17 February 2011

The Two-Party System subjected to debate

Last Tuesday night New York University hosted a debate on the harmful effects of the American Bipolarchy. Strangely, two people I consider partisan, Arianna Huffington and David Brooks, were assigned to argue for the resolution that "America's Two-Party System is Making America Ungovernable," while libertarian humorist P. J. O'Rourke and Israeli journalist Zeev Chafets were teamed to dispute the premise. The complete debate is to be broadcast on National Public Radio and cable TV next week; for now, this is the most detailed account of the debate and the rules by which Huffington and Brooks "lost" despite 50% of the audience agreeing with them.

Huffington's reported comments look trivial but telling. She described the present Bipolarchy as a "stale marriage," perhaps unconsciously emphasizing the bond that unites the two major parties with imagery that would enrage many partisans. Brooks contended that the Bipolarchy forced otherwise decent and reasonable politicians to "behave in ways that are worse than they are." We'll have to wait for the broadcast for more details.

O'Rourke and Chafets challenged the resolution not by affirming the virtues or necessity of a two-party system, but by questioning the benefit of adding more parties to the mix. O'Rourke denied that the Democratic and Republican parties even counted as such in the (for him apparently crucial) ideological sense of the word. The absence of ideological major parties, as he presumably presumed any alternative to be, was a point in favor of the American political system in general as far as he was concerned. Chafets spoke from his experience as an Israeli living under a genuine multiparty system, and made the most substantive comments so far reported. He suggested that the desire for parties to represent every possible individual viewpoint was hopeless. Israel has a 14-party system, he noted, yet he and many other Israelis still felt that no party really represented them. But should parties subdivide further or even smaller parties emerge, that would only make any polity more ungovernable, Chafets claimed.

From these early reports, none of the debaters, except perhaps for Brooks, seems to have addressed the specific consequences of a two-party system in general terms. The debate was more likely a deliberation on the particular faults of the Democratic and Republican parties than a discussion of Bipolarchy or duopoly as an abstract political problem. The mostly superficial early reports have portrayed the debate as a victory for O'Rourke and Chafets if not as a vindication of the two-party system. That team "won" the debate based on a measurement of minds they presumably changed. A poll was taken on the resolution before the debate started, then retaken afterward. In the first poll, 24% of the audience disagreed with the anti-Bipolarchy resolution. Afterward, 40% agreed with O'Rourke and Chafets. Meanwhile, despite their reportedly lackluster performances, Huffington and Brooks increased the percentage of the audience agreeing with the resolution from 46% to 50%. The debate served to focus people's opinions, the percentage undecided declining from 30% to 10%. An approximate majority of the audience was convinced that "America's Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable," yet that side of the debate is the "losing" side in the early reports. Media bias, anyone?...