It is not useful for the purposes of this article to speculate on the roots of this phenomenon but, whatever the reason, it is undeniably common nowadays to complain about the “two-party system.” The “two-party system” is everyone’s favorite bogeyman, everyone’s kneejerk justification for delegitimization. And like the bogeyman, it is a vague catchall to explain certain difficult or unexpected occurrences and is not based in reality. So then fearing it or raging against it is a waste of time and counterproductive.
The two-party system is often shorthand for the idea that Democrats and Republicans, with a sometimes Illuminati/Mason like power, control everything from behind a mysterious curtain and every time something happens that we don’t like it is due to these shadowy forces, because if not then that would mean the American people are to blame.
And as we all know, the American people are me and people who think exactly like me. Everyone else is corrupt, illegitimate, and not real America. When something happens that I do not like, it is not because I am in the minority, or I have failed to express myself in a way that convinces 51% of voters, or certainly not because I am wrong. It is because somehow the democratic system has been hijacked from the American people (me) and we’re living in some bimodal Orwellian dystopia.
As the sarcasm might suggest, despite the passionate cynicism of this view it is not a view that will produce good results. Not only is it not accurate, but it is self-defeating, not just for your own ideology, but for the continued functioning of a free liberal democracy.
- The “Two-Party System” aka the American Constitution
The “two-party system” is actually a misnomer. We don’t have a system that is two parties. We have a system that results in two parties. It is not through some devious conspiracy that we have two parties that hold nearly all political offices, but like a river that flows down a mountain and into a valley it is the natural result of the landscape, a landscape we designed.
The “two-party system,” like phrases such as “dependence economy,” are words that sound somewhat academic, but are mostly just political buzzwords. Dependence economy is not really a thing in economics, just libertarian blogs. And “two-party system” is not really a political science word or a useful way to analyze or explain American politics. Describe maybe, but not explain.
To rage against the two-party system is to actually rage against our own Constitution. As our Constitution is set up, there is no other possibility but two parties. That is why throughout American history we have always had two parties. Not always the same two, but never more than two that could attain power.
If a third party rises, it will either disappear or replace one of the others. If there are many, they will eventually consolidate into two. If they fail to consolidate, those who resist will lose until they disappear or join with a larger group.
This is because our system is first past the post republican democracy. First past the post means that when you vote, you select 1 candidate to hold 1 office and the one with the most votes is the winner district by district. Why does that result in two parties? Because it makes you more likely to win.
Here’s a game theory type analogy for you. Imagine you’re in the Hamburger Party. Your opponents are the Murder Party. You want to eat hamburgers, and they want to murder people. Pretty stark contrast. 60% of people want hamburgers and 40% want murder. So the hamburgers win, right? Yes. That is unless…
Now some in the hamburger party want to wear blue shirts while they eat hamburgers, others want red shirts. Obviously we all want 100% of what we want so this 90% cannot abide. The Hamburger Party splits. The Blue Burgers get 30% of the vote, the Red Burgers get 30% of the vote, and the Murder Party gets 40% of the vote. Now you get no hamburgers, no shirts, and you get murdered.
That’s 0% of what you want. So assuming you’re a rational actor, when the next election comes around 90% starts looking pretty good, and you work out some compromise on shirt color, stripes maybe, and we’re back to two-parties.
This has occurred many times throughout history. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose or Progressive Party gave the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and thus quickly disappeared. The Republican Party itself was formed out of the Whigs and Free Soilers and a number of other smaller parties frustrated by their inability to defeat the more consolidated Democratic Party. Some held out, but enough abolitionists came together just in time and the end of slavery followed. Better late than never.
Ok, you get it. Our Constitution is set up so that if you can’t accept 90% of what you want because you want 100%, you end up with 0%. Or some variation of those percentages that express the same idea.
- “The multi-party system” aka PR Parliament
But what if we changed the Constitution? What if we found some system that could break down the two-party inevitability of our democracy? Those who like third parties imagine a third party, or a dozen, or that every single person was in their own party, or maybe that last one’s anarchy. But what about having multiple parties capable of gaining power?
Well that’s not a new idea. It’s not a rebellious idea necessarily. And it’s not an idea that would solve the issue that you have with not getting 100% of what you want. What we’re talking about is proportional representation. We’re talking about basically a parliament.
So when people imagine this multiparty utopia where you never have to associate with people that aren’t exactly like you, they’re just talking about a parliament. And if you’re familiar with countries that aren’t America, there is not a significant difference in democratic outcomes between the two types of voting systems.
The reason it works out roughly the same is because it’s still a democracy, and you still need a majority to do anything. It’s just that now the consolidation of differing groups through compromise and recognized similarities occurs among the parties rather than among voters and interest groups within the party.
There’s an assumption about having a system that allows multiple parties being one in which the parties are weaker and the people’s voice is reflected better, less distorted by parties. A PR/parliamentary system is no better at representing people’s views and providing results, and it may even be worse.
The alternative to our “two-party system” has a number of drawbacks. In a PR system, you don’t vote for a candidate, but for the party itself. Then the party is given a number of seats proportional to its total share of the vote.
It’s true that this allows fringe parties like Green Parties, for example in Germany, to have seats, if not power, because even though they don’t have 51% of any district they still have 5 or 10% of people overall who vote for them so they get that % of seats in the legislature.
But it also has allowed on numerous occasions neo-fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn to hold seats in the legislature. If we were PR, just 1% of voters would need to support a Nazi Party for us to have a Nazi Senator or just .0023 to result in a Nazi in the House.
Beyond that embarrassing possibility, since the party is voted for rather than the candidate, the party decides who the candidates are. We complain when our candidate loses a primary, but most PR countries do not truly have a primary. The party tells you who the people are that it will seat, and when the votes come in it picks from that pool until there are no more seats to fill.
Because of this, members of parliament have much more party loyalty than in the United States because, unlike in the US, the party picks you. In the US, anyone can call themselves a party name and run for that primary. It’s true that moderates often get disrespected by their parties in the US, but they don’t even exist in many parliamentary systems, unless of course there is a centrist party.
Things like Blue Dog Democrats, John McCain, Jesse Ventura, and Bernie Sanders could not exist in PR/parliamentary systems. There are no independent candidates. In a PR/ parliamentary system parties are often an inherent part of the system. There is no functioning without it. In our first past the post/republican democracy you can easily have no parties, but inevitably parties will form because it makes more sense to people.
Finally, the outcome of the election does not always reflect exactly what the people want. Recall the electoral analogy above. In a PR system, 30% of the seats would go to the Blue Burgers, 30% to the Red Burgers, and 40% to the Murder Party. In a PR/parliamentary system it works out differently but is equally, if not more, likely to cause bad results.
In a PR system, if the Red Burgers and Blue Burgers, or at least those who run the party, can get along they form a government and we all get hamburgers until they inevitably disagree and the government dissolves and we hold a new election. But that is one positive scenario. The rest are not.
If no parties will get along then Murder Party forms a minority government. This is a less subtle version of what happens when we in America vote for third party candidates like Ralph Nader. It is a government formed that most people do not want that still runs the country. So again you get 0% of what you want if you’re a hamburger fan.
The other possibility is one like that in Israel under Netenyahu or Italy under Berlusconi. A significant number of Israelis and Italians did not like the job they were doing. But the countries were fractured into a number of parties that couldn’t form a coalition and settled for having some power and joining the government of Netenyahu for example. So Bibi is in charge, not because people want him to be but because he is better at negotiating with other party leaders.
So in this case, we end up with a Blue Murder coalition. So they murder with blue shirts on. That’s 50% of what 50% of 60% of people want. So 60% of people get 15% of what they want in some sense. Not exactly a multiparty utopia. Not always funkadelic either.
Complaints about the “two-party system,” like complaints about anything, are worthless without an alternative. An alternative to the system set up by our Constitution already exists and it is no better, or perhaps worse in some cases, at achieving what the multiparty dreamers desire.
- The Unavoidable and Unrelenting Diversity of Democracy
So how do I get 100% of what I want represented in a party? Easy, find a party that represents 100% of what you want, or make one yourself, and be prepared to get 0% of what you want represented in the actual government. And isn’t that the goal?
But then how do I get 100% of what I want represented in a government? You don’t, ever. Not in a democracy. If a government is doing 100% of what you want you’re either the median voter or congratulations because you’re the dictator of a country.
Unfortunately, it is the nature of a free liberal democracy that you will have to govern alongside, or perhaps even vote for, people who are not exactly like you. And is that so bad? Is it so terrible to associate with people who are not exactly like you? Regardless of your answer, that’s the way it is. To ignore that reality is to harm the causes you claim to fight for.
And do the results of the “two-party system” aka our Constitution provide outcomes so bad? Or have we been so spoiled that we don’t know how good we have it? The Democratic Party was formed in 1828 and the Republican Party in 1854 (yes, the grand old party is the younger brother). After the Civil War until now the United States has become the most powerful and prosperous nation on the face of the earth.
The 20th century, the only century in American history where nearly every office was held by Democrats and Republicans was possibly the most successful century any nation has ever had. This is not to say it’s specifically because of these two parties, but obviously they can’t be that bad.
And the stability it provided did lead to more accurate electoral outcomes, not to mention, higher wages, better fuel and energy regulations, better food and medicine, safer working conditions, improved education, higher life expectancy, less crime, and improving lingering gender and racial issues that did not live up to the promise of the Constitution. Essentially, every single thing that you can measure has improved.
This is not to say you have to accept a party platform as it was first written forever. By all means change the parties. There’s a reason they do a new platform every four years, to essentially renegotiate the bargain of the coalition of voters forming the party.
The 20th century has a strong repudiation of that underlying assumption of the “two-party system” critique, the assumption that the parties are stagnant. At the beginning of the 20th century the south was all Democrats, they were religious, rural, conservative, for states rights, and against economic intervention. The north was all Republican, the more secular, urban, progressive crowd, for states rights and for economic modernization.
Today, the geography and philosophies are nearly completely reversed. The parties themselves are only shells that moves around depending on where the legs inside carry them. This is the usefulness of having such vague, basically meaningless, party names. They’re just colors and words. They’re jerseys and every generation, every candidate, gets to pick a jersey and redefine what it means. The team is not the jersey, it’s the sum of those who wear it and the jersey just identifies them. The same goes for ideas and parties.
Finally, the two-party critique, at least it’s worst underlying implication that electoral results are illegitimate, is out right dangerous. The single most important principle or value in a free liberal democracy is not free speech, or fair trial, or anything in the Constitution, specifically anyway, at all. It’s losing gracefully. As long as we can do this we can fix anything.
When George Washington ran for reelection it was unexepected. When like his idol, Roman general and dictator Cincinnatus, he went home when the job was done and gave up power it was also a head scratcher for many in the old world. George Washington going home after two terms was important but just as important was when party power switched hands for the first time in the US when Jefferson defeated Adams. The Federalists were mad they lost, but they accepted they lost. There was no coup, no war. They just left the White House.
The reason losing gracefully is so important is because it allows democracy to continue. Denounce a policy, denounce a candidate, denounce an idea or a party, but not the democracy itself. The reason is because if we don’t respect it, then it loses it’s sacred nature. Then our values are inverted and we are loyal, not to democracy, but to our own policy preferences, which democracy keeps getting in the way of.
A person being falsely imprisoned for a crime is in many ways the same injustice as an actual crime. It’s an unjust taking. And in many ways, falsely claiming an election is illegitimate is as harmful as it actually being illegitimate. It’s an abuse to the process, though more subtle and accepted because no rules are technically broken.
And democracy is more important than any one policy preference. Because an idea can be wrong. An idea can be right and as times change it can become wrong. Only through democracy can we efficiently react as a society to good and bad outcomes and fix things. It is the continuing feedback loop of policy, result, vote, policy, result, vote, policy, result, vote. This allows us to reach that more perfect union where we have an African-American president, gay people can now marry, and health insurance continues to come closer to available for all. Things still need to improve, but they are improving in the big picture.
If you lose the vote, and you are correct, then the resulting policy will not improve lives, and people will gradually turn to your idea, as they did toward the left in the middle 20th century, then back to the right in the late 20th century, and now back to the left again in the 21st century.
These turns did not happen overnight, and they should not. The 6 year staggered terms of Senators and lifetime SCOTUS appointments ensure that people have to be sure they want something for a sustained period before it occurs. Obviously we want what we want now, but not unlike expensive purchases, violent acts, and anything in Las Vegas, some things are best not done on whim, in the moment, or for reactionary purposes.
So in conclusion, talking about the “two-party system” is a waste of time. It’s a waste of time because there is no alternative provided by the critics, but the one that exists provides outcomes no better and sometimes worse. Furthermore, refusal to accept this reality is to distort the will of the people by essentially helping out the group least like you by splitting up those most, though not exactly, like you. Finally, it attacks the very principles of compromise, diversity of ideas, and respecting elections that are foundational and essential to this country’s past and future.
- Final Thought: Don’t Tell Me What to Do! Convince Me
At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, if you want to live in a democracy, which based on most available evidence you should, you’re just going to have to find a way to accept that not everyone is 100% like you but they’re just as legitimate as you. And if you’re truly correct about your policy preferences then eventually the rest will come around, unless you spend your time yelling at them and calling them corrupt and delegitimizing them.
Of course, critique and convince and improve but that must be done constructively. Not every disagreement is a crime and not every lost election is tyranny. In fact, pretty much none are.
Analogy time! Imagine a salesperson is trying to sell you a vacuum cleaner.
He tells you, “The vacuum cleaner is great, it’s the only way to vacuum, the only way. I won’t bore you with the details but I assure you that if you do not buy it it is only because you are corrupt and stupid and morally bad and I will have no desire to associate with you and will never talk to you again or sell you anything.”
Then you can say, A: “Yes, I’m sold.”
Or you can say, B: “Um, wow, that’s intense. Do me a favor and step back 6 inches.”
Salesman asks, “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to hit you in the face with the door.” … Slam.
I imagine most people, if not all people would choose B, the latter.
The obvious rebuttal of these arguments, at least the one that these arguments haven’t already refuted, would be to ask why can’t I criticize something? Why do I just have to accept things as they are? I believe that misses the point.
Is stating your belief the sum of your ambition? Politics is not a religious act. Belief is not reality. And things are not a matter of opinion or belief but a matter of fact and consensus. Believing in something will never make it so, only doing something, and doing can only be done by together. So if what you do is merely believe, then you will never do. Surely missionaries have converted many more than inquisition, persecution, intolerance, and isolation.
But in politics don’t think convert, think convince. And how can you be right if you’ve not engaged or answered a critique? And how can you do that if you shout it down or shun it away? It’s not a coincidence democracy, a system that forces diverse elements to collide constantly, has been objectively successful in modern times.
You may fix holes in your ideas you didn’t know were there. You may become aware of who may be harmed by this idea and find a way to accommodate or compromise. You may even be convinced yourself of something. And assuming that new idea is right, assuming any idea is “right,” you’ll now be right where you were wrong. Is it not better to be right than believe you are right?
So of course, you can say whatever you want. But set your aim higher than saying and look toward doing. If your critique is ill-informed and abrasive, you’ll only do harm to these ideas you claim to support. Declaring your desire and denouncing all others, to look for differences and not similarities will sooner than later just leave you and your ideological purity all alone. And nothing in democracy ever gets done alone.
by Zack Goncz
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