The Fall and Rise of the Two-Party System

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Fellow Democrats,

A few months ago I was in a book club on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. One of the discussion questions was: what can we do to prevent the dystopian future she describes? Several members spoke on the need to get beyond the two-party system, arguing that neither Republicans nor Democrats were effectively working against climate change, police militarization, rising mental illness and addiction, and the other causes of the social collapse in the novel. I responded as someone who has given countless volunteer hours to the Democratic Party, many of them spent pressing it to do exactly those things.

I attempted to make two points. First, that the Democratic Party is not a monolith and, while that criticism is definitely relevant to the Party as an institution and to its leadership, our Party is also the home of the only people working seriously to address those problems, who are frequently kept out of power and the spotlight by that leadership. As I’ve written here since my first column, the Republican Party’s complete transformation into a fascist personality cult has left the Democratic Party the only possible option for anyone who is at all serious about policy. This has also made it an unmanageably large tent, creating a crisis which I will address shortly.

Second, California has already reduced the role of parties through the “jungle primary” system. In party primaries, each party’s candidates compete amongst themselves, then the winners from each party are matched in the general election: one Democrat, one Republican, etc. The problem with this was that, as California became overwhelmingly Democratic, it was absurd to reserve general election ballot lines for candidates who got fewer primary votes than the second, third, or sixth-place Democrats. If Republicans are under a quarter of California voters, and all “third parties” 7% combined, why should they be guaranteed general election lines instead of Democrats who got tens or hundreds of thousands more votes? Similarly, with relatively few areas in California not dominated by a single party, the general elections were irrelevant in many races. Whoever won the Democratic primary in a westside district had won the seat, and likewise for Republicans in Orange County. The Top Two Primary Act, placed on the ballot by the California legislature and passed by voters in 2010, changed this. Now every primary is a battle royal. Anyone can vote for any candidate, and the top two go on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

This system is the product of two “moderate” Republicans. In 2009 Democratic state legislators were one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the budget. Republican State Senator Abel Maldonado agreed to vote for the budget in exchange for Democrats backing the Top Two Primary Act, a project he and Governor Schwarzenegger supported. Schwarzenegger rewarded Maldonado the next year by appointing him Lieutenant Governor when John Garamendi was elected to the House of Representatives. His career highlight since has been being short-listed for Secretary of Agriculture in the Trump administration, which may undermine his credibility as a “moderate.”

Maldonado and Schwarzenegger believed that top-two primaries would encourage moderation, that in a party primary system candidates are rewarded for appealing to their party’s activist base, encouraging extremism. By allowing all voters to vote for all candidates, the top-two system would force candidates to consider the entire electorate at all times. Looking at Schwarzenegger’s career, it’s clear he supported the Republican positions of low taxes and business deregulation but was also pro-choice, cared about the environment, and rejected racism and homophobia. I am very skeptical it is possible to be “socially liberal and economically conservative” because social policy must address the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, and environmental protection seems incompatible with business deregulation, but Schwarzenegger thought otherwise and wanted to save the Republican Party from being swallowed by its right wing.

The theory that top-two primaries would encourage moderation relies on the assumption that voter ideology follows a bell curve: that the majority of voters are in the center and the numbers decrease moving left and right. Data does not quite support this, nor do the outcomes of the first decade of the top-two system. We now have more progressive Democrats and more reactionary Republicans than in 2010.

Dan Walters observed in CalMatters that the top-two system has helped bring business money into the Democratic Party. As Republicans became irrelevant in state politics and in major cities, landlords, developers, and the Chamber of Commerce have shifted their donations to “business-friendly” Democrats, who have become the major obstacle to progressive change. It wasn’t Republicans who killed CalCare or blocked requiring CalPERS to divest from fossil fuel companies. I refer you once again to Mike Bonin and Peter Dreier’s February 12 piece in The Nation on the rise of Caruso Democrats: Republicans who have rebranded because they recognize the impossibility of being elected as Republicans and because they want to prevent the Democratic Party from supporting progressives. Their money has flooded the organizations they consider buyable, and they have created their own alternatives to the ones that are not. My March column applied Bonin and Dreier’s work to Culver City.

On June 26, Club Member Wyatt Grey organized what was billed as a “non-partisan” City Council candidate forum. Six candidates participated. They are all registered Democrats, but they represent what are in effect two parties. In the absence of a locally viable conservative brand, the Democratic Party is dividing to fill the void. A little over a year ago this Club’s conservative minority chose to take their ball and start their own game, where they were more likely to win. Ironically, this splinter group chose the name “Democrats United.”

Last month our members voted overwhelmingly to endorse incumbent Mayor Yasmine-Imani McMorrin and former City Commissioners Nancy Barba and Bubba Fish, who are running as a slate. The splinter group has not endorsed yet, but it is a safe bet that they will support incumbent Council Member Albert Vera Jr. and City Commissioners Denice Renteria and Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, both of whom Vera has endorsed. He and Ms. Renteria declined to participate in our candidate forum

These two slates represent fundamentally different philosophies of city government. Our endorsed candidates see the City as part of interdependent regional entities and municipalities that address local, regional, national, and global problems. They have cultivated professional levels of expertise in fields related to governing in contexts from reading groups to graduate degree programs. The members of the second group approach the City Council more like an HOA, whose primary mission is to provide services to the residents and protect them from external threats. They disavow expertise, the better to receive the wisdom and desires of those they consider “stakeholders.”

Although the members of the second group will deny it, these slates also line up as left and right, with the second group aligning with Republicans on major issues. The most dramatic and immediate of these is the treatment of unhoused people. During the 2022 Council campaign, candidate Renteria was featured at a fundraiser for the Republican-led Protect Culver City PAC, along with MAGA US Senate candidate Mark Meuser. Meuser, an attorney, was billed as speaking on ways for cities to work around the 9th Circuit Court’s Boise decision, which barred cities from preventing people from sleeping on the streets unless they had housing to offer.

In his first weeks as Mayor, Mr. Vera presided over Culver City’s adoption of an “anti-camping” ordinance. It skirted Boise by allowing people to sleep on the streets but banning any form of temporary shelter, whether a tent or a cardboard box. This Club hosted a panel, passed a resolution in opposition, and published comments from people directly affected by this law. Our endorsed Council candidates McMorrin, Barba, and Fish were leading voices in the resistance.

On June 28 the US Supreme Court overturned Boise in their Grants Pass decision. The majority ruled that cities may address homelessness how they wish, including by arresting or sweeping people, and that they have no obligation to offer or provide housing. This majority consisted of all Republican appointees. John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joined an opinion written by Neil Gorsuch, while Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson cosigned Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent. If you find yourself aligned with Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, et al, you are probably on the wrong side.

As our party divides, the right flank demands that we unite around Republican ideas to defeat actual Republicans, who have gone full mask-off fascist. These are scary times. A lot may happen between when I am writing this (June 30) and whenever you happen to read it, but I am currently moderately comforted by news from France.

France has a parliamentary system, in which multiple parties form a governing coalition, rather than our binary one, but much about their current situation is relevant. President Emmanuel Macron was re-elected in 2022 but lost his legislative majority. After his centrist Renaissance Party performed dismally in the 2024 European Parliament election, he called for a new French legislative election, as his 2022 plurality was no longer manageable. All members of the legislature are up for re-election, then a new governing coalition will be formed based on the results.

This initially inspired horror, because Marine LePen’s fascist National Rally Party (fka the National Front) was the single most popular party and had finished ahead of L’Europe Ensemble, a group centered on Renaissance, in the European Parliament election. However, faced with the prospect of a fascist France, every party to Macron’s left has united in opposition as the New Popular Front. They are behind the National Rally in the polls but are making a much stronger showing than Renaissance. The first round of voting ends June 30. There will be a runoff July 7, but it is possible the outcome will be predictable by the time this essay goes online.

Many of our most infuriating political moments have come when the most conservative Democrats have allied with Republicans to stop progressive change: Sam Nunn fighting Clinton on allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the military, Joe Lieberman blocking Clinton’s healthcare reform and keeping a public option out of Obama’s, Joe Manchin killing Biden’s Build Back Better bill, and too many more. The New Popular Front demonstrates an alternative, which I hope Democratic Party leadership will embrace before it is too late. “Unity” has too often been a euphemism for silencing the left. Now, like Macron, Biden needs the progressive groups he has defined himself against to save his administration and democracy. Is he willing to unite with the majority of Americans who are to his left?