Back in the fall of 2007, I was asked to speak at a joint academic-intelligence community conference looking at long-range trends, specifically ones that might come to fruition by 2025. I don't remember all my predictions, but I remember my last one: that there was a reasonable chance that the two-party system in the United States would not be dominated in 2025 by both the Democratic and Republican parties. I thought of that prediction when the political dysfunction in Washington culminated in the current government shutdown (with a looming debt-ceiling crisis in the wings).
There are good structural reasons the U.S. electoral system tends to only have two national parties, so it is unlikely that the United States would evolve toward an enduring multiparty system like those prevalent in Europe. But dominance by these particular two parties is not structurally determined. Both of these parties emerged out of the failures of previously dominant ones, and we may be witnessing the painful death of one or both of the existing parties.
Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that the Republicans are the ones dying and that the Tea Party revolt from within the Republican ranks is hastening the demise. That seems to be the calculation of President Barack Obama and his political advisors, who clearly think they will emerge from the shutdown crisis with a less-damaged brand than Republicans. I have even heard some Tea Partiers talk like that themselves, in a "we may have to destroy the Republican Party to save it" kind of way.
But the Democrats have their own deep divisions. If the shutdown were not dominating the news, the headlines might focus on unions' concerns about the impact of Obamacare on their core interests. And nowhere are those divisions more evident than in foreign policy. Obama's efforts on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, drone strikes, and so on all divide Democrats at least as much as they divide Republicans.
Right now Republicans look to be more fragile, but the Democrats only look strong by comparison. Combined, the prospects that both of these parties will be around to dominate the political scene in 2025 look dimmer today than they did in 2007 when I speculated one of them would pass.
This has obvious implications for domestic policy, but I think it matters greatly for foreign policy too. In fact, it is hard to identify a single, plausible, domestic political development that would have greater unpredictable impact on America's global role. It is striking that for the past century -- i.e., for the entirety of the "American century" in which the U.S. role has been pivotal for global affairs -- American politics has been dominated by Republicans and Democrats. We don't know what a credible third party might look like in the superpower era or what that new party might advance as its requisite foreign-policy platform.
It seems clear, however, that the necessary catalyst for the emergence of such a third party is manifest failure by one or both of the existing parties. It is premature to publish the obit for the existing parties, but the political crisis in Washington sure seems to be hastening that day.
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