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Rich Tafel

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Crash The Parties

Posted: 09/20/11 12:30 PM ET

2012 is emerging as another anti-incumbent election year. However, swinging back and forth between two parties won't bring the change voters seek.

Instead, it's time for the frustrated American electorate to dump our two-party system.

When I made this suggestion on a political panel discussion last summer, an established Washington political figure shouted, "Have you looked at Italy lately?"

Poor Italy. Whenever someone imagines multiple political parties in America, fingers point at Italy and their reputation for political dysfunction.

However, multi-party democracies are the norm, not the exception, around the world.
In fact, there are only five two-party democracies in the entire world.

Jamaica is one, the only nation to declare financial default in 2010. Another is Japan, which has the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, standing at well over 200 percent. Are you seeing the pattern of fiscal trouble and two-party systems?

The Founding Fathers saw these problems coming and opposed a two-party democracy. George Washington warned against the system in his farewell address and John Adams took direct aim.

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution." (Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 October 1780), "The Works of John Adams", vol 9, p.511

It is a great irony that a country preaching freedom of choice offers only two real choices for our political participation.

If Americans were told to choose between two cars, shirts, colors or family sizes, we'd rise up in revolt against such Soviet dictates. Tell us we have only two parties, however, and we accept it as though any alternative is unimaginable.

The two parties don't reflect the views of our citizens. In their study, "Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology", the Pew Research Center identified nine distinct voter groups in America's 2012 election cycle. Both Republicans and Democrats continue to lose voter support as unaffiliated voters grow.

According to a May 9, 2011 Gallup Poll, as many as 52 percent of Republicans wished for a new party.

If everyone wants change, why can't we get it?

The problem is that our political class, funded by the same donors, controls the system that works for them. Though the two parties bicker and attack each other, they join forces in protecting their two-party monopoly.

Politicians won't lead us out of this system, but new social networking, with its revolutionary abilities, might.

Two political entrepreneurs, Nathan Daschle and Ray Glendening, have figured out how to harness it. They are launching Ruck.us this month as an online vehicle to reconnect American citizens to the issues we care about most.

Ruck.us will establish a forum where issues critical to our future as a nation can help us frame a new public discourse that goes beyond the typical smackdown for political majority status.

Members define their political DNA by answering a dynamic set of questions about their positions and issues. This process connects members with politically like-minded people, empowering them to take recommended collective actions both on and off the site.

By creating a political network, referred to as a ruck, members -- regardless of philosophy, ideology, or party affiliation -- receive an engaging experience that goes beyond being a Republican or Democrat.

Daschle describes it this way: "Ruck.us takes the core features of political engagement -- matching like-minded people, and then allowing them to exchange information and take collective action -- and rebuilds them. Political parties have held a monopoly on these features for the last 200 years. Thanks to social media technology, that's no longer the case."

Some will confuse this with failed efforts to create a third party, but Daschle sees it differently: "Third parties are doomed to fail because we have a winner-take-all system. It is not a third party. It's "anti-party." It challenges the deeper premise of whether parties are even necessary in the 21st century."

Like any innovation, the outcome isn't completely clear, but the opportunity to begin to change our political system is.

By undermining the hold of the old two-party system and fostering online communities focused on advancing political issues, we can create the opportunity to take our government back and give the American people the change the seek.

Rich Tafel is the CEO of Public Squared, which trains nonprofits in leadership and public policy. He serves on the Ruck.us advisory board and was the founder of Log Cabin Republicans and author of Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual.