Left Out in the Cold: Discussion of Two-Party Duopoly at Cato

by Morgan Waters // Published October 19, 2009

As Americans we have come to expect choice in what can get out of life, in food, clothing, even in government. But the new book, Not Invited to the Party: How the Demopublicans Have Rigged the System and Left Independents Out in the Cold, by George Mason University professor James T. Bennett, hopes to dispel at least one of those myths. Last Tuesday, Cato Institute featured a book forum on what has been called the tyranny of the two-party system. The talk featured Bennett, Theresa Amato (former campaign manager for Ralph Nader during the 2000 and 2004 elections), John Samples of the Cato Institute and Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a former member of the FEC.

Bennett started off by mentioning how his book's forward is written by Ralph Nader and his afterword is written by Bill Redpath, chair of the Libertarian Party. "Something has to be wrong, folks, when you have Ralph Nader praising my work on the one hand, and Bill Redpath on the other."

In the book, Bennett points out what he sees as the similarities between the two parties. Referring to the Democrats and the Republicans as the "Demopublicans." Bennett challenged the idea that the two major parties were sufficient choices for the American political system. "We need new approaches, to problems," he said. "We need more issues put before the American voter, we need to widen the range of political debate. That is what third parties have done."

Pointing out the high levels of turnout early in our nation's history, Bennett submitted that the Democrats and the Republicans have since re-organized the system so that they are entrenched to the exclusion of other potentially viable parties."Third parties have traditionally challenged the status quo, particularly before the Civil War," said Bennett.

In order to fix these problems Bennett feels we would benefit from repealing all ballot access laws, repealing "sore loser laws" which keep candidates in the primaries of other parties from running as independents in the general election, and anti-fusion laws which prevent candidates for public office run with more than one party. He also advocated the repeal of all restrictions on campaign finance, but with the proviso that all donations be disclosed online. Finally, Bennett recommended the implementation of instant runoff voting.

Theresa Amato, author of the recent book, Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny, discussed some of the issues she faced as campaign manager for Ralph Nader's 2000 and 2004 campaigns for president. "It's in fact nearly impossible to run an effective presidential campaign outside of the two-party system," said Amato. After running both a third party campaign and an independent campaign, she knows just how difficult it can be. "You spend two-thirds of the campaign just getting to the starting point where the major two parties start off," said Amato.

Amato saw four significant problems with today's system- the regulatory system for campaign finance, ballot access laws, a hostile media, and the Commission on Presidential Debates. "These problems are fundamentally structural," said Amato.

Spakovsky agreed with Amato that the Federal Election Campaign Act has made it difficult for anyone to run for office, and the system has made it difficult for any 3rd party or Independent to gain funding. After two years at the FEC trying to enforce the law; Spakovsky strongly believes should be repealed,

"I think the FECA law has protected incumbents, and made it very difficult for ordinary citizens to run for office, as I said. Because it is a byzantine and a confusing law even the six commissioners who run it often disagree, doing their best, as lawyers to try to figure out what law prohibits and what it doesn't."

Spakovsky also felt that ballot access laws are too restrictive, as are anti-fusion laws and campaign finance laws. However, he is skeptical of the idea that new ideas will come forth from letting all the other parties compete, and disagrees with Bennett that the two major parties are very similar.

We at FairVote know that more choices increase enthusiasm for participation, add more depth to debate about important issues, and strengthen the overall health of our democracy, which is why reforms like instant runoff voting and proportional voting can do so much to improve the way we hold elections. Amato summed it up best, saying, "At the end of the day, you want consent to come from the governed. We have to look at how we vote, and the systems in place that offer choices for whom we can vote, in order to be able to maximize consent of the governed."

Video of the Book Forum can be found here.