The two-party system is meant to be a guarantee that the U.S. political system will be continually refreshed by new members and engaged in constructive debate. However, the rivalry between the two parties in Congress today has become so acute that it is effectively freezing productive relations at all levels of power, causing inevitable damage to the country’s security and foreign policy.

In a presentation at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Carnegie’s Matthew Rojansky spoke about his research on bipartisan cooperation on national security and foreign policy in the U.S. Congress. Carnegie’s Sam Greene moderated. 

The two-party system

The United States is an example of the classic two-party model of politics, with the Democratic and Republican parties competing for power, explained Rojansky. Each party is capable of taking on and exercising government powers independently.

  • The political environment. The two-party system in the United States, at its best, creates a fertile environment for political debates and reaching consensus decisions.
     
  • Stability. Although the two-party system comes in for a lot of criticism, many see it as a guarantee of political stability and as superior to a single-party system.
     
  • Democracy in action. The U.S. system does not exclude the existence of other parties that, though less influential, also take part in the political process. These parties offer many people a platform through which to express their political views and give them political embodiment, but do not have realistic hopes to win a national election.  
     
  • The balance of power. The two-party Congress is a system of reasonable competition between the different forces, with decisions arrived at by means of checks and balances. Any upset to this balance inevitably makes the decision-making process less effective. 

Rojansky expressed his confidence that the two-party system in the United States will continue, not just by virtue of its social and political advantages, but also because, through the two-party Congress, it ensures that, for the most part, the correct decisions are taken. 

Factors increasing polarization

Many think that the current U.S. foreign policy objectives cannot be reached, given the political environment. Congress is more polarized along party lines today than at any time in the past. Rojansky described three main factors contributing to the increased polarization:  

  • The upcoming election factor: The attention of congressmen is often focused on the next election campaign. This preoccupation with re-election has led, in a number of cases, to voting fraud in some electoral districts, opaque fundraising schemes, and non-transparent spending on political advertising; 
     
  • The time factor: Congress’s working week has been squeezed into three days. Often even during these three days, congressmen leave the assembly as soon as voting is over;
     
  • The role of the media: Political news are increasingly being portrayed as a form of entertainment, even in coverage of national security and foreign policy. 

An analysis of U.S. foreign policy from 1945 to 2009 shows that most decisions were a result of compromise between Republicans and Democrats, Rojansky explained. This ensured policy consistency as the two parties took turns at running the government. Rojansky argued that the United States needs a coordinated foreign policy and must not let partisan differences become an obstacle to drawing up a common and effective foreign policy line.

Recommendations

Rojansky proposed a number of recommendations to encourage cooperation between the parties and restore the two-party system’s foreign policy effectiveness: 

  • The president’s role. The president must act in such a way as to ensure that both sides of the aisle in Congress and beyond view bipartisanship as having intrinsic value to American foreign policy.
     
  • Working groups. There is a need for bipartisan working groups on security and foreign policy issues. The two parties need to hold regular consultations that will give them the chance to work together with the best specialists and draw on their experience. They also must put in place the conditions for civilized exchange of views on contentious issues.
     
  • The committee system is imperfect and should be reorganized on the basis of political neutrality.
     
  • Congressmen’s responsibility. There is a need to increase the personal responsibility of individual congressmen. Congressmen should be required to examine all of the foreign policy issues discussed, regularly attend meetings, and provide transparent reports on financing for work-related travel to places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Russia.
     
  • The media’s role. Efforts need to be made to resist the trend towards presenting Congressional debates as some kind of all-out fight between the parties. When confrontation goes beyond the limits of civilized dialogue, it should not be fed to the public as a news item. In their coverage of political debates, the media should do their part to encourage political party leaders in Washington and throughout the country to put more effort into addressing real foreign policy issues and give the public the chance to get reliable information on these issues.  

Open and irreconcilable conflict between Democrats and Republicans today is complicating efforts to make decisions on healthcare and tax reform, ratifying the START Treaty, and other important issues. But Rojansky concluded that the two-party system is nonetheless a historically proven strategic base for long-term political success, especially on the foreign stage. Political power comes and goes, and the majority party needs to make best use of its strength, experience, and patience to help build an effective two-party coalition.