Polar Extremes: Elon Community Connections Panel discusses the effects of America’s two-party system

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 22, 2017

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Photo by Mariah Posey | Moderator and panel members (left to right) Naeemah Clark, John Hood, Carrie Eaves, Chris Fitzsimon.

Regardless of political standing, questions regarding the current state of American politics stump many people. Is it fair? Is it what the Founding Fathers envisioned? When thinking about the results of the last election and how Americans are voting, Carrie Eaves, assistant professor of political science, says she learned we are “extraordinarily polarized” under the two-party system. She described what took place as a “social phenomenon.”

“We did see — and continue to see — because our political debate is so charged, people are hesitant [to voice their opinions],” Eaves said. “It makes it a lot harder to have those discussions.”

To create a safe space for that conversation, Elon University in collaboration with the Burlington Times-News presented a panel themed “The Role of Government and the Future of the Traditional Two-Party Political System” Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. in McKinnon Hall. It was the second installment of their Community Connections forum series, aimed at initiating thoughtful dialogue surrounding the contemporary political environment.

The event ran as a Q&A session where both moderator Naeemah Clark and audience members were free to pose questions regarding government and panel members took turns responding.

Q: What role did third-party candidates play in the election?

Although third parties don’t have a strong history of winning elections, Bernie Sanders (who ran independent during the 2017 election) received more votes than third parties usually get according to John Hood, political commentator and president of the John William Pope Foundation. When Republican leaning voters weren’t sold on Trump and democratic voters lost fervor their candidates, they turned to Sanders.

According to Hood, third parties begin to underperform when they gear their campaigns towards appealing to crowds that are firmly for another party instead of the people who will likely vote for them.

Regarding presidency, Eaves didn’t see room for a third party to win anytime soon.

“The bar is set by the two existing parties, intentionally very high,” she commented.

Hood agreed that the likelihood of a presidential win for a third party was slim, but maintained that they could have a significant effect on politics.

“I think we’re going to see three parties actively competing for presidency [in the future],” Hood said.

Q: Does the Republican party now sign off on Trump’s ideas?

Associate Professor of Communications Naeemah Clark, moderator of the event, identified President Donald Trump as “a third party candidate who was smart enough to join the Republican party.” Afterwards, she posed a question regarding what a future Republican party will look like.

Hood said he didn’t believe Republicans had a singular party anymore.

“I think it’s the Republican parties,” he said, referring to them as the grassroots republicans, capitol hill republicans and Trump republicans. He described the three parties as three wrestlers in a ring.

“One hasn’t thrown the other to the ground yet,” he said.

But Chris Fitzsimon, founder and executive director of NC Policy Watch, disagreed that there were Republican parties and said rather, that Trump was appealing to the other two.

Q: What is the role of the government and different political parties in a non-election year?

Until it became a political liability in the 90s, Hood said that senators used to live in Washington and have families and churches there. They went to church with Democrats. Because that doesn’t really happen anymore, the opportunity for mature verbal exchange is limited.

“That reduces the social ties that allows people to argue with each other without bickering with each other,” Hood said.

Because of this, Hood says the two political parties are more ideologically sorted than they used to be. But Eaves believes it’s the job of the people send them back if they don’t serve our needs.

Q: How is Twitter and the trope of mainstream media changing our democracy? 

People are too able to block out ideas that don’t align with the ones they already perceive to be true according to Hood.

“The internet allows us to cocoon ourselves in our own little worlds,” he said. “People will simply read more and more things that reinforce their preconceived notions.”

The problem with that, Eaves said, is that “people just take in that information and don’t even realize their consuming it.”

Furthermore, the overload of sources gets mixed into the conversation according to Fitzsimon.

“Obviously with the internet, all you need is a webcam and a microphone and you’re a news source,” Fitzsimon said. “We’ve gotten to a point where that’s a part of the debate somehow.”

Q: Would it be better devolve power away from the national government? 

According to Eaves, there’s no clear answer from the Constitution regarding how much power states should have and that laws only work to confuse and muddle them further. But she thinks that giving the power back to the states to determine elections wouldn’t work.

“Some states are very solidly red and solidly blue,” she said. “Other states are pretty evenly split … so devolving power back to here wouldn’t really solve that problem”

Fitzsimon also agrees that giving states too much power could be problematic.

“Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of geographic entities bumped up against each other,” he said.

Q: Is the new protest system sustainable? 

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Photo by Mariah Posey | John Hood responds to a question asked by moderator Naeemah Clark.

Clark commented on the new protest system that was emerging as of the latest election and asked whether or not it could last the next four years. According to Hood, its redundancy would eventually lead to apathy.

 “We see it all the time,” Hood said. “Every week there’s a new protest. ‘What’s the cause this week?’ I’m not so sure it’s a trend that’s going to continue in its current powerful form.”

Eaves agreed that four years was a long time to sustain the protests, but recognized their power when they lead more progressive actions.

“One of the things I was intrigued by with the Women’s March is that after the Women’s March, the next few days they held conferences to train women how to run for office,” Eaves said. “So instead, giving people tools to put these things into action and step out and attempt to run and serve … Those sort of kernels and seeds that are being planted, we could see those effects in two to four years down that road.”

What’s left unsaid

Amongst the many topics brought up — the role of third-party candidates, the impact of the internet on the election, protest culture— Fitzsimon was most amazed by the one discussion that was missing from the conversation.

“Imagine if I would’ve sat here four years ago and said, ‘Guess what’s going to happen in the election?” Fitzsimon said. “Russia is going to break the law, commit felonies, steal private information and publish it to try to influence our election to elect one candidate or not. You guys would have thought I was out of my mind and you would have said, ‘That would be the biggest story in politics ever and it’ll cause a dramatic national investigation and we’ll have all this huge uproar in America about it.’ It hasn’t even come up tonight.’

“That’s amazing to me if you really stop and think about what that means for our democracy and our republic and our future … It’s unbelievable to me.”

“I’m starting to think this audience is really full of Russian agents,” Hood said.

Fitzsimon nodded before responding. “They might be,” he said.

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