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Wanted: Freer Market in U.S. Politics

By Ivan Eland
April 5, 2006

Editor's Note: Even as a majority of the American people turn against George W. Bush's imperial presidency, the Democratic Party remains skittish about going on the political offensive. In part, that's because the Democrats still fear the Right's powerful media outlets that angrily portray any criticism of Bush as treasonous or crazy.

Look, for instance, at the treatment Sen. Russell Feingold got from both the right-wing and mainstream media when he proposed the relatively moderate idea of censuring Bush for engaging in warrantless spying on Americans in defiance of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In talk show after talk show, the Wisconsin Democrat was depicted as either unhinged or unpatriotic.

Like they were following a predictable script, most congressional Democrats fled in terror from Feingold's idea, thus reinforcing the power of the Right to define the limits of acceptable debate and demonstrating the risks for a politician who tests those limits. In this guest essay, Independent Institute's Ivan Eland looks at other reasons for the scarcity of choice in the U.S. marketplace of ideas:

The recent unveiling by the Democrats of an alternative national security program illustrates the limited choices Americans have in U.S. politics.

The highlights of the Democrats’ plan are tired and worn: rebuilding the U.S. military, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, increasing resources to catch the elusive Osama bin Laden, and the vague “responsible redeployment of U.S. forces” from Iraq, which does not set a deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

No one should be surprised that a party that essentially rolled over to the Bush administration’s transparently questionable Iraq adventure, and has been timid in its criticism of it ever since, wouldn’t come up with much of an alternative program.

Although globalization has opened markets around the world, the U.S. political system remains closed to true competition. Curiously, Americans are equally proud that they have one of the freest and most vibrant economies in the world and a two-party oligarchy that restricts competition among political parties. If greater competition is better in economics, why not in politics?

Although no specific constitutional or legal requirement limits the number of major political parties, the United States has had only two dominant parties throughout most of its history because of the way the Constitution is written. The “winner take all” nature of the political system provides powerful disincentives for two stodgy, fairly broad political parties to break up into smaller, more competitive parties that would actually stand for something.

Direct election of the president by the people, the presidential Electoral College, and representation in Congress based on geographical areas all mean that only one person can win each election—giving political groups incentives to maximize their strength by hanging together in two disparate coalitions.

In contrast, a parliamentary system—in which parties earn the number of seats they have in parliament based on their percentage of the vote (proportional representation) and choose a prime minister based upon a party leader’s ability to form a coalition of parties that commands a majority in the legislature—is more competitive.

Governing coalitions formed after a rough and tumble election campaign that give voters a wider choice among multiple parties are much different from the electoral coalitions of the two-party system, which cause political groupings to mute their differences in an attempt to allow their coalition to win.

Some decry the instability of multiple party systems, but it isn’t easy living free. “Freedom” is just a politician’s fancy word for choice, and multiple party systems offer greater choice and less behind-the-scenes collusion between the parties. In a multi-party system, the collusion among the parties occurs only after the voters have spoken—not before—and is out in the open.

Even the restricted competition in the U.S. political system has eroded since World War II. Military adventures overseas during the Cold War and thereafter have created an imperial presidency much stronger than the nation’s founders had intended.

As in ancient Rome, the empire is slowly destroying the republic. In reality, the American people, who ultimately are supposed to be in charge of the political system, are governed by massive, unresponsive executive-branch bureaucracies. And the Congress, envisioned by the Founders to be the dominant branch of government and a major check on executive power, has ceded much of its power to those bureaucracies, especially in foreign policy and decisions to go to war.

Moreover, although the American people retain the theoretical ability to vote their representatives out of power, they rarely do because incumbent advantages are now so great and gerrymandered geographic boundaries create friendly districts for incumbent members.

Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has been perishing for some time now.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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