In case, you hadn't heard the news, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has switched parties, from Republican to Democrat. There's plenty of analysis out there about what that means for this congress, but I want to use it to make some points about the two-party system.
Pennsylvania is an interesting state. Until today, it had a pro-choice Republican and a pro-life Democrat as its Senators. This, I think, perfectly illustrates one of the major problems: on the issues of the day, there is a strong incentive (mostly money in the form of party campaign contributions, but other incentives as well) for politicians to adopt the full party-line on all issues. A pro-choice Republican is noteworthy because it is such an exception. But what thread runs through a person's views on, for example, abortion, gun control, immigration, and corporate taxation? Is there any reason that a person's view on those four issues should go together with such high regularity? I don't see one. And yet, from the 16 possible combinations of stances on those four issues, typically voters only get to choose between two pre-defined packages.
Let's be clear on something: Specter is leaving the Republican party for one reason and one reason only, and that's because polls show him losing by 20% to his most likely challenger in the Republican primary (Pennsylvania has closed primaries; only registered Republicans get to vote in the Republican primary, and 200,000 moderate Republicans jumped ship to vote in last year's Democratic pressidential primary).
Changing parties is his only hope for survival. But he's always been on the left outskirts of the Republican party, ever since the last time he switched, from Democrat to Republican. He's a man whose views just don't line up perfectly with either of the two major parties. Which, while making him an exception in Congress, makes him part of the American plurality: more Americans identify as neither Republican nor Democrat (38% versus 35% Democrats and 21% Republicans). So if most people are independents, why are barely one-third of one-percent of congress independents? It's not a conspiracy, it's the system. The system we chose for our elections—singe-winner districts chosen by plurality vote—always tends toward two-party domination. And Specter, like most Americans, finds himself stuck in the middle, not liking either option.
But there's good news: we can change the system. We can use different voting methods that don't suffer from two-party domination, such as score- and approval-voting, or we could change from single-winner districts to a system of proportional representation. There will be opposition; afterall, it's not easy to change the law when all the law-makers owe their position to the law you want to change. But today, I hope, we have received a new ally in this fight. Please, contact Senator Specter to bring this issue, to bring the solution to his own troubles, to his attention.