Alex Patton: Is America's two-party system heading toward collapse?

I tend to believe systems self-regulate towards maintaining equilibrium.

However, for the first time, I am starting to ponder, “Is America’s current two party system heading towards collapse?”

A simple definition of complex systems is a system comprised of many, diverse actors who have interdependent relationships providing feedback and adapting in an ever-changing landscape.

We all can agree, the American political system is a complex system.

Complex systems are remarkably tolerant systems, as defined they adapt….to a point.

One of the requirements of a complex system is diversity. Not diversity of just the commonly discussed race and gender, but diversity of thought. Diversity is a sign of the robustness of a system and its ability to adapt.

When a system is reduced to homogeneous actors, a system loses robustness and heads towards catastrophic failure.

An example is a lake.

A lake is a large, complex, diverse and robust system. Place nitrogen run-off into a healthy lake, a lake will adjust and adapt. If one continues to add more nitrogen, a lake will continue to adjust, but its diversity is being reduced. The lake is still healthy, but the complex system is undergoing stress. Continue to add nitrogen to a lake, and at a critical point there is no diversity and the lake hits a tipping point; we are left with a slimy, eutrophic mess.

Another major requirement in a complex system is feedback. A complex system collapses when feedback loops cascade too far to only positive or negative.

With the lack of diversity in both parties and the curating of news, we observe epistemic closure skyrocketing in our political system. It’s a death spiral.

We would be hard-pressed to find a single thinking American satisfied with the current state of America’s political system.

The political system is less diverse due to gerrymandered districts and ideological purges. The feedback loops are closing (if not closed for some) due to epistemic closure.

Both factors are accelerating to magnitudes we have not previously observed due to catalysts such as technology (Internet) and money (super PACS).

This is observed in Gallup’s historic findings that NEITHER the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party exceeds a 40 percent favorability rating. Both parties have never been below 40 percent at the same time in Gallup’s history.


A final observation of complex systems and its modeling is the speed of massive change. Examples are the collapse of the USSR and the world‘s financial markets.

The current system of two party dominance is under tremendous stress:

  • Congress’ approval rating hovers near an all-time low of 15 percent.
  • BOTH parties’ favorabilities are at historic lows.
  • Citizens have lost faith in government’s ability to do its basic job.

I have always believed our 200 year old governance system was extremely robust and adaptive.

However, with the acceleration of ideological purges and closing of feedback loops, I am starting to believe our complex system of governance will undergo a massive change in a relatively short period of time.

This massive change will take the form of a major realignment of the two major political parties or a collapse of our current governing system. I hope it is “only” the first.

Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Guest Author


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