On the contrary, the author argues that the American Green party maintains too much of a divisive, activist angle. The Canadian New Democratic Party experienced a similar gradual rise to influence, making history in 2011 when it became the official opposition.

A shift in power could also come in the form of local political movements. We already see different parties gaining some power in the U.S. Though the elimination of winner-take-all elections still seems a far way off in today’s American political climate, the pressure to do something different is evident. The myth that one of two party platforms will appeal to all voting Americans is gradually crumbling.

Author Geneva Calder

Geneva is a Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Her interests include identity politics, human rights law, and understanding how policy can be shaped across different cultural landscapes to achieve these human rights goals. Most recently, she worked with Youth LEAD, a regional network of NGOs in Asia and the Pacific that advocates for the public health of young key populations at a higher risk of contracting HIV.

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