006. – The state of politics II.

In blog post #002 back in June I discussed the state of politics in America, listing the major dilemmas and challenges the two parties face. In this post, I focus on the state of America’s institutions.

In a liberal democracy, institutions play a key role in politics. Political actors (politicians, parties, voters, media, interest groups, etc.) operate in an institutional framework. Although the United States is a mature republic with solid political institutions, these institutions still change over time. In most democracies the constitution lays down the basic institutions of the government, meaning that the most comprehensive institutional change can be achieved by amending or replacing the constitution. The US has had the same constitution since 1788, but it has been amended 27 times. Some of the amendments affected political institutions, like the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of senators by popular vote.

Statutes and executive orders are a more common way of changing institutions than constitutional amendments. In my previous post on diplomacy, I mentioned the Rogers Act of 1924, which established the Foreign Service. This law reformed how the Department of State functioned as an institution.

The third way of change in political institutions comes from the institution itself. Those who run institutions have a lot of leeway on how they interpret laws or follow established customs. We’ve seen many examples for this recently, for example  the US Senate changing filibuster rules for judicial nominations.

In this post I detail how the three branches of government have functioned as political institutions recently, what changes I see, and the challenges ahead.


The presidency has changed a lot since George Washington was inaugurated as the first  President of the United States in 1789. The constitution grants limited powers to the president, and these have never been modified. Amendments have addressed the Electoral College, succession, and term-limits, but never the powers of the president.  The presidency in the 21st century has a different role than it did back in the early days of the Republic and in the 19th century. Until the 1930s, the Presidency was the subordinate branch of the national government with a few exceptions under Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Since the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the presidency has gradually become more powerful. As the United States became a global superpower, the President’s foreign policy and military powers were expanded and the president’s domestic role has also grown starting in the New Deal era. By the end of the 20th century, the Executive branch had become at least as powerful as Congress.

As Congress has become more gridlocked, most modern presidents feel they have a mandate and duty to fulfill policy goals even by bypassing the legislature. This trend has continued recently. Joe Biden signed 17 Executive Orders on the day of inauguration. Most of these directives addressed important and divisive issues like immigration, the environment, and the pandemic. Biden ran for presidency on the promise to unite America, but he inherited an institution that is becoming more powerful. More power comes with more divisiveness.

The presidency not only became powerful related to Congress, but the executive branch as an institution has changed also. The Executive Office of the President and the White House Office have become more powerful than cabinet departments. In the White House the President’s work is supported by hundreds of personnel appointed without Senate confirmation. This further reduces the influence of Congress on the Executive. Centralization of power within the executive branch to the White House has been a continuous trend since the 1960s. Legislation still has to pass Congress before the president can sign or veto it, and judicial and executive appointments still need to clear the Senate, but the president sets the agenda of national politics, initiates policies, and provides leadership. Thus, the presidency keeps evolving into the most dominant institution of the federal government.


Congress is the least popular political institution in America. In the last decade, Congress’ approval has never been higher than 35 percent, mostly polling in the low 10s. People see a dysfunctional, partisan institution that is incapable of getting things done. In my opinion, Congress has a very big disadvantage over the other two branches. In the executive branch, there is hierarchy in each agency and institution where the head has the authority to make decisions. The president, as the leader of the executive branch, has widespread powers to sign executive orders and appoint or dismiss people. The Supreme Court has nine members and is generally regarded as an effective body. 

Congress however is a more complex institution. America has a bicameral legislature. The Senate’s upper house has 100 members, and the House of Representatives, the lower house, seats 435 members. Moreover, there is perfect bicameralism in the US, which means neither house can overrule the chamber’s decision. Thus, at least 269 individuals have to agree on something in order to form a majority in both houses. This result is slow and ineffective policy making. Partisanship has made passing bills in both houses even more difficult, but there are other developments that have changed Congress recently.

In my opinion, a major change is that the House of Representatives has begun to function like a parliament.  First, it has become very partisan as most members vote along party lines. Second, it acts as if the president were responsible to Congress. There is a sharp difference between a parliament and a congress. In a parliamentary system, the legislature is the most important branch of government. The entire political system depends on the parliament. The executive branch is elected by this body, and in many cases members of the parliament make up the senior leaders of the executive branch. In the US no member of Congress can serve in the executive branch, and the President is not elected by Congress, rather elected quasi-directly through the Electoral College. 

Yet, in recent years Congress began acting like a parliament. In a parliamentary democracy, once the prime minister’s party loses its majority in the legislature, it normally loses control over the executive branch as well (there are a handful of examples of minority governments) and a new administration takes over. In a presidential system this is not the case. The US president is elected to a four year term, regardless of what happens in Congress. Yet, recently, the lower house of Congress has developed parliamentary traits. The last five presidents began their terms with their party controlling the House of Representatives. Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump lost their majority in the House after two years, with George W. Bush being the exception and enjoying a GOP controlled Congress until the last two years of his presidency. Once the opposition party took over the House, it began acting like a parliamentary opposition and two of the last four presidents were impeached by the new house majority (Donald Trump was impeached twice). 

The House has used this constitutional tool as parliaments use motions of no confidence. The problem  is that a motion of no confidence is meant to remove the head of the Executive for political reasons, while impeachment should only be used to remove the President for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. However, the constitution is very vague about the grounds for impeachment, since only three presidents have been impeached out of 45. But the fact that it was used against Clinton and Trump, and that there were calls to impeach both Bush ‘43 and Obama, supports the trend that the US House is establishing a custom to go after the head of the Executive for political reasons, just as parliaments do. 

These efforts have so far been unsuccessful because impeachment in the House does not result in the termination of one’s presidency unless two-thirds of the Senate votes for it. This is a constitutional guarantee to prevent a simple majority in the House from removing the head of the Executive, but the relatively frequent use of impeachment recently signals a change in the House of Representatives’ role.

The US Senate as an institution is changing as well. While the House of Representatives has begun to act like a parliament as a branch of government, the Senate is actually getting rid of some of its parliamentary customs. Like the House, it has become more partisan and as such is disappearing as a long-standing tool for the minority party to influence policy. 

In many legislative bodies, obstruction has been an effective way to delay or prevent the majority from passing laws without bipartisan support. Filibuster in the US senate has forced the two parties to compromise on most bills and nominations. In 2013, the Democrat controlled Senate eliminated the filibuster for presidential nominations other than the Supreme Court. As a result, a simple majority is enough for confirmation, lowering the former three-fifth requirement. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Senate eliminated the 60-vote requirement for Supreme Court nominations. Currently, most bills can still get filibustered (one big exception is budget reconciliation), but it is only a matter of time until either party will use the nuclear option and end this tradition. Democrats have been planning to do it, but the tiny majority they have and President Biden has  delayed their push. Donald Trump has also called for the end of the filibuster.

Once the 60-vote threshold is gone, the Senate will become a more effective institution. If the President’s party controls both houses of Congress, the policy making capability of the federal government may reach new levels, but another administration with majorities in Congress could also repeal laws quickly. The direction in which Congress is changing may result in higher approval ratings for the institution, but also even more political division.


The judiciary is unique among the three branches of government. Judicial independence is one of the most important preconditions for a liberal democracy, but both the President and the Senate have an indirect influence on how federal courts function. Presidential nominations to federal courts are subject to Senate confirmation. Theoretically, judges are supposed to be nonpartisan, but the courts still heavily function as political institutions because those who run them are appointed by politicians and they make decisions that affect people’s daily lives.

America’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has been especially involved in politics in recent years. The court made high stakes decisions in recent years including campaign finance (Citizens United v. FEC), and same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges). These landmark cases put the Supreme court into a situation in which political attacks are constant. Interestingly, the growing importance of the courts comes from the dysfunction of the other two branches. As partisanship in Congress prevents major legislation from passing, the Supreme Court has begun to function as a policy-making body. The Supreme Court has ruled in significant, divisive issues before. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education outlawed racial segregation in school, which was a very divisive decision that time. In the 1960s Congress passed major civil rights legislation, so it somehow reduced the political burden of the decision from the courts. Nowadays people expect the Supreme Court to solve the debate on abortion, gun rights and immigration. This will further politicize the court. The Democratic Party has been wanting to reform the court for years. The fact that the Republican-controlled Senate did not confirm Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, but did confirm Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett in 2020, made many progressives want to expand the Supreme Court. Some expect that President Biden might bring the most fundamental change to the Supreme Court’s membership and structure since the Judiciary Act of 1869.

Earlier this year President Biden established a commission to study Supreme Court reform. Given the fact that the President is not adamant about reform and the future of the Democratic majorities in both houses are uncertain past next years’ midterm election, constitutional or legislative change in America’s highest court is unlikely to happen in the short run. What is more likely is that the Supreme Court will become further politicized and we will see fiercer nomination fights than ever.


The executive branch has gotten stronger and become the dominant of the three branches. Even though the United States has a presidential form of government, the President was subordinate to Congress before the 1930s. In the 21st century, political polarization has strengthened the presidency.

Congress has changed a lot as well. It acts more like a parliament. When the President’s party is in control, the legislature functions as a tool for the administration to pursue its policy agenda. When there is a divided government, Congress serves as an institution to block the President’s agenda and symbolically diminish the President’s legitimacy. Partisan division leaves the institution in public opinion as dysfunctional. With possible filibuster reform in the near future, this may change though.

I expect the federal court system to play a very important role in the short run. Currently, Congress is in gridlock and the president has slim chances of fulfilling his legislative promises, especially if the GOP captures the House next year. Meanwhile, major decisions that affect the political and social course of America will be made by the Supreme Court. High profile and distasteful nominations may also take place in case of vacancies.

In this post I only wrote about the three branches of the federal government. Other political institutions are undergoing changes as well. I will share my thoughts on those in a later post.

005. – Sleepy diplomacy

I have been wanting to publish this post for weeks, but the controversial pullout of the United States from Afghanistan provided me with an opportunity to publish two very important posts from a friend on my blog. As tension has eased with America’s full withdrawal, my blog is back on track. This time, I analyze the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Many foreign policy experts, academics and observers welcomed the Biden presidency. Joe Biden did not only succeed a controversial one-term presidency, but he is the first White House resident in 30 years with foreign policy experience. The defeat of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election marked the beginning of an era of presidents without prior experience in international politics. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were governors, and Donald Trump had no political experience whatsoever. Although Barack Obama served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his short tenure in this legislative panel does not match the experience that his deputy possessed when he took the presidential oath of office. Joe Biden served as both ranking member and chairman of the foreign relations committee, and as vice president he sat on the National Security Council and engaged with world leaders for 8 years. 

Many expected Biden to become a foreign policy president. During his campaign he promised to build America’s reputation back and re-engage the USA with the world. Yet, seven months into his presidency, Biden has only had one foreign trip. His Secretary of State is absent from the world stage, and most key ambassadorial posts are vacant. In this post I discuss the most important flaws of US foreign policy in the Biden era:

1. The President does not engage with the world. Some argue that Joe Biden’s predecessor was the least active US president vis-a-vis foreign policy in decades. He mostly let his subordinates deal with America’s business with foreign nations. Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to international relations and his “America First” policy left many foreign nations uncertain about the role of the United States in the world. Many governments welcomed Trump’s downfall last year as they believed Biden would re-establish a type of diplomacy similar to the one the United States had pursued for decades. In spite of these expectations both home and abroad, Biden has largely ignored foreign policy and has focused on domestic issues. First, his party has fragile majorities in both houses of Congress, so it makes sense to rush through his domestic agenda before the midterms. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic created a delicate situation. However, the federal government has limited powers to tackle the pandemic, the White House has been tied up dealing with the economic and social repercussions of this unique crisis.

Even considering these two factors, Biden is still lagging behind his promises. Personally, I prefer when countries’ heads of states don’t pursue diplomacy on a daily basis and instead let the Foreign Ministry/State Department conduct foreign policy. But Biden argued that Trump had personally done near-irreparable damage to America’s reputation, and therefore it seemed logical that he would make serious efforts to repair it. Although Biden has hosted many foreign leaders in the White House, he has only made one foreign trip thus far: in June he attended the G7 and NATO summits in the UK and Belgium, and he held bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart in Switzerland. 

In diplomacy, the first international visit by a leader is symbolic. No US president had travelled abroad before Theodore Roosevelt’s trip to Panama in 1904. Since then, most presidents made their first foreign trip either to Canada or Mexico. The last President who made Europe his first international destination was Jimmy Carter, while Donald Trump went to Saudi Arabia. Biden’s decision to attend global summits on Europe can be understood as an effort to kill two birds with one stone: bring the US back to multilateral diplomacy and boost transatlantic relations. Yet as of September, it is clear that no progress has been made. Solid bilateral relations are a precondition for successful multilateralism. Now it is high time Biden booked long haul trips on Air Force One. A new German government is expected to be formed by the end of the year, and Biden’s path to rebuilding the transatlantic alliance starts in Berlin. With regards to America’s foreign policy goals in the Pacific, a multi-country presidential visit to Japan, South Korea and India would definitely boost America’s chances in strengthening an alliance against China.

2. The Secretary of State is absent from the world stage. The presidential system gives a lot of leeway for US Presidents when it comes to cabinet nominations. In parliamentary democracies, the head of government has many constraints when selecting their ministers or secretaries. They either have to give key cabinet positions to other senior party members or relinquish them to coalition partners. But in the US, the President can pick whoever he sees fit. Biden made a safe pick by nominating Antony Blinken to run the State Department. Blinken was a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and worked with the Foreign Relations Committee during the Bush presidency. He then served as National Security Advisor to then-Vice President Biden, US Deputy National Security Advisor, and for the final two years of the Obama administration, he was Deputy Secretary of State. Blinken definitely has the experience and international network to do a steady job as America’s top diplomat, but he lacks charisma and global name recognition. This wouldn’t be a problem if the President were actively running foreign policy, but as Biden restricts most of his energy to domestic affairs, his Secretary of State should be someone who has better abilities to represent the US around the world. America and the world may need somebody like Madeline Albright or Condoleezza Rice at the helm at Foggy Bottom, not necessarily replicating their politics but definitely representing America’s interests in the same manner.

3. Many ambassadorial posts are still vacant. Washington maintains diplomatic relations with all but three UN recognized countries – Bhutan, North Korea, Iran. Since 1979, diplomatic relations with Taiwan have been carried out through the American Institute in Taiwan. Not counting this de facto embassy in Taipei, the US has 170 embassies throughout the world. As of September 3rd, 84 of these ambassadorial posts were vacant. These posts include important countries like China, Germany, and Pakistan. Why is the most powerful country in the world not placing ambassadors in key countries? 

First, it is important to clarify how someone becomes an ambassador. According to the Constitution, the President has the power to nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers, and Consuls. An ambassador can either be a political appointee or a career diplomat, like a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). Before the 20th century, most ambassadors were political appointees. These appointees have been prominent American citizens from different walks of life, such as politics, military, business, academia, law, and the arts. 

As the US emerged as a world power in the early 20th century, there were calls to reform US diplomacy. The Rogers Act of 1924 merged diplomatic and consular services and created the US Foreign Service. The Foreign Service Acts of 1946 and 1980 modernized and reorganized the Foreign Service and the 1980 Act stipulated that ambassadors should typically be career members of the Foreign Service. Yet the percentage of chiefs of missions who are political appointees rose to 45 percent during the Trump administration. Ambassadors who are FSOs normally serve 3-year terms, regardless of who is the President. By contrast, political appointees normally resign when a new president (from a different party) is sworn in. Because of the high number of political appointees in the Pompeo State Department, Biden inherited a lot of vacancies, but he didn’t rush to fill them — he only began making nominations in late spring and many positions are still open. It also takes a while for the Senate to confirm a nominee, so it is likely that some key positions will be vacant one year into the Biden presidency. 

Even though interim chiefs of missions (charge d’affaires) are experienced career diplomats, it is not a good sign for either allies or adversaries that the United States is unable to carry out its foreign policy goals through appointed ambassadors. Symbolism in diplomacy is very important, and an ambassador is the most important representative of a nation abroad. The fact that many US embassies have been run by charges d’affaires for several months hurts American diplomacy. President Biden should have nominated ambassadors to the most important missions in his first 90 days in office. 

If the United States wants to restore its reputation, pursuing good diplomacy is essential. The President and the Secretary of State should represent America more actively, supported by ambassadors around the globe. The Biden administration is off to a bad start in diplomacy. Hopefully, as the President’s domestic woes subside he will dedicate more time to foreign policy.

Photo by:  Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.com

004. – Stepping in for the Government

A friend of mine interviewed an new NGO in Texas that is trying to help Afghans get out of the country;

August 23, 2021

College Station, TX — As the Afghanistan crisis worsens and tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies remain stuck in the country, NGOs and private citizens are stepping in to bolster the foundering evacuation. Over the last week in College Station, the home of the Fightin’ Texas Aggies, a group of veterans and former students went from responding to personal requests for help to creating a registered NGO dedicated to assisting the extraction.

“My friends contacted me because I’ve worked internationally in a variety of capacities, both with the military and in non-governmental roles,” said John Muns, the founder of Task Force Foxfire (TFF). “As I tried to help them, more and more people started calling. So at that point I knew I had to bring some people together and create something capable of securely handling a lot of information.”

Since receiving the first phone call on August 16, Muns and his team have received close to 200 requests for assistance. Set up in his house amid a tangle of laptops and energy drinks, he and five friends work around the clock responding to incoming requests for assistance. The majority come from Afghans fearing Taliban reprisal for their work with Americans during the war, and who despite references from veterans and current US military personnel, are struggling to navigate the extraction process.

“We’re mainly dealing with people who are stuck in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process or who are eligible for it but don’t even know where to start,” Muns said. “What we’re doing is helping them get the paperwork they need, entering them into our tracker, and identifying them to the government and other organizations on the ground that can get them out.”

The first call came in reference to a young Afghan-American who had served as an interpreter for the US military. He had been living stateside since 2017, but had gone back to Afghanistan in June to get married. Shortly after his wedding the government fell, trapping him and his bride in Taliban-held Kabul. With no help forthcoming from the State Department, he turned to his former colleague in the US Army. The situation made it’s way back to TFF, which through a network of contacts found a US Army officer at the Kabul airport who plucked him and his wife from the crowd and onto a C-17.

Despite these early successes, Muns said the situation in Kabul was deteriorating and that TFF’s ability to provide direct assistance was diminishing. Not only has the number of people amassed at the airport’s gates increased, but the US military and Department of State have, as of August 18, reportedly prohibited personnel on the ground from communicating with anyone trying to coordinate relief.

“We have good contacts on the ground but the situation is falling apart,” Muns said. “With the number of requests coming in, although we’d like to, it’s simply not feasible to ask personal favors for everybody that’s calling us.”

At the moment, TFF is focused on helping Afghans complete their paperwork and enlarging its tracking list so that those conducting evacuations can find and extract them as quickly as possible.

“We don’t like it but right now it’s the best we can do,” Muns said. “Things are changing fast, and we’ll see what the Department of State does. We’re not ruling out mounting operations of our own. At the end of the day that’s the American way; private citizens rolling up their sleeves and doing it better than the government.”

If you or anybody you know is trying to leave Afghanistan and needs help accessing information or the proper visa documentation necessary, contact Task Force Foxfire by email at advocate@taskforcefoxfire.org. For more information visit www.taskforcefoxfire.org.

003. – On the Afghanistan Withdrawal

A dear friend of mine – who wants to retain anonymity – wrote a great piece on Afghanistan last week;

Afghanistan is difficult to write about because it is immense, but the gravity of the situation requires comment. America withdraws having not only lost the war, but also its global hegemony and moral clarity. While America twenty years ago was a different country, Afghanistan today is very much the same. We set out to transform Afghanistan, but in fact we are the ones changed.

On the news one sees footage of the Taliban driving into border checkpoints and rural towns, encircling government bastions across the country, and smiling holding captured US weapons. They claim that Afghans are overjoyed at their arrival after 20 years of American occupation. For its part, the Western media publishes articles about the Afghans who lived “under the shield of the US military”, and how athletes, photographers, dancers, teachers, and other “modern” professionals are now in danger. An article in the Guardian celebrating Afghan women who staged an armed protest in defense of their rights exemplifies the tragedy of Western writers, thinkers, and politicians who promote their theories from the safety of their homes to people who face mortal danger for listening to them. It is an awful sin to give people dreams of that which can never be, but Afghanistan has long been a land where hopes are lost.

Guilty like most Americans of having lost interest in the war long ago, only now do I remember the initial invasion, when a just and invincible America retaliated against its attackers. It was an apt event for the turn of the millennium. America was strong, the world was stable, the enemy barbaric. Anything troubling about Afghanistan’s past, about the term “grave of empires”, was dismissed by an exceptional people who had ended history along with the Soviet Union. But our steely-eyed soldiers and multi-million dollar missiles were no match for Afghanistan’s hostile, timeless patience. The invasion went like a rock in water, making a big splash and then falling beneath the surface. With it sunk hundreds of thousands of lives and inestimable wealth in gold, technology, and effort.

It is on this last point that I want to reflect, because although the metaphorical rock becomes invisible to the thrower, it (and the war) remains very real. A war begun with the loftiest of goals – to end terrorism, build a democracy, reorganize Central Asia, and eventually restructure the world – ought to be impossible to forget. And yet somehow we did, as though under a spell, a whole nation “going shopping”, collectively forgetting. Abdicating responsibility while the tanks rolled out.

Are we so removed from the consequences of our actions that we have lost our ability to weigh them? Do we really think that ignoring our mistakes erases them? How is it possible for a healthy, moral America to fight 20 years of war, forget about it halfway through, and then leave like a thief in the night? These and other questions were not answered by President Biden’s 13 minute and 31 second statement on the US withdrawal. At the heart of this brief jumble of platitudes lay a paradox: We shouldn’t risk more American lives in a conflict we have no reasonable expectation of winning, he said, yet we are confident that the Afghan army can win. This argument is a lie or a delusion, and in either case demonstrates how detached our government has become.

Afghanistan’s future is scary. America is weaker, the Taliban are stronger, and new actors make the region more dangerous and chaotic. I will leave to the experts to describe the geopolitical implications –  suffice it to say the threats are larger than ever. If America is to face them and survive as a legitimate global hegemon, it must reckon with its defeat. The generals, politicians, bureaucrats, technologists, businessmen, and development leaders who by their incompetence or corruption perpetuated 20 years of death and waste must be held responsible. Otherwise the link between cause and effect, the same principle we teach our children, will be flagrantly broken exactly where it is needed most – in the halls of power.

This may be nearly impossible given the state of our politics, but if our democracy is worthy of its name then it must be done. If not, we will have imported more of Afghanistan’s culture of corruption, tribalism and petty conflict than they will have adopted of ours. There is no way we can ignore such a colossal failure and remain clear-eyed about the future. We are still in time to avoid one final tragedy of the Afghan war – that we do not learn from it.

002. – The case for the two-party system

In recent years I’ve talked to many Americans who blame some of their politics’ flaws on the two-party system. They believe a third party or multiple new parties would lead to better representation, more compromise, and a healthier political system. In this post I will discuss why it is unlikely that the two-party system will fracture, and also present evidence that the American two-party system is actually better than a multi-party system.

Why is the two-party system here to stay?

  1. Citizens of the United States elect most of their representatives using a majoritarian election system. In this system all 435 members of the US House of Representatives are elected by single-member districts. The candidate who wins a plurality of the vote in a district wins the seat and gets to represent all constituents in the district. This is also called the first-past-the-post system or FPTP. In the US Senate each state is represented by two senators. Since the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators are elected by direct popular vote. Each state elects its two US Senators in independent elections, so if we consider how the Senate works, we can also detect a majoritarian rule, where states count as districts. Whether we take a congressional district with a few hundred thousand residents, or a state (senate district) with tens of millions of voters, the candidate who wins a plurality gets to represent the whole district, denying representation to the minority. Presidential elections follow a similar logic due to the Electoral College. Each state and Washington D.C. function as if they were districts. Whichever candidate in a state receives the plurality of votes – due to the winner-take-all system which is used in all but two states (Nebraska and Maine), they get all the electors from that state. The only feature of the Electoral College that gives some sort of power to the minority is that if no candidate manages to win 50% + 1 electoral votes, the US House of Representatives gets to pick the new President.

State and local governments also use majoritarian systems to elect their legislatures. On the state level however, there is no electoral college to elect executive officers, (governor, attorney general etc.) as they are elected by direct popular vote. 

Heavy political polarization feeds the two-party system. In multi-party democracies with majoritarian elections, parties who share similar values and ideology or simply pursue the same goal – e.g. to unseat the incumbent or defeat a radical candidate, are forced to cooperate. A good example is Hungary, where several parties are gradually uniting into one single party to rally against Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In election systems where there is only one round, parties have to cooperate before the election. In systems where a majority is needed for victory, and a runoff is held if no candidate gets 50% +1 one vote, parties need to cooperate between the 1st round and the runoff.  In practice, this cooperation means that these parties support one party’s candidate among themselves in order to win. Once parties withdraw their candidates to rally behind one candidate, they create a quasi-two-party system atmosphere. In the hypothetical scenario that America has a multi-party system, and most congressional districts, senate seats, and winners of the Electoral College votes on the state level are decided by FPTP, parties would have to cooperate before the election. Seats in the US House of Representatives are up for reelection every two years. Therefore, parties would have to cooperate constantly. And cooperation would have to be carried out in several districts across the country. This would encourage parties to form an alliance. If this alliance runs against another party, or another alliance of parties, it is a quasi-two-party system. Gradually, the alliance might evolve into one single party, and we would get a true two-party system. If the Electoral College were to be abolished, and the president were elected by a direct national popular vote, the system would not lose its two-party attribute either. If a candidate receiving a plurality of votes is the victor, parties/candidates would have to coordinate before the election. In the more likely scenario of a runoff requirement if no candidate gets a majority, parties/candidates would cooperate before the runoff. No matter what system we examine, elections would come down to two options in a divided political climate.

In order to make a multi-party system endure, the majoritarian election system has to be changed to a proportional system, which is not likely to happen given the more than 200 years-old tradition of American elections and the fact that neither of the two parties would benefit from such change.

  1. The weakness of US political parties, paradoxically, is also their strength. The two most common ways of party formation are either when senior politicians break away from an existing party or when a new party is started from scratch. New parties emerge by pursuing a new movement or ideology or advocating an existing one. In many cases, they seek support from voters of a crumbling party. The last time a newly founded party could break through in American politics was in the middle of the 19th century. The Republican Party was founded in 1854, and their candidate Abraham Lincoln got elected president in 1860. The rapid success of the GOP would not have been possible without the collapse of the Whig Party. Founders of the Republican party were abolitionist Whigs who carried over their anti-slavery ideology into their new party. The collapse of today’s Democratic and Republican party is very unlikely, simply because they are too weak. 

Parties had a different role in American politics before the mid-1900s than they have now. Parties used to be strong organizations led by powerful party bosses who had an important role in selecting candidates and mobilizing voters. Today, parties in the United States are relatively weak, mainly because the laws and rules under which they operate have taken away these powers. Their vote getting powers have diminished and most importantly they don’t get to nominate politicians – voters do by participating in caucuses and primaries. The power of party bosses has long gone too, especially on the national level. Who would argue that the Chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees are the leaders of the two parties? They only have administrative powers, while in other countries party leaders have real political power. Sometimes parties collapse after big political failures. Either senior politicians quit or voters flee the party, or both. In the US, much of the blame is on voters after a disappointing election or a losing streak, since they select which platform they prefer, and who they want to run on that platform. The primary system also gives parties the opportunity to quickly reinvent themselves. Even a couple of years after a big election defeat voters can completely change the course of a party by selecting different candidates in primaries. This flexible operating structure helps the two-party system survive.

Sometimes parties split. In modern American history there have been a few occasions when one of the parties broke into two. In most cases, these breakaway parties were short-lived and were created by politicians who were running for president, but launched their own party after they didn’t get their party’s nomination. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to incumbent president William Howard Taft. Then, Roosevelt launched the Progressive Party (Bull Moose Party), but his presidential run split the Republican vote and handed victory over to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1967, former Democratic Governor of Alabama, George Wallace founded the American Independent Party. In the 1968 presidential election he ran on a segregationist platform and split the Democratic vote, thus enabling Richard Nixon to win. In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as an independent for president. He received 19% of the popular vote, which is the strongest showing of a third-party candidate since 1912. Perot’s policies appealed to both Democrats and Republicans, and there is consensus that had he not run, George H. W. Bush would have won a second term. In 2016, billionaire Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president. His rise in the GOP as an outsider spurred the Never Trump Movement in the party. Some conservative politicians were considering a third-party bid, but eventually they either rallied behind Trump or endorsed Hillary Clinton. The two-party logic has prevented many to launch third-parties as past examples show that a party split automatically favors the opposition party.

  1. It is not in the interest of either party to move away from the two-party system. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party dominate American politics. The emergence of new parties would reduce their power so neither party is likely to pursue any form of election reform that would lead to the evolution of a multi-party system. Parties are not likely to do much to dismantle the two-party system, but do voters have any way to do it? The Election Clause in the US Constitution directs and empowers states to determine the “Times, Places, and Manner” of congressional elections, subject to Congress’s authority to “make or alter” state regulations. Thus, the federal government has ultimate power over federal elections. Yet voters can still make minor but important changes to how they elect politicians. Ballot measures can change how primary elections are conducted and they can replace FPTP with ranked-choice voting, in which instead of voting for a single favorite candidate, people will order the candidates from most to least preferred. The losing candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed among other candidates. Results of recent ballot initiatives regarding changing election laws show there is no overwhelming support to overhaul the American election system. Recent international examples also show when voters had the opportunity to change the national election system to be more proportional, they voted for the status quo. In 2011, the United Kingdom held a referendum to replace FPTP with ranked-choice, which could have put an end to the Conservative and Labor parties’ dominance. Sixty-eight percent voted against the change.

Why is the two-party system better than a multi-party system?

  1. It is not better, but America doesn’t have a real two-party system. As I mentioned before I do not consider the two major US parties conventional political parties. Over the last few decades, they lost most characteristics typical political parties have. Even before the primary system emerged, American parties were somewhat a coalition of several platforms rather than organizations to represent one single ideology. The United States is a large country with massive regional differences, so naturally parties who want to be competitive on the national level need to integrate many views and ideas. The Democratic Party of the 1960s simultaneously had room for both Robert F. Kennedy, a champion of civil rights, and George Wallace, a staunch segregationist. Although deep ideological divisions within each of the two parties have gone away, they still demonstrate remarkable ideological heterogeneity. Today moderate Senator Susan Collins of Maine calls herself a Republican just as conservative Senator Ted Cruz of Texas does.  Progressive California Governor Gavin Newsom and conservative Governor of Louisiana John Bel Edwards are both Democrats. If there were multiple parties in America these politicians would definitely not be members of the same party. But in America the two major parties integrate politicians of different views and policies. Both the Democrats and the GOP are coalitions of different platforms. 
  2. Multi-party systems are failing. There are many discouraging international examples of how multi-party systems work. Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a proportional election system. As of 2021 there are more than 25 parties in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. Between the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2021 Israel held 4 legislative elections, because no party could secure a majority or agree on a coalition with other parties to form a government. Italy also has a multi-party system. Since the monarchy was abolished in 1946, Italy has had 30 Prime Ministers, many of whom served several non-consecutive terms. In comparison the United Kingdom and the United States – both countries with a majoritarian election system and two dominant parties – had 15 Prime Ministers and 14 Presidents respectively since the end of WWII. This doesn’t mean that a multi-party system in America would bring such a high level of political instability and inability to govern like in Israel or in Italy. The United States has a presidential system, not parliamentarism, thus the President has a four-year mandate to govern regardless of which party has a majority in Congress. But multi-party democracies have recently shifted from consensus and cooperation to instability and incapacity. Recently in the US there have been many calls to abolish the filibuster and let a simple majority pass most legislation in the Senate in order to make Congress more effective.. If there were multiple parties, getting legislation through Congress would be at least as difficult as it is now with the minority obstructing the process.
  3. Multi-party systems are unfair too. Opponents of the two-party system argue that it is unfair. They say other parties don’t have any chance to represent their agenda and their voters in this system. But as I wrote earlier America’s two-party system is unique because of the universal primary system. In another country, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would have launched their own party. Their party might have stolen a chunk of supporters from other parties and they might have had some form of influence on governing, possibly in the form of coalition partners in government. But in America outsiders can take over relatively easily either party by running in the primaries. Thus, new ideas and outsider politicians have the chance to integrate themselves into the two-party system. The logos of both Republicans and Democrats have been the same for a long time, but who would argue that Donald Trump’s Republican Party is the same as George H. W. Bush’s? American parties change. The names of the parties are constant, but their politics change over time. Critics of the two-party system forget to mention the disadvantages of having multiple-parties. One of the main problems with multi-party democracies is the opportunity for party leaders to bypass voters and make backdoor deals. In two-party systems one party is the majority, the other party is the minority in the legislature. In democracies where there are more than two parties, there is a chance no party has a majority. Thus, two or more parties need to cooperate in order to support a government (in parliamentary systems) and/or to pass legislation (in presidential systems). Sometimes parties only begin to cooperate after the election and they make a deal with a party which they ran against before the election. In the United Kingdom – which historically had two dominant parties – a third-party, the Liberal Democrats had grown the size of their caucus in parliament by the 2000s so after the 2010 general election neither the Labor Party nor the Conservative Party had a majority to form a government. The “hung parliament” situation resulted in a coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Many argue that the Lib Dems sold their soul with this decision. In the next election they lost 49 seats with the worst showing in their history. Similar examples in other multi-party democracies – like Italy and Israel, point out the enormous power party leaders have to engage in post-election political deals for power and money. 

America’s unique two-party system is likely to stay. As it is not to blame for the current divided political atmosphere, moving away from it would not lessen problems. Americans have all the political tools they need to heal their democracy within the current two-party framework.

001. – The state of politics I.

Joe Biden, the 46th President was inaugurated almost five months ago, so it is a good time to examine the state of politics in America. This post will discuss the two parties, and I will analyze the state of institutions in a later post.

Last November, Democrats managed to unseat the incumbent president, retain their majority in the House of Representatives and take control of the Senate. Even though Democrats run the executive branch and both chambers of the legislature, the country is divided. Moreover, both the Democratic and Republican parties are in turmoil. In this post I will share my thoughts on why both parties are struggling.

To understand the present, we have to look back to the 2020 election. There is no doubt Democrats achieved their main goal of defeating Donald Trump. On one hand, this looks like quite an achievement.  Only three incumbent Presidents before Trump have lost re-election since WWII, and only once between 1896 and 2020 has a party lost control over the executive branch after one term; in 1980 when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.  But from another perspective, the Democrat’s victory seems underwhelming. The Democratic Party barely unseated a president – who had approval ratings in the low 40s, in the midst of a pandemic, economic crisis and civil unrest. Not only did Republicans pick up seats in the House of Representatives, but there is a tie in the Senate, and the GOP did very well in state elections. Biden’s victory left the United States in almost the same situation as it was before the election. Its two parties have very deep ideological differences, the party in power has very slim majorities in Congress, and yet the President pursues a very ambitious agenda with little or no bipartisanship and compromise.

Both parties face unique dilemmas of their own. I list and explain these dilemmas below:


1.      Who can win in 2024? Whoever the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 will be, their job will be to unite progressives, moderates and independents. In the last two presidential elections the Democrats nominated elder, moderate politicians who built their path to nomination by being linked to former popular presidents; Hillary Clinton is the wife of Bill Clinton and served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, while Joe Biden was the Vice-President of Barack Obama. If Biden won’t run in 2024, his Vice President is likely to win the nomination. The question is, can Kamala Harris keep the Biden coalition together?

2.      The party is divided. There is a strong progressive movement within the Democratic Party, and it is facing a similar dilemma as Republicans did in the early 2010s with the Tea Party movement. Can the moderate wing of the party contain radicals by pursuing some of their policies? Will establishment candidates lose primaries to radicals if their agenda does not reflect much or any of the radical wing? If radical candidates get nominated, will they jeopardize the party’s chance for victory?

Power within the Democratic Party is shifting to the left. The President, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are pursuing an ambitious agenda of progressive policies. While balancing between the different factions of their party they need to keep in mind that centrist and independent voters can easily be alienated if the party moves too far to the left. However, the establishment seems to have a tight grip on the party – as radical candidates fail to succeed in elections, the establishment itself is shifting to the left. In 2020, Donald Trump’s personal traits pushed a lot of voters away from the GOP. An agenda considered too progressive by moderates can push a lot of voters away from Democrats in 2022 and 2024.

3.      The Democratic Party has a demography problem. Dems have based their strategy on turning out minorities and women in huge numbers. In recent elections they managed to win decisively among minorities, but white working class and rural voters are fleeing from the party. Last year, Biden did well among minorities while he could also appeal to the white working class. Democrats need to realize that probably nobody else who ran for the nomination, could have done the same thing. By nominating Kamala Harris for Vice President, the party made her de facto successor to President Biden.  Getting minority and women’s votes might not be a big challenge for Harris, but losing too much support among working class whites can cost Dems the White House in 2024.


1.      Will Donald Trump run in 2024? The former president keeps the Republican Party in limbo. It is unclear whether he will run again in 2024, so the party is not able to move on from the Trump era. Donald Trump is still very popular among Republicans and he did not lose last year’s election by a lot. Actually, Biden secured his Electoral College victory with razor thin margins in several states. Thus, Trump’s return in 2024 is more than likely. The two factors that might keep him in retirement are his age and a possible criminal prosecution or conviction.

2.      Who will be electable in 2024? Donald Trump is a very divisive political figure. He received more than 74 million votes last November, which is more than any presidential candidate ever received prior to 2020. But on the other hand, his opponent Joe Biden got more than 81 million votes, which is now the record. Re-nominating Donald Trump would be a risky endeavor for the GOP. He proved his ability to turn out masses both in his favor and against, as the 81 million votes Biden received were also the product of Trump, and not the fruit of Biden’s charisma. Trump’s popularity within the party is undisputed, but there is nevertheless an anti-Trump movement on the right. It is very unlikely that anybody can defeat Trump in the primaries if he decides to run, but a nasty infight within the GOP can do a lot of harm for their prospects in 2024. If the former President will not run, the most likely scenario is that the GOP will nominate a Trumpist or Trump loyalist to be President. Somebody less divisive might bring in new voters, but they might not be able to turn out key constituencies who helped Trump to victory in 2016.

3.      Does the GOP need an agenda? According to the latest news, Trump has begun to work on a “new Contract for America” with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In recent history Republicans have been kicked out of power in federal politics three times; in 1992, in 2008 and in 2020. After George H. W. Bush lost reelection in 1992, the party drafted a conservative legislative agenda named “Contract with America”. Republicans campaigned on this program in the 1994 midterms and they won a majority in the House after 40 years. In 2008, John McCain suffered a massive defeat to Barack Obama in his effort to succeed George W. Bush in the White House. In 2009, the Tea Party took off as a fiscally conservative movement within the GOP, and in 2010 many Tea Party-backed candidates helped Republicans to victory in the House of Representatives. However, the comprehensive policy paper in the 1990s and the ideological movement in the 2010s played a vital role in making Newt Gingrich and John Boehner Speaker of the House, Republicans fell short in their bid to oust the incumbent Democratic President both in 1996 and in 2012.

The 2020 election was different from the previous two I mentioned. Donald Trump was very close to getting re-elected to a second term, and the GOP barely lost its majority in the Senate while it picked up seats in the House. This time some Republicans could feel that they don’t have to rebuild their party, so there might be less enthusiasm to pursue an agenda.

4.      The Republican Party has a demography problem. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, many argued that the GOP’s only way to become competitive again was to increase its support among minorities. In the 2010s, the party had several young, non-white rising stars including then Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley and US Senator Marco Rubio. Then came Donald Trump. Trump didn’t do much worse among minorities than Romney, while he managed to get large numbers of working-class whites vote for him. This was enough to win in 2016, but in 2020 Biden won back some blue-collar workers in the “Rust Belt”. Moreover, large Black and Latino turnout handed Democrats slim victories in the “Sun Belt”. It is not impossible that Republicans can win another presidential election by reviving the Trump coalition, but recent voting trends and demographic changes predict a grim future for the GOP unless they find a way to attract new voters outside of their traditional base.

The two parties face many other dilemmas, but I consider these to be the most important with regards to the upcoming elections. Many now ask, if both parties are in a turmoil, why don’t new parties emerge? Before I analyze the state of institutions, I will write about the two-party system in my next post.

000. – Prelude

Dear reader,

I have to start my very first post with a confession. I have been wanting to start this blog for a long time. I came up with the idea to share my thoughts on politics a few years ago, but I kept postponing the launch of my blog. I was hoping that politics would go back to normal. I though, one day I would see at least the same level of bipartisanship I observed when I began to follow politics in the mid-2000s. I was also hoping that the United States would regain its “old” role on the global stage. I was wrong. As of June 2021, I admit we are still on a downward trend. After 4 years of a tumultuous Trump presidency, nearing the end? of a global pandemic, I decided it is time to kick off the blog, because our world is as normal as it gets.

I will analyze American politics, U.S. foreign policy, and political events in other major countries. I try to be analytical and non-partisan.

My goal is to bring politics closer to people. I hope you will enjoy reading and following YaroPolitics.