Brian Sandford: To our great detriment, we’re stuck with a two-party system

Visiting my mother’s native Denmark every summer while growing up taught me a great deal about that nation’s culture.

It also gave my inquisitive friends there a chance to learn about our culture. Was it true that our family — and many American families — had more than one car? Why were our grocery stores open on Sundays; didn’t the employees deserve a day off? What did we learn about in school?

The questions became more intellectual and political as my friends and I matured. After the 2000 presidential election, I fielded numerous queries about how our political and election systems work. More recently, I’ve been asked how our government could possibly “shut down.” Many of us Americans are asking the same thing.

My grandfather was a member of one of Denmark’s nearly 10 major political parties. Because he had so many options, he was able to choose one that closely matched his convictions and philosophies. And because it was such a good match, he was very dedicated to the party.

Here, party affiliation sometimes involves choosing the lesser of what one might consider two evils. Partly for that reason, Danes often wonder why we have only two major parties here.

I tell them that business interests in Denmark don’t wield the massive control that ours do, and it’s convenient for those interests to only have to worry about funneling money to one party or the other (and sometimes both). And both our major parties would be loath to allow a third party into, say, a presidential debate. Neither wants to see its chances of winning fall below 50 percent. After seeing Ross Perot garner 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election, the Dole and Clinton campaigns declined to include him in the televised debates when he ran again in 1996; they did so via the Commission on Presidential Debates.

So when a Dane asks about our current government shutdown, I first explain our two-party power-sharing system. Each party wields massive power in its ability to simply stop walking toward a destination, and each uses it.

It’s difficult to envision a shutdown in a country with three or more parties sharing power. We might understand why we’ve got only two major political parties, but we sure don’t have to like it.

Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at


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