The Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable

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Two-party system

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Republican and Democratic parties are entrenched in calcified partisanship, where politics is played as a zero-sum game. The rise of the Tea Party, liberal backlash, and the exodus of moderate voices from Congress all point toward the public’s growing discontent. Has our two-party system failed us? Is this a call to change our two-party system of governance?

  • For the motion


    David Brooks

    Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

  • For the motion


    Arianna Huffington

    Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post

  • Against the Motion


    P.J. O'Rourke

    H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute

  • Against the motion


    Zev Chafets

    Former columnist, New York City News

  • Moderator Image


    John Donvan

    Author and correspondent for ABC News.

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For The Motion

David Brooks

Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

Became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September, 2003. He has been a sr. editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” He is the author of “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” both published by Simon & Schuster.

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For The Motion

Arianna Huffington

Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post

Is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of thirteen books. She is also co-host of Left, Right & Center, public radio’s popular political roundtable program. In May 2005, she launched The Huffington Post, a news and blog site that has quickly become one of the most widely-read, linked to, and frequently-cited media brands on the Internet. In 2006, she was named to the Time 100, Time Magazine's list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

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Against The Motion

Zev Chafets

Former columnist, New York City News

Is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a former columnist for the New York Daily News. He was the founding editor of the Jerusalem Report and is the author of twelve books, including Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. Chafets spent 30 years living in Israel with their multi-party system, during which he was an active participant in the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and a delegate to the first Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations.

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Against The Motion

P.J. O'Rourke

H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute

Is America’s premier political satirist, the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, and the bestselling author of 13 books, including Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards, Parliament of Whores, and Give War a Chance. Both Time and the Wall Street Journal have labeled O’Rourke “the funniest writer in America.” He has written for such diverse publications as Car & Driver, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic Monthly, and Rolling Stone, where he was foreign affairs desk chief for 15 years. In the 70s he was editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon.

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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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    • Comment Link Maya Friday, 06 February 2015 09:42 posted by Maya

      I feel like there should be more that two parties in the system of government in America. This is because the politics seem to be centered around making the other party look bad and minimize their point of view. Instead of should be focused on what the people who they are representing want. The job of politicians is to focus on the people and doing what the majority of the population feels is important and push forward these ideas. Instead it seems the politicans are forwarding their party and what the party thinks is important, and not the people. This makes progress very slow and the people lose their voice. Politicans put their party needs over the people they are representing.

    • Comment Link Perry Kaplan Saturday, 24 January 2015 21:00 posted by Perry Kaplan

      I believe the two party system is the best option we currently have. It has worked for hundreds of years and should not be changed. No matter what system is put in place, their will always be a split on political issues. One of the main points of having two major parties is to help the people in the "middle" make up their mind. The Republicans and Democrats take opposite sides of many issues and they try to win the vote by persuading those in the middle. The two party system is what has worked and it is responsible for America being the best country in the world.

    • Comment Link Maya Smith Tuesday, 11 November 2014 09:37 posted by Maya Smith

      I believe that the for argument won this debate personally, along with a majority in the crowd and the online poll. From the debate alone, I felt the for side was much more concise, organized and effective. They had well Planned points and held their position very strongly over the debate.

    • Comment Link David Monday, 10 November 2014 23:57 posted by David

      I am a High School student who watched this debate for my American Government class. Going into the debate, my personal opinion was that the current two-party system in American government in indeed making America ungovernable. After watching this debate, I feel much more well-informed about both sides of this argument. However, even after watching this entire debate, my prior convictions still stand. I believe that the current two-party system is making America ungovernable. America is undoubtedly going through a really difficult time right now. The argument of those against the motion was that America has faced a multitude of very difficult circumstances, but the two-party system has always seen us through. To an extent, I agree, but I also believe that this system is simply inefficient. Contemporary politicians often squabble for hours on end without producing any results. For instance, America recently faced a fiscal crisis. Politicians had months to decide on a course of action to take, but of course they started squabbling and procrastinated like a High School Freshman, only compromising at the eleventh hour. It is this kind of inefficiency that has led to many problems. The only reason I believe the fiscal crisis was averted was because the politicians had a definite deadline with which to come up with a solution, so they were pressured into compromising. This compromise is great and all, but the vast majority of issues for America do not have such a deadline, so the politicians have absoluetly no incentive with which to compromise and find solutions. Instead, they endlessly squabble and procrastinate instead of keeping the well-being of American citizens in mind. I believe it was Aristotle who argued about the inefficiency of politicians, stating that at some point, politicians aren't very good leaders, they are just good at winning elections. I find this especially true today, when politicians spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their campaigns while the world and America continue to have the same old problems. However, that's a reflection on politicians and not on the two-party system. But at the same time, I also consider this ineptitude of American politicians equally to blame if not more so for America's problems. I believe Americans are in dire need of reforming either the two-party system or the way we select politicians, or both. America is the great experiment of Democracy. In an experiment, some things work and some things don't. We should experiment further, and strive for an effective, productive government that can confront the problems of America and the world we live in.

    • Comment Link Jack Moore Monday, 10 November 2014 23:14 posted by Jack Moore

      The political party systems have worked for over 200 years. Just because we're going through some struggles currently, doesn't mean we have to completely change our system. America has one of the best governments in the world, and has been working for a while. The centrist group has always existed, and the point of the two parties is to try to win those votes. People aren't voting because they're lazy, not because they don't agree with the parties.

    • Comment Link Chrystyna Strumbos Monday, 10 November 2014 22:18 posted by Chrystyna Strumbos

      I agree with the in favor side of the argument with Arianna Huffington and David Brooks. One of the biggest problems I have with the two party system is that it does not consider the middle of the spectrum. It is too black and white for my taste, and many people do not accept these extreme opinions. Political parties are also incredibly similar to a beauty pageant and have turned into a diva contest. Rather than focusing on real societal problems, campaigners are focused on what color tie to wear and what to tell the American people that will make them appear more appealing.

    • Comment Link Amanda B. Monday, 10 November 2014 21:21 posted by Amanda B.

      A system of two parties is not inherently inefficient, but the parties that our country has chosen to split into are not representative of the people's views. We are split into a lens of left vs. right, and people spend more time defending ideologies than actually fixing problems. These highly polarized party promote too much conflict in our political system, and not very much gets done as a result.

    • Comment Link Connor Perry Monday, 10 November 2014 20:47 posted by Connor Perry

      Going into the debate, I was completely and totally in favor of the motion that this present system is a grid lock and that it needs to massively overhauled. I still agree with parts of their arguments; for example, I still believe that money needs to get it's disgustingly corrupting fingers out of congress, I believe that we need to engage in more cross party debate, and something they brought up near the end of the debate is non-partisan primaries.
      However, as Mr. O'Rourke pointed out again and again, what is the other option other than the two-party system? I don't have personal experience, but between news reported by the Huffington Post to CNN, countries with multi-party systems don't have that much better representation than we do with a stagnated and polarized congress like present. This combined with the points made by Mr. O'Rourke about how polarization isn't a bad thing. I understand Mr. Brooks' point on the fact that it is more polarized than in the past, but even still what else is their to move our system to?
      Personally, I believed the winning team was well deserved and was swayed by their arguments, even still I will be registering as "independent" when I register to vote in April.

    • Comment Link Emily W Monday, 10 November 2014 18:38 posted by Emily W

      Regarding the debate, I disagree with who the panels chose as winners. While I may agree with their side, Ariana Huffington and David Brooks did a much better job explaining why it was ungovernable. They gave statistics and showed how low voter turnout is, and showed how stubborn they are regarding compromise with each other. The points that they made were backed by evidence and made their argument more valid. The other side of the argument, basically said that if America does not use a two-party system, what would we do instead? They may have agreed that it is difficult to work with, but they said that it was the best we can do.
      That is laziness. Just because we can not think of anything better to do, we should not continue using a failing system. PJ O’Rourke stated "Republicans are the one's who say that government is not working and then they get elected and prove it." So he agrees that government is not working, yet he sees no solution.

    • Comment Link Andrew Fischer Monday, 10 November 2014 17:41 posted by Andrew Fischer

      I found the debate enlightening, as I had previously considered the notion of the two-party system being ineffective. Each side had its flaws, Huffington used excessive pathos and implied a need for sympathy, whereas O'Rourke and Chafets had no constructive justifications for a two-party system being the only effective system for the United States government.

    • Comment Link Spencer; Mr. Zs gov class Monday, 10 November 2014 16:08 posted by Spencer; Mr. Zs gov class

      The two party system is the only system that America has ever known. The country has never ventured to other forms of the system because of many reasons and it should not explore other forms of the system. First, is that while the system has failed before it has also had its glorious times. Second is that America is not in a position to take a risk with the system already formed. With all the issues happening around the world it better for America to focus more on the global concerns. Not the domestic concerns.Third, the 3rd parties are not legitimate enough yet because of money they lack of and less media attention.

    • Comment Link Sean M. Monday, 10 November 2014 16:06 posted by Sean M.

      I would agree with what P.J O'Rourke said, that the two major political parties are not effective at dealing with political problems. I cannot think of what can be done to change this, other than waiting for the system to correct itself like it has in the past. History repeats itself and I believe that eventually people will see that electing from the same groups of people is causing this lack of efficient government. If any other system is put in place to make sure that the federal government is not composed of two major political parties, it would be unconstitutional.

      Over time citizens will start to see the problems with both major political parties and will respond by voting for other parties. I would even go as far to say that the problem is with the citizens and not the system itself. If citizens were to inform themselves and gain an understanding that just watching the news is not enough, they would see that the problem can be fixed with them.

    • Comment Link Cate G. Monday, 10 November 2014 13:50 posted by Cate G.

      I've always thought to blame particular party candidates, rather than the system when something goes wrong. This debate brought to light the fact that the problem might be with the two party foundation, rather than the people themselves. I was impressed with Ariana Huffington's point that the system encourages us to look at issues from a left vs. right viewpoint, rather than objectively in order to find the best solution. Also David Brooks made a good point about the two parties not knowing anything about one another because of the way the system is set up. These two debaters swayed me to agree with the corruption of the two party system.

    • Comment Link Matthew Monday, 10 November 2014 13:07 posted by Matthew

      Thanks so much for hosting this debate. This is a conversation that needs to be had with increasing frequency. The status quote should be thoroughly and frequently challenged.

      Thomas Jefferson said in 1787, "What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

      I am not by any means condoning armed resistance, but am agreeing with Mr. Jefferson's affirmation that it is our civic responsibility to participate in a government whose operations are deliberate and agreed upon, and not simply because "That's the way it's always been."

    • Comment Link Jenni Wednesday, 12 March 2014 16:44 posted by Jenni

      I disagree with the declaration that the winner is the side that is "against the motion".

      They may have changed the opinion of more undecided people than the side "for the motion", but ultimately the result is that those "for the motion" out-number those that "oppose the motion" by 10%.

      The 10% that are undecided cannot be added to the group that is "for the motion" nor the group that is "opposed to the motion". It just doesn't add up that way.

      Also, online polling has 75% for the motion and 25% against it. Why was this was not included in the final results for the declaration of the winner?

      I believe that the results for this debate weren't tabulated fairly.

    • Comment Link Joseph Thursday, 24 October 2013 20:23 posted by Joseph

      I agree with the motion that the two-party system is making the US ungovernable. However, the real culprit here is not the two parties per se, but rather the voting system itself. We elect our representatives using a winner-takes-all method which inevitably leads to a binary outcome. Due to the spoiler effect, third party candidates are almost never viable. Gerrymandering only compounds the polarization problem. In order to create a more balanced political landscape, where elections are actually competitive and minority parties are viable, we need to completely change our voting system. A mixed-member proportional (MMP) system would be ideal, but such an overhaul would require a constitutional amendment.

      Here is a great video which clearly explains the MMP system:

    • Comment Link Gene Wednesday, 23 October 2013 18:32 posted by Gene

      The problem is not with the 2 party system per se. The problem is that gerrymandering has created congressional seats that are too homogenous. This allows congressmen to blindly pander to their constituents and not worry about compromise .

    • Comment Link Tom Pandolfo Wednesday, 23 October 2013 17:04 posted by Tom Pandolfo

      As much as I harbor great disappointment with the current state of the two party system, I suggest there are has other root causes at work: The factionalism that is part of the Tea Party; the fact we no longer seem to have citizens in politics whose purposes are more noble than provincial. The Founders had a great number of aristocrats whose political dispositions were much more noble than the current crop of politicians; And close to the top of the list, the fact our "fourth estate" serves very little purpose save for profit maximization. We live in an age of an avalanche of information but have little means with which to discern what information is factual and what information is bogus. We therefore choose that information source which confirms our biases instead of challenges it. The Two Party system is a symptom, but not the cause(s).

    • Comment Link Julie Saturday, 19 October 2013 19:31 posted by Julie

      electoral politics have gone so way off the cliff it's really hard to know if a vibrant 3rd party would steer the country back to sense. If there were moderate Republicans in Minnesota and Illinois and New York and California and Texas who weren't taken over by a tiny minority of wingnuts I might be inclined to agree with PJ that it's just us voters who make the mistakes of electing the Sarah Palins and the Michele Bachmanns and the Louis Gohmerts. The percentage of voters who bring these people into office is eensy-beensy. That the rules allow them to be voted into office is frightening. Can the clear thinking populace elect clear thinking representatives who believe in governance and set clear thinking rules about electing people? I'm just not sure. What we need is elected officials who are driven by the greater good to govern and to not obstruct, regardless of party affiliation. So in this current era, no one is ensured that we have that need to govern by a tiny minority.

    • Comment Link Timothy Monday, 14 October 2013 04:20 posted by Timothy

      The only people I hear who think the two party system works at all anymore and hasn't been behind the continual downward slide of US politics since the 1940s are members of those parties. Jefferson and Paine were right, a two-party stalemate did indeed paralyze the nation, legitimized corruption, and undermined the trust and worth of its government.

      At this point, no one I know personally, conservative, liberal or independent, including four close friends with PoliSci degrees, votes. No one. It's easy to say "citizens need to vote better" but who are we supposed to vote for? As soon as you learn how the election process now works, run by the two parties it's easy to see why any vote winds up supporting the dysfunctional status quo. Without real options, a non-vote is their vote of no confidence in the system.

      Personally, I've postponed launching my machined products business while considering foreign citizenship options. I've thoroughly had it with this absurd country. All the money in the world, and no vision. Ridiculous.

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