THE BLOG
07/26/2011 12:22 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

The 2-Party System Is Dead -- What's Next?

Well, it's on. The latest political gold rush to form a viable 3rd party. At the top of the food chain, backed by hedge fund guys, is Amercans Elect, with Thom Friedman as cheerleader-in-chief. At the other end is the lone but sympathetic voice in cyberspace scratching for coin to start his own single-issue party. And various Third Way advocates take up the center.

These aren't the first and won't be the last to seek The Big Fix this way, motivated -- justifiably -- by two main parties that are utterly feckless or corrupt, or both.

I say they're dead.

Dead as in no longer able to perform their Constitutional duties. It's impossible for any honest, clear-eyed observer to believe otherwise.

All that leaders of both parties seem willing to do is gird for battle -- over and over -- locked in a mindless loop of lunacy, ruthlessly seeking power merely to wield power. But focusing all political energy into the razor's-edge battle of ideologies is no solution to anything. It is, in fact, dangerous. And ultimately futile. It not only repeatedly scorches half the house we all live in -- but even victories are neutered as soon as the other team reclaims power, as they always will.

And in a sharply divided country, fueled by a media culture that sells politics as sensationalist entertainment, to a citizenry with no effective political outlet for their growing rage and frustration -- well, we're playing with fire to put it mildly.

Even if Congress passes a debt ceiling increase just in the nick of time so they can all go on camera and tell us how great they are -- that is not proof the 2 party system is still alive and kicking. Just like human body parts occasionally spasm on a rotting corpse, our parties will continue spasming as an involuntary reflex now and then. But we should not mistake this for life.

Nevertheless, I can't join the chorus singing the praises of a 3rd party as the way out of this mess. The roots of our democracy's dysfunction run deeper.

As in any relationship on the rocks, the cringe-worthy phrase hovers: "It's not you, it's me." This time it's true. Our leaders are doing a piss-poor job to be sure. But how are we-the-people doing in our roles as citizens? Do we even accept that we have a serious job to do beyond the act of voting every couple years?

How much time and effort does the average American invest in staying up to speed on the issues, and where the politicians stand on them? Or participating in groups and processes that work to shape policy?

Not many. Some never did. Others have made the effort, but grow frustrated if they can't find an effective way to make their voices heard. So they grow cyncial, and start tuning out -- resulting in a polity that is, for the most part, depressingly passive and often horribly ill-informed about the big issues that affect their lives, and those of their offspring.

So, with all this dysfunction and frustration with the staus quo, it's a perfect environment for a 3rd party, right? Well, aside from all the historical evidence on why such efforts fail, and if effective at all it's only as a spoiler, my concern isn't whether it will succeed or not. What concerns me is how it would serve as yet another distraction for those who yearn for a more mature and brilliant form of politics, by teasing us with yet another magical answer, rather than motivating us to focus on the only answer that will ever matter.

In a self-governing society, if we truly want to fix broken government, we first need to fix the broken concept of what it means to be a citizen.

But no one on the national stage ever talks to us like that (except the inimitable Bill Maher). Not surprising, as it's a lousy tactic for generating votes, ratings, or donations. But it's the only way to help us clearly see what must be done. And who must do it.

The good news is that if we're willing to re-enlist as full time citizens, there are proven methods and processes we can use to gather with fellow community members, deliberate on political issues, reach near consensus across partisan divides, and turn their talk into action with relevant policymakers. All we need to do it, is to do it.

So, 3rd party? Sure. Bring it on. I may even vote for its candidates. But until we accept that we have a serious job to do as citizens, and get on with it, forget about Big Change. It won't happen -- regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congrees.

There is an amazing world of self-governing opportunity waiting for us if we, the people, would only choose to cast off our cynicism, shatter the armor of apathy, and actively participate in political problem-solving and decision-making -- utilizing the incredibly empowering tools and methods pioneered in the deliberative democracy movement.

Goodnight political parties. Long live democracy. Hands-on democracy.

Try it, you'll like it.