By: Patrick Healy, Assistant Opinion Editor
Though there are but two parties, the U.S. Congress has hundreds of caucuses. They range from weird (Long-Range Strike Caucus) to oddly specific (Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Task Force) to repetitive (why have a New Democrat Caucus when the Chicken Caucus exists?). There’s also a Friends of New Zealand caucus (everybody should belong to this one).
Speaking of New Zealand, they don’t really have caucuses. They just have parties that can handle the nuanced views of their population without needing a sub-party sorting mechanism. Caucuses are like teenage romances — the way “like liking” someone is entirely different from just “liking” someone is similar to how a progressive Democrat (a “Democraty Democrat” perhaps) is entirely different from a centrist Democrat.
There are six major ideological caucuses in Congress: “sub-parties.” From left to right, there are the Progressives, New Democrats, Blue Dogs, the Republican Main Street Partnership, the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus.
Then there are three major racial/ethnic caucuses, the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses, each of which consist entirely of Democrats and whose members usually belong simultaneously to one of the ideological caucuses.
So if we already have caucuses, then why so much bother about third parties? For one, caucuses aren’t parties; they aren’t listed on the ballot, so they can’t be voted on and thus don’t have actual constituencies. I doubt many Americans know what a caucus is or could name one. Second, from a perspective of power, they have none. It’s hard to be taken seriously when you don’t wield power.
For all the profiles and photoshopped pictures painting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and their fellow progressives as shadowy demons pulling the strings of Pelosi and the Democrats, the centrist Speaker typically exercises an iron grip on her party. Through her chairship of the Steering Committee, which appoints members to the very powerful committees, she can dish out power to those please her — and withhold it from those who don’t.
Republicans and Democrats have different rules about committee assignments, but both parties want to remain in power and detest members who break ranks too often. Aside from relegating members to the legislative sidelines, the parties can revoke funding or even fund a primary opponent. The dependence on the two main parties for power and money is why caucuses need to be transformed into parties of their own.
About 1 in 4 Americans are white evangelicals. With 80% of them voting for Trump, and consistent support for Republicans in general, I think there’s a solid 20% of Americans who would form a politically homogeneous (white) Evangelical party that promotes traditional white American values in education and the judiciary and opposes gay marriage and legal abortion.
Then there’s the classic conservative, the middle- and upper-income self-styled libertarians who oppose wealth redistribution and regulation. They are socially conservative on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage but are willing to sacrifice them in favor of their fiscal goals.
If evangelicals’ top issue is religion and conservatives care mainly about economics, then the main concerns of the other main bloc of Republican voters are immigration, national security and gun rights. While evangelicals and conservatives later rallied around Trump, I think nationalists are the faction that originally led to his 2015-16 rise. The border wall and defense funding appealed to this group, which is usually also socially and fiscally conservative but not dogmatically so. America First is a fitting name for this nationalist faction.
Given that Republicans in total make up about 45% of the population, the base could be divided between three wings: Evangelicals at 20%, Conservatives at 15% and America First at 10%.
Splitting up the Democrats is a little more difficult because of their racial diversity. The furthest left, the Progressives: supporters of universal healthcare, financial regulation and drastic climate reform.
Next, the Black Party. Though they aren’t an ideological caucus, they are the most active and important of the other caucuses. Black Democrats are more religious and typically identify as more moderate than white Democrats. Plus, the historical independence of Black politics is emphasized by the Black Caucus motto: “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”
Joe Biden would find a home in a centrist party best called the Unionists. That name is somewhat loaded historically, but it’s more descriptive than Democrats. Their domestic messaging emphasizes labor unions and national unity. As for foreign policy, they seek to unify nations around free trade and U.S.-led military strength. They’d rather solidify existing government programs like Medicare and Social Security than expand them as Progressives would.
One of the biggest splits between potential Unionist and Black parties might be reparations for descendants of slaves; a 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that half of Black people support reparations compared to just one in ten white people. The Black Party would obviously expend more energy on other matters of racial inequity such as affirmative action, police brutality and prison reform.
While Progressives usually agree about drastic measures to correct racial disparities, their stances on climate and financial regulation, as well as same-sex marriage, are significantly further left than those of most Black voters.
Based on the current caucuses, polling and the 2020 presidential primary, I think Unionists would have about 25% of seats, Progressives 20% and Blacks 10%.
The complexity of trying to predict parties and platforms in a multi-party United States is itself an important point: politics should be complex. As demonstrated by the existence of caucuses and primaries, there aren’t just two streams of thought.
Were we to switch to a multi-party system, I don’t think we’d see an immediate impact on voting. Because the two-party system has forced Democrat and Republican voters to take the opposite side on every single issue, it’ll take generations for policies to mix across the current party lines.
We might see an immediate impact on campaign finance; voting between a half-dozen relatively unchanging parties instead of dozens of different candidates every election cycle leaves much less room for money to make a difference. Plus, the transition from district to at-large elections could reduce pork barrel spending as well as some of the district-based incentives that lead representatives to protect the needlessly massive military budget.
As it is, the Senate already perverts representation; Wyoming voters are represented sixty-seven times more than Californian voters. Bicameralism is pointless, especially when the upper house is so skewed towards conservatism and two parties. The Senate’s continued existence would cripple a multi-party House, so it would need to be abolished (as it should be regardless).
Also, the separation between the executive and legislative branches needs to go. For us to benefit fully from multiple parties, we need to offer executive positions as bargaining chips for the parties to compromise with. For example, using contemporary politicians, Joe Biden’s Unionists could offer the Progressive Party three cabinet positions and the Black Party two in exchange for making Joe Biden the president.
Would Donald Trump have become president if we were a parliamentary, rather than a presidential, country? I think he would have led the America First Party and would have been tolerated by the evangelicals and conservatives enough to gain him a cabinet position or maybe the vice presidency. But he would not have been forced to take over the entire GOP to wield any power. Had he been given a little power, he wouldn’t have had to gamble all of it for the presidency.
Would we see the strife between Sanders and Biden supporters? If each were given power proportional to their support, instead of each having to compete for total control of one party, Biden could have focused on the general election and Sanders could have traded his support for a few of the cabinet positions. Instead, Biden had to sweat out a narrow win (by the Electoral College anyway) and progressives got scant representation in the cabinet.
Obviously, none of this is likely. Term limits are an option, but they remove career politicians without removing the harmful effects of incumbency — two-party control, dependence on money — they represent. Campaign finance reform is helpful, but can’t account for every loophole. If we want to solve issues involving polarization, gridlock, dark money and career politicians, we should aim for a system that addresses the root problem of all of them: the two-party system.