Breaking the Hold of Two-Party Politics

Professor Charles Wheelan explains how two-party politics is failing the United States, but centrists could change the Senate landscape.


The current two-party political system has encouraged the rise of the most extreme candidates, taking rational moderates out of the national conversation, notes Charles Wheelan, a professor of public policy at Dartmouth College. In "The Centrist Manifesto," Wheelan offers a solution. He spoke to U.S. News about the failure of traditional two-party politics, his vision for a new party that champions the best of the Republican and Democratic parties, and how a centrist candidate could change the landscape of the Senate. Excerpts:

What inspired you to write this book?

I was a speechwriter for a Republican governor, so I saw the inside workings of government. Then I studied public policy for a long time, so I thought in a wonkish sense about how government's supposed to work. Then I covered politics for The Economist, as a dispassionate observer. And then finally, I ran as a Democrat in Chicago, as probably the most fiscally conservative [candidate] in a Democratic field. All of those experiences together led me to believe that we actually need to make systemic changes.

How is the current system failing?

The current two-party system gives too much power to the extremists in each party. Much of that is actually institutional in nature. So, for example, the primary system means that in a lot of states, independent voters are essentially unrepresented in choosing the two candidates who are going to appear on the general election ballot. So each party spits out more extreme candidates than would be elected if all of us chose our top two preferences. Problem No. 2 is that, on the House side at least, we're gerrymandering electoral districts. Once you do that, you're more likely to get challenged by someone who's even more liberal [or conservative] than you are. So, therefore, as a member of Congress you're always protecting your more conservative or more liberal flank.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

What is the Centrist Party, and what are its goals?

One of the reasons I wrote the book was that I believe it's not enough to describe yourself as "not a Republican" or "not a Democrat." That's what independents do. There's a large and growing segment of the American population that describes themselves that way. But it's hard to organize people who describe themselves as "not something." The Centrist Party stands for a series of principles that I would argue take the best of each party. The Centrist Party stands for keeping what we like about the Republicans and Democrats and cutting off the tails. The tails, unfortunately, are those who tend to be in charge of the system right now.

What would the Centrist position be on an issue like gun control?

Gun control is a very good one because there is nobody who is pro-unnecessary gun deaths. And I think we've created a huge false dilemma here between gun rights and gun control. What the Centrist Party does is to say: We need to treat guns like any other potentially dangerous products. So the key insight into Centrist gun policy is that we would license you as the owner, and you would be fingerprinted. If you sell or lose those guns, you then have to report that they were sold or lost so we can trace the chain of ownership for any particular weapon. So I think responsible gun ownership is all about keeping track of who's got what weapons, and much less about arguing about how many guns you can buy or what kind of guns.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Can a Centrist candidate win an election?

Yes, but not for the presidency. The Electoral College makes it nearly impossible for a third-party candidate to win the presidency. However, the whole thrust of "The Centrist Manifesto" is that the Senate is different. Senate candidates could easily win in many swing states if they were running as Centrists because you don't need a majority to win as a Senate candidate. All that a Centrist candidate has to do is hold 34 percent of the vote to win. Then, imagine a Senate that's 47 Democrats, 6 Centrists and 47 Republicans. At that point, the Centrists are the swing votes and the ideological center of the Senate. And that's a very powerful place to be.