Liam Madden: The two-party system is broken, and problems continue to fester

This commentary is by Liam Madden of Brattleboro, a Marine Corps veteran, a national antiwar leader, an MIT Climate Change Solver, and winner of a human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s running for Congress as an independent.

Most of us do not need to be convinced that the two-party system is incapable of solving our challenges. Disgust for the system’s corruption and ineffectiveness happens to be one of the few remaining areas of agreement between the left and right. 

The primary reason that two-thirds of Americans agree the system is broken is evident: Our major problems continue to fester. The country’s unaddressed problems range from declining health and rising health care costs to growing inequality and an economy based on never-ending growth and accelerating resource depletion. 

Overarching these problems are threats of ecological devastation and fears that technologies like artificial intelligence or mass-scale weapons will land in the wrong hands.

Further, we are dismayed by the issues the two parties do agree on: keeping the war machine well fed, billionaires appeased, and —  especially — making sure nobody threatens the death grip the two parties have on our government.

There is a path out. I will get there, but give me one more moment to remind us why it is so important that we liberate ourselves from this stranglehold on our ability to self-govern.

First of all, the two parties don’t represent us. Most of us have significant disagreements with the party platforms of the major party we happen to align with more. Yet those important disagreements get lost, and nuance — and the superior problem-solving possible when nuance lives — is foregone.

Also, the two-party system drives us apart. For example, President Trump did not represent most Republicans. In most races, he won less than 40% of the vote of Republican primary voters. A total of only 4% of the population made Trump the Republican Evil in our lesser-of-two-evils contest. Yet, he became their only option in the general election. 

A natural consequence of the two-party system is that it drives us toward extremes, making good problem-solving nearly impossible.

These dangers were foreseen by the nation’s founders. George Washington said, “The alternate domination of one faction over another …  is itself a frightful despotism.” John Adams adds, “A division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”

So, it sucks. But what do we do? 

Going with “Yeah, the system is broken, but just vote for my side” will not change a thing. That stance implies: “This is a war, not a cooperative endeavor, and let’s just dominate those who disagree with us.” But experience teaches us that helping one side win doesn't work, even if we feel right about dominating the minority into irrelevance.

Then there’s the naive nonsense of the two-party moderate: “Vote for me; I’m in the middle and I’ll bring the sides together.” These folks might think they are so charismatic that their efforts are sufficient to hold together the parting continents of a system designed to polarize our politics. But they are foolish if they think they can solve this situation — and we are naive to believe them.

So what will work?

First, we might consider that our system was built when information traveled at the speed of horseback. It now travels at the speed of light. Maybe, just maybe, upgrading our governmental design to responsibly accommodate technology is part of the answer here.

I see three ways an online democracy can pivot us off our current path and onto a productive track.

• First, we must use technology to gather input from the public often — not every two to four years, when we get to choose between the lesser of two evils. That is, we need a system that allows the public to inform and weigh in upon policy much more frequently than current election cycles allow. 

• We need also to create a simple-to-use, yet technically sophisticated, online forum (with appropriate safeguards to prevent corruption and fraud) whereby the public can submit and amend policy solutions. Policy measures that reach a certain high threshold of public support, particularly support across the ideological spectrum, are automatically put to the legislators to vote on. If support is great enough, policy bypasses politicians altogether.

These two steps give the citizenry more power, but it will not necessarily help them make wise policy. That is the purpose of step three.

• We must build a “Democracy Forum” with the same technological power that currently highlights, emphasizes and circulates the most divisive and polarizing ideas in social media — but point that technology in the opposite direction. Using artificial-intelligence-enhanced social media algorithms — transparently — to accelerate our compassion, maturity, shared understanding, and other virtues will create a context where novel and broadly supported solutions can be refined and revealed. We need contexts where we feel safe being vulnerable, in order to actually work together.

Also, I believe we should allow people who have achieved a large amount of public trust/expertise on given issues to have disproportionate influence on policy in those areas. 

These steps are not a comprehensive map, but they serve as a viable starting point. An outline. They are not a replacement of Congress, or of the Constitution; they are a necessary modernization.

Yet, we must radically improve our personal-level tools too — our empathy, listening and perspective-taking abilities. Democracy can survive only when there is health on the individual and collective scale.

Voting for the lesser of two evils or for moderates means that nothing will change, no matter who the candidate. Our primary voting criterion must be a commitment to fixing government — at a root-cause level. This must become an explicit test for every candidate: "Do you support a direct democracy forum?” 

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