The two-party system is failing; America must declare independents

Duels have their charm. One highlight of the last televised United States presidential gunfight was this exchange:

Mr Donald Trump: "I mean, I sat in my apartment today on a very beautiful hotel down the street..."

Mrs Hillary Clinton: "... made with Chinese steel..."

But the presidential duel looks different when viewed from Asia, where I spent last week.

Many people in the West assume the Chinese fear a Trump win. After all, a recurrent theme of his campaign has been that American jobs have been lost to China and only protectionist tariffs and tougher trade deals will repair the damage.

He was at it again last Wednesday night. "China is growing at 7 per cent," he told the audience in Las Vegas. "We are growing... around the 1 per cent level... Look, our country is stagnant. We've lost our jobs. We've lost our businesses. We're not making things any more... Our product is pouring in from China."

Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton at the third presidential debate in Las Vegas last week. The binary character of US politics is an anachronism in a world where nearly all democracies are now multi-party systems, says an academic.
Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton at the third presidential debate in Las Vegas last week. The binary character of US politics is an anachronism in a world where nearly all democracies are now multi-party systems, says an academic. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

As Mrs Clinton - or rather, her vast army of fact-checkers - pointed out, Mr Trump has been saying such things for nearly 30 years. In 1987, when Mr Ronald Reagan was president, Mr Trump took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to lambast Mr Reagan's trade policy.

Mrs Clinton had her carefully sharpened stiletto at the ready when Mr Trump began bragging about his "beautiful hotel". But no one in Beijing will have been surprised by the revelation that the Trump International hotel in Las Vegas is made of Chinese steel, like almost every item of Trump merchandise you can buy on the campaign trail (apart from those "Make America Great Again" baseball caps).

Far from being fearful about the (now remote) prospect of a Trump presidency, my friends in Beijing have generally followed his campaign with amused scepticism. "He's a businessman," as one of them put it. "We know what he says on the campaign trail doesn't mean anything. If he wins, we can do deals with him."

It is Mrs Clinton the Chinese worry about. "It was actually Hillary Clinton... who launched the (US) pivot to Asia," wrote an indignant contributor to the South China Morning Post recently, "a provocative, overmilitarised gambit (that was) liable to spin out of control."

The consensus in Beijing is that Mrs Clinton would be more forceful than Mr Barack Obama in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, "which is code for the US navy forever controlling the sea lanes straddling China's supply chain", in the words of the Post.

Although Mrs Clinton has been forced by the left of her party to disavow the Trans-Pacific Partnership - "the China- excluding, Nato-on-trade-style arm of the pivot" - the Chinese view is that she will reverse her position as soon as she is elected.

Nor is Mrs Clinton disliked only as a hawk. China's leaders have not forgotten the time when, as secretary of state, she accused them of "trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand". Their human rights record, she said, was "deplorable". They had good reason to be "worried" by the example of the Arab Spring. Even in last week's debate, she could not resist a dig at China's old policy of forced abortions. And let us not forget her line about China's "illegal dumping of steel and aluminium into our markets".

On a visit to Singapore, I picked the brains of diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, as shrewd a judge of the Asian scene as I know. For the Chinese, he told me, the choice between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton seems like one between chaos and cold war. The more they have seen of Mr Trump, the less amusing they have found him. But they have seen enough of Mrs Clinton to know they cannot stand her. Professor Mahbubani predicts that next year will be a year of Sino-American tension if Mrs Clinton wins.

In election years, the race becomes all-consuming. Then, even before inauguration day, we are reminded with a jolt that there is a big, bad world beyond the electoral map. All eyes turn from North Carolina to the South China Sea.

As the China Daily newspaper gloated earlier this month, this year really has "highlighted the defects in the US election system and the dysfunction of democracy". Or, to be more precise, it has exposed the defects in the two-party system.

According to my Hoover Institution colleague Morris Fiorina, the binary character of US politics has become an anachronism in a world where nearly all democracies have become multi-party systems. Even Britain, the birthplace of Whigs and Tories, has followed this trend.

Yet nearly 40 per cent of Americans define themselves as "moderates", more than conservatives (roughly a third) and liberals (a quarter). About the same proportion identify themselves as "independents", not Republicans or Democrats. On key issues, "centrists" predominate. Professor Fiorina says voters can be divided into eight distinct groups in terms of their views on foreign, economic and cultural policy, so why, he asks, are only two of those groups catered for by a party? The others are bound to be disappointed by at least part of what they get.

What would have happened if former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had decided to run for president as an independent instead of stepping back, as he did on March 7? At the time, he reasoned that he could not win the 270 electoral college votes necessary to secure the presidency and that the unintended consequence might be to put Mr Trump in the White House - a risk he could not take "in good conscience".

That was seven long months ago. It was a decision based on polls that naturally understated Mr Bloomberg's potential, as he had not been campaigning, while others had been at it for months. It was a decision that surely underestimated how disgusted voters would become with the candidates of the two main parties. It also underestimated how disgusted Republican congressmen would become with Mr Trump.

If the contest had been inconclusive, with no candidate gaining the magic number of electoral college votes, it would have been referred to Congress, as the Constitution requires. But might not Mr Bloomberg still have won?

As he said at the time of his decision, the US political system needs nothing so much as a chief executive capable of brokering compromises between legislators on tax, welfare and immigration reform. There would surely be a better chance of such deals with an independent in the White House, even if the two parties maintained their dominant positions in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Similarly, what the international order needs most is a US president capable of cooling hot heads and avoiding a confrontation with China over the South China Sea. In this respect, too, Mr Bloomberg would have been by far the best candidate, for he has long understood the crucial importance of "Chimerica", the symbiotic economic relationship between China and the US that has been the engine of global growth since the 1990s.

We will never know what a Bloomberg presidency would have been like. But I am pretty sure that the day to establish a true Independent Party has finally arrived. Enough duels. A three-party state is the right response to the challenge posed by a rising one-party state.

THE SUNDAY TIMES, LONDON

•Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'The two-party system is failing; America must declare independents'. Print Edition | Subscribe