Imagining An End to the Culture War

Published by Holden Culotta on

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Ending the culture war appears to be dependent on ending the two-party system. Union ForwardRead More

The United States is facing a crisis of confidence in its political and economic systems. As Americans grapple with the consequences of cynical partisanship and the erosion of trust in our institutions, the path to reform and recovery feels shrouded in dark money.

Fox News Virtual Town Hall with President Trump, May 3, 2020 [Credit—Trump White House Archived (edited)]

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In order to uncover this path, we must address electoral manipulation, media’s role in elevating partisanship, and pervasive corruption in our society, among other things. A record-high number of Americans agree that a third party is an essential first step to reversing our great nation’s decline.

The fanatical culture war which engulfs too many aspects of our modern society obscures the roots of our problems by replacing nuance with childishly simplistic narratives of left versus right, good versus evil, or democracy versus fascism.

In 2022, a Gallup survey revealed fewer than 30 percent of Americans had confidence in institutions like the presidency, the Supreme Court, and public schools. Fewer than 20 percent had confidence in Congress, newspapers, or the criminal justice system. Across all institutions, average confidence stood at a dismal 27 percent.


Gallup survey results on Americans’ confidence in major U.S. institutions, July 5, 2022 [Credit—Gallup]

How did we get into a culture war?

To chart the path towards reform and recovery, we must first acknowledge the forces fueling our polarization. No one person or entity is to blame for the fragile state of our Union today, nor did we did get here purely by accident.

U.S. elections have become less competitive in recent years due to gerrymandering. In practical terms, gerrymandering—or the manipulation of electoral districts to cement one-party rule—means that most general elections are decided long before voters cast their ballots. Candidates are incentivized to cater exclusively to party loyalists in primary elections, neglecting outreach to independents or the opposing party due to noncompetitive general elections.

Meanwhile, news outlets leapt to capitalize on the rise of political extremism. Former CBS CEO Les Moonves remarked to investors in 2016 that Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing campaign may have been bad news for America, but the advertising money was “rolling in.”

This warped version of democracy, in which barely a quarter of Americans affiliate with either major party, has become a breeding ground for cynicism and disaffection.

The two parties’ subversion of democracy and the media’s divorce from journalistic integrity, however, are both symptoms of the underlying diseases of waste and corruption. As the U.S. government’s capacity to solve problems has been undermined and eroded in recent decades, our problems have unsurprisingly metastasized.

Healthcare exemplifies the inefficiencies which characterize American society, and similar stories can be found in other areas such as education and defense spending. In 2021, healthcare spending consumed 17.8 percent of the U.S. GDP, significantly higher than other advanced democracies. Despite this, the U.S. has the “lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest death rates for avoidable or treatable conditions,” and “the highest maternal and infant mortality.”

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OECD countries’ healthcare spending as a percent of GDP, January 31, 2023 [Credit—The Commonwealth Fund]

Despite above-average education spending, American students’ performance is near or below global averages and in decline. The annual defense budget increased by 223 percent since 2000, yet in November 2022, the Department of Defense revealed its fifth failed audit, with 61 percent of its $3.5 trillion of assets unaccounted for.

Forces of disillusionment and despair have thus rooted themselves in our communities. Annual fentanyl overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021, from approximately 35,000 to 70,000, despite prescription opioid deaths remaining largely stagnant. Annual gun-related deaths tripled between 2017 and 2021, while suicide rates increased nearly 40 percent since 2000. A study published in 2019 found that approximately 500,000 Americans each year filed for bankruptcy due to medical debt.

In essence, the culture wars stem from the erosion of average Americans’ ability to attain financial self-reliance, impact government policy, or simply survive. Basic costs of living such as healthcare, renting an apartment or buying a home, childcare, and college education are increasingly unaffordable for the average person.

Charting the path towards reform and recovery demands that average Americans figure out how to take back control of our political and economic fortunes from an elite group of Democratic and Republican Party bosses and corporate executives. This starts in our communities.

How can we end the culture war?

First, Americans should turn our focus as locally as possible. The likelihood that an average American could impact a presidential election is exceedingly low in today’s political environment, but local politics are a different story. There are approximately 519,000 elected offices in the U.S., yet most are uncontested, leaving only one candidate on the ballot.

Local positions, which can significantly impact Americans’ daily lives, provide opportunities for new parties to challenge uncontested elections and foster a vibrant multi-party democracy.

If the U.S. is to preserve our republican (small-r) government and our democratic (small-d) process, it will require thousands of average people to step up and run for boards of education, finance, planning and zoning, police and fire commissioners, and more. It is imperative for average Americans to tackle issues in our communities that Washington, D.C. has proven it cannot.

There are certainly issues that cannot be dealt with at the local level. Building new parties from the ground up, however, appears to be the most efficient route to restoring average Americans’ ability to influence state and national issues once again.

Second, election reforms are vital for a more representative democracy. Adopting ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries, as in Alaska, Maine, and Nevada, can foster a more competitive political landscape.

The traditional U.S. voting system, which allows voters to choose just one candidate, perpetuates something known as the “vote-splitting effect” or the “spoiler effect,” thus preventing candidates outside the two-party system from being treated as legitimate contenders. Despite the fact that 49 percent of Americans are not Democrats or Republicans, the two parties retain near-complete control over the nomination of candidates.

Party primaries are perhaps the most egregious example of partisan control where it is unwarranted. In an environment where nearly half of Americans are unaffiliated with either party, candidates should not be forced to win over a small group of primary voters in order to even win a nomination to the general election. Nonpartisan primaries, adopted by a handful of states, hold one primary election for all candidates, requiring them to appeal to all voters rather than a small partisan segment of the population.

Independent redistricting commissions, as eight states have adopted, aim to take the power to redraw congressional districts away from elected partisans and hand it to an independent or bipartisan body. Individually, each of these reforms tackles only a piece of the puzzle. States which adopt just one or two, however, give independents and nonpartisans a degree of leverage they do not have under the traditional system of choose-one voting, party primaries, and gerrymandered districts.

Excluding a major shift in the current political environment, ending the culture wars appears to be dependent on ending the two-party system. The movement to end the two-party system should not be exclusive; ultimately, a country of 330 million people should be represented by a constellation of national parties, state parties, local parties, and single-issue parties—not just two or three.

Should minor parties shift their collective attention towards election reforms that give voters meaningful tools to vote against the two-party system—as the Forward Party is calling for—and maintaining a laser focus on local elections they are capable of winning, they will soon be closer to building a credible alternative to the two-party system than anyone has been in decades.

The Forward Party, established in 2021, aims to be a non-ideological alternative with a focus on reforming elections and government processes. The new party has merged or formed alliances with a number of national and state-level parties including the Serve America Movement (SAM), the Renew America Movement (RAM), the Common Sense Party in California, and the Griebel-Frank for Connecticut Party in the hopes of uniting America’s independent-minded voters under a shared banner.

Forging alliances between existing minor parties has already brought former Republicans, former Democrats, and former independents into the coalition. Four Arizona House Democrats announced themselves as Forward Democrats at an event in March, the first current office-holders to do so.

The Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and Reform parties, which have all managed to elect local officials, can build upon their foundations and expand their local networks. Stringent ballot access laws, however, are like a cherry on top of gerrymandering and pervasive corruption which prevent many minor parties from earning and keeping ballot access.

Pluralistic politics must replace the restrictive, divisive two-party culture war. Minor parties should strive to collaborate towards a vibrant multi-party future in every way possible.

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Ending the culture war is not something that can or will be done in one fell swoop. A laundry list of reforms are necessary, and the path to enacting these reforms is not always clear.

Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim, “politics is the art of the possible,” is especially relevant to 21st-century America. 49 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with the two-party system and most agree that fundamental political and economic reform has become necessary, but none of it can happen without serious, focused organizing.

Paradoxically, minor parties and independent-minded voters must abandon their national campaign ambitions if they hope to one day run competitive national campaigns. It is not possible for a minor party to win a presidential campaign in 2024 based on the notion that voters will “wake up” and collectively decide to forget the third party spoiler effect.

It is possible, however, for minor parties to win a substantial number of local elections in the coming years and position themselves to be competitive at the state or national level in 2026 and 2028. After all, a record-high number of unaffiliated voters means that the window for new parties to emerge has never been wider.

Ambitious minor parties only have to recognize that several foundational steps must be taken before the two-party culture war can be replaced with peaceful, thriving pluralism.

Union Forward
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Third parties in the United States, despite their ideological differences, are united by one thing: they are not competing on a level playing field. I spoke with members of three different minor parties in the U.S. about their experiences as candidates and activists in the world of third party politics. Each discussed disillusionment with the two major p…
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2. How partisans view each other — Pew Research Center

Alaska Ballot Measure 2, Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting and Campaign Finance Laws Initiative (2020) — Ballotpedia

AZ Central Covers Our Forward Together Phoenix Event: 03/20/2023 — FWD Together

Common Sense Party

Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low — Gallup

Defense Department fails another audit, but makes progress — The Hill

Drug Overdose Death Rates — National Institute on Drug Abuse

Elected Officials — Libertarian Party

Forward Party Alliance Partner Champions RCV in Connecticut — Forward Party

Forward Party

Forward Together

Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP): United States — The World Bank

Greens in Office — GPUS Elections Database

Growth in DoD’s Budget From 2000 to 2014 — Congressional Budget Office

Just how many elected officials are there in the United States? The answer is mind-blowing — Daily Kos

Maine Question 5, Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative (2016) — Ballotpedia

Medical Bankruptcy: Still Common Despite the Affordable Care Act — American Public Health Association, Vol. 109 Issue 3

Nevada Question 3, Top-Five Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative (2022) — Ballotpedia

Nine facts about state and local policy — The Brookings Institution

Nothing to Lose: Uncontested Races in 2020 — BallotReady for Organizations

Party Affiliation — Gallup Historical Trends

Past Summary Ledgers — Gun Violence Archive

Renew America Movement

Single-Winner Districts and the Failures of Redistricting — Fix Our House

State-by-state redistricting procedures — Ballotpedia

Support for Third U.S. Political Party at High Point — Gallup

Thanks to new congressional maps, most Americans’ votes won’t matter — The Guardian

Trump: Bad for America, Good for CBS — Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries — Pew Research Center

U.S. Health Care from a Global Perspective — The Commonwealth Fund