Politics as Duopoly: Two Parties, Zero Progress

From the Editors | Politics as Duopoly; Government As Gridlock | Issue 4 | april 21, 2021

In this issue of The Purple Principle in Print we are inspired by our upcoming podcast guest, Katherine Gehl (co-author of of The Politics Industry, HBS Press) to look at our political system as a big, profitable and unresponsive business sector – essentially a red-blue duopoly, one that takes in tons of money without putting forth a lot of results. 

Yes, a major COVID relief package was finally passed. But…

  • Consider the current refugee crisis along our border, and the fact that we’ve not had a major immigration bill pass since 1986…
  • Consider the continuing plague of gun violence in the country with no major legislation passed since 1994… 
  • And consider the ever-escalating budget deficit whose debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020 was at 109%, with the federal debt at the end of 2020 reaching $21.2 trillion. 

As duopolies go, it’s hard to beat our Democratic-Republican duo for longevity. Yes, they fight each other all day long. Yet, due to myriad rules and practices, it seems impossible for other parties or pure independents to gain any traction.

Out of 7,400 state representatives and senators nationwide only 25 are pure Independents and two are Libertarians. 

In the 2020 U.S. Senate races, there was only one competitive third-party candidate, Al Gross from Alaska, who ran as an independent but ultimately lost to Dan Sullivan by 13 points. And there are currently no independent or third party members of the U.S. House or in any of the 50 Governor’s seats. 

If measured by growth in campaign spending, the Politics Industry is definitely one of the highest growth industries in recent time, with a nearly 20% increase since the 2016 election, exceeding the growth of these such indispensable industries as Education (1%), Transportation (9.4%), and Energy (-14% for coal and related; -0.9% for green/renewable).

The Politics Biz is also recession-proof. Despite the recession and the pandemic, political campaign spending went up 113% in 2020 from 2016 while many other sectors, such as healthcare, declined for the first time in decades.  

And contributions to political campaigns are now rivaling and possibly crowding out contributions to extremely important charities. In 2019 consider that $145.9 million was donated to the American Cancer Society, $45 million short of the 10 most expensive Senate races ever.  Likewise, in 2019, $21 million was donated to diabetes research, only half  of what was spent on  only half of what was spent on the most expensive November House election

So the next time you’re looking at politics in the traditional terms of Republicans vs. Democrats, think how well the Republican-Democrat duopoly is faring compared to so many aspects of our economy and society.  

Data Insights into the Politics Industry

Measuring our Political Paralysis & Decline 

Source: Center for Responsive Politics


In 2020, 11,524 lobbyists were officially registered. But, as the Center for Responsive Politics has found, “shadow lobbying” by unregistered lobbyists is rampant in Washington, D.C. This practice obscures the real scale of lobbying activities across our governing institutions and policy process.

Congressional Productivity

The number of bills passed by Congress has also decreased over the last 3 decades, although irregularly. The 344 bills passed by the latest Congress (2019-2020) was the 5th lowest total in that time frame. And the 233 substantive bills passed by the latest Congress was the 4th lowest total among the last 15 Congresses.

Transparency International

Ranks the US as the 25th least corrupt country out of 180 rated behind nations like Uruguay, Bhutan, Estonia, and the UAE. When the rankings were last released, in 2020, the U.S. was rated as the most corrupt it has ever been since the rating system began.

Government Effectiveness

When last rated in 2019, the US was 19th in the World Bank’s ratings, its lowest rank since 2015; the US’ government effectiveness score has remained relatively flat even as the world median has crept up over time. Despite this low score, the U.S. consistently ranks among the top five in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. This suggests an unusually wide disparity between public and private sector efficiency.

Highlights & Insights from the Purple Principle

purple principle episode artwork with heashot of podcast guests Adam Jentleson and Richard Arenberg

“I think that anybody who favors a functioning federal government should be in favor of filibuster reform. And I’m obviously on the left side of the spectrum, I don’t make any attempt to hide that. But I think that what we’re talking about here is a tactic that defeats not far-left policies, but middle-of-the-road policies.”

— Adam Jentleson

“It’s a very shortsighted position to eliminate the filibuster to get the things done that you want done on your agenda. Because if there’s one thing we all know about the United States Senate, it won’t be in the control of one party or the other for all that long.”

— Richard Arenberg

“You know, that song, “looking for love in all the wrong places”…we’re looking for a fix to our politics in all the wrong places. The real place to look is at the incentives that are driving the behavior and therefore the results that we’re getting, or in most cases, not getting.”

—  Katherine Gehl
purple principle episode artwork with headshot of podcast guest Katherine Gehl

What We’re Reading

House Democrats roll out offensive targets for 2022

The Hill

As both parties attack each other non-stop, the more the duopoly’s power and resources continue to grow unchecked. On the Democratic side, the DCCC released its list of “offensive targets” in the upcoming midterm elections earlier this month in anticipation of hotly contested congressional seats across the country.

DeSantis continues to pull in millions for reelection campaign


Campaign fundraising never begins or ends in today’s politics industry. Florida Governor DeSantis has already raised $6 million for his reelection campaign in 2022.

Inside a stealth ‘persuasion machine’ promising Republican victories in 2022

The Washington Post

Likewise, campaigning never takes a breather, even after a major election.

Congressional fundraisers lobby corporations that suspended political donations following Capitol riot


Not even insurrection makes a dent in the politics business as usual.

Trump looks to boost former administration officials in 2022 midterms

ABC News

And not even election losses dent fundraising leverage.

McConnell defends Citizens United but says Georgia voting law response by companies is ‘stupid’

The Washington Post

“My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said at a news conference in Kentucky on Tuesday, before adding: “I’m not talking about political contributions.”

Poll Worth Pondering

Trust in and satisfaction with government

In 2021, only 27% of people said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with how well the government works, the lowest level on record. When last measured in 2020, 13% of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. This is the highest level since 2007, but the level has remained between 7 and 14% during that time. Prior to 1990, typically 30-40% expressed confidence in Congress.

Partner In Purple

This “cross-partisan” organization, founded by Katherine Gehl in 2020, seeks to restore competition and accountability to American politics across all levels of government.
Gehl and Michael Porter also co-authored an insightful article, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America” for The Harvard Business Review, which later formed the blueprint for their 2020 book, The Politics Industry.

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