But the greatest drawback of the two-party system is that it doesn't get the job done anymore. One of the central ideas of the Constitution is to grant power to those who are elected while also restricting it. This cleverly balanced system requires the president to cooperate with Congress and vice versa. Yet it has turned out that Democrats and Republicans don't work together well enough anymore.
Apparently, the two-party system has created the wrong incentives. When President Obama needed Republican cooperation to raise the debt ceiling and was willing to compromise to get it, many of his opponents preferred to remain stubborn and steadfast. They were counting on the fact that many voters would blame the president for signs of disintegration and chaos.
In a two-party system, as we're seeing, cooperation may not always be perceived as the way to gain control.
In a system of proportional representation, however, cooperation usually is the only path to power. Typically, no party can win a majority in a parliament with proportional representation, so those who are able to work together and build a functioning coalition will be rewarded with government jobs. This is a great incentive to bite the bullet and get things done.
But doesn't proportional representation lead to parliaments with so many parties that stable, reliable government is impossible? That can happen, but it can be prevented by setting a minimum threshold for representation. Germany, for example, has proportional representation in parliament, but a party has to get at least 5 percent of the vote to be represented. This system has so far produced stable governments with a limited number of partners.
Setting an even higher minimum, say 7 or 8 percent of the vote, would go even further to ensure the government is not too splintered to work.
Some might object that proportional representation just isn't the American way, that majority vote has always ruled here. But isn't the American way about finding solutions and changing things that don't work? Is a nation of immigrants that has been a great role model for so many countries afraid to learn something from other places? Of course not.
The true impediment to proportional representation in America is that it would require the two major parties to restrict their own power - which is like asking a butcher to commit himself to animal rights. Asking the political establishment to change the system is likely to produce at least some cooperation between Republicans and Democrats - in rejecting this request. They don't want to sink the battleship in which they've made themselves so comfortable.
There is another way to change things, though it would require a lot of hard work by a lot of people: Get involved! And, most important: Voters shouldn't leave the primaries to those who are interested only in partisanship and political maneuvering. Instead of asking candidates whether they have exactly the same ideas and values they have, voters should try to find out if they are willing to compromise. And ask them if they have the guts to tell their constituents that they can't fulfill all their wishes but are doing their best to work something out - even, and especially, with their political opponents.
Get hold of the helm of this battleship and give it to those who are willing to work for the country, not their political careers.
Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in Cologne, Germany. He is visiting The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.