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The Essayist: Why a two-party system is good enough

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Living in a world where both major political parties appear to be blundering toward the End Times, choosing to be an active member in either isn’t easy. With the GOP fracturing and the Democratic Party remaining weak-kneed, it almost seems like we need alternatives. New parties, different parties, more parties.

The truth of the matter is, we don’t.

A few of those who know me – and who are reading this – know that I have dabbled with the idea of either joining or outright starting a political party. When I was young I was interested in both the Constitution Party and then the Green Party, parties whose platforms couldn’t be more different. Last year, I’d considered helping start-up a Progressive Party modeled on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Party” of 1912. While all of us involved like the idea, it never made it past the development stage.

But now, I’m going to argue that we don’t need more parties. That more options isn’t better. That a plethora of political parties isn’t what we need. That a two-party system, while not ideal, is good enough.

Why? Simple; human psychology. More political parties would make us unhappier than if we just kept the two we have.

At a TEDTalk in 2005, psychologist Barry Schwartz argued that too much choice doesn’t give us more freedom. It takes it away.

Schwartz says we lose freedom when we have too many choices because we spend our days contemplating our decisions. We often either choose then regret our decision, or never choose at all, which is worse. With a wide variety of choices, he says, there should be a perfect one for each of us but, there isn’t, and that’s part of the problem. Our expectations conflict with reality.

When it comes to political parties, our perfect party would only include one member: ourselves. Nobody sees exactly eye-to-eye with anyone else.

Alina Tugend would agree. In an article for the New York Times, Tugend writes that while “it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue, they are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.”

Tugend added that one study states that while “the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory…in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” The trick, she writes later on, is to ask yourself, “would I be happier elsewhere?” not “could I do better?”

A Monty Python sketch best illustrates the problem of political choice. In the film “Life of Brian,” several political groups are all dedicated to the same goal: freeing the Holy Land from Roman occupation. The viewer is introduced to the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee and the Popular Front of Judea. But which one do you choose?

Brian, the films protagonist, chooses the People’s Front of Judea. In a darkly comical scene, Brian attempts to unite members of his faction with those of another. The two groups end up battling one another, shouting the name of yet a third faction, before slaughtering each other. Their choice was an ultimately detrimental one, made all the more poignant considering they were fighting for the same cause. While some of the groups were more active than others, having too many groups left their shared goal in a state of perpetual paralysis; they all died and the Romans were still in Judea.

At present, in the United States there are only two viable political parties. No matter what anyone says, the Green Party is not a contender. The Tea Party doesn’t count because it operates within the preexisting framework of the Republican Party. It isn’t a standalone party. A separate non-Republican affiliated Tea Party would be about as effective in politics as the Green Party.

Is this the best we can do? Is a two-party system ideal? In theory, no. Echoing Schwartz, I’m sure that somewhere out there is the perfect number of political parties for the United States. But you know what? We’ve had only two parties for most of our 200+ years of history and it’s worked for us so far. Is it perfect? No, but it’s good enough.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I am a bit uncomfortable about only having two parties. It causes problems when people have to choose between social and political issues, such as people with liberal social values who are fiscally conservative. I don’t know how often you encounter gay Republicans, but they are the absurd outcome of such a system.

    While I think it is a bit ridiculous that the fault line between Republican and Democrat is so complete, it is also pretty insane that many views aren’t being discussed. What about marijuana legalization, which over 50% of Americans support?

    Another problem is apparent in comparing our political climate to a parliamentary country such as Germany. In Germany, it is much easier to form a political party; the election system isn’t winner-take-all, and they have proportional representation based on the percentage of people that vote for the party. This means that there are fewer “wasted votes”, or votes cast for losing candidates/parties, and thus more people have their views represented. Most liberal Alaskans I know don’t have fond feelings for Don Young, and he makes sure you know you wasted your vote if you voted against him.

    This also has a huge impact in what is known as “single-issue politics”. In the United States, people who advocate particular causes or want certain laws passed (or not passed) create lobbying groups to persuade politicians and financially help their reelection campaigns. As shady as it sometimes is, lobbying is necessary for that purpose. However, lobbying groups are burdened by the “collective action problem”. It is much harder for regular individuals to collectively organize and pool funds than it is for a handful of large businesses to create a pro-business lobby.

    In Germany, and other parliamentary systems, there are many small parties with specific stances on certain issues. While they do not have the majority in the parliament, they can be crucial coalition partners. Large non-majority parties find it easier to deal with smaller parties than another party with a large representation, and as part of the coalition agreement, they may strike a compromise on these issues.

    Of course, there is a downside to the parliamentary system. Parliamentary parties have to rely on party discipline to function, so there is much less variety in the parties. In the United States, politicians are more responsible to their district’s voters than the party, so you see a lot more individuality. However, the US voting districts have been gerrymandered by both parties to create safe zones for longtime incumbents with party seniority.

  2. “Too many choices” can be overwhelming, yes; but two is not too many!

    Let me tell you about Duverger’s Law. It’s a principle from political science that says that any government based on single-winner majority elections will tend toward being dominated by two parties. In other words, we have a two party political system, because we have a two party VOTING system.

    Marcin mentioned Germany and their very-effective method of proportional representation. It works because it attacks the “single-winner” leg of Duverger’s law. Each voter’s ballot is taken into consideration for the election of more than one member of the legislature. However, as Marcin mentions, and fears, Germany’s system dose depend somewhat on party discipline. But this isn’t a necessary part of a proportional representation system! There are PR systems in which voters *always* and *only* cast votes for candidates, not for parties. The most well-known of these is called single transferable vote (STV), but there are also lesser-known methods like re-weighted range voting and asset voting.

    Secondly, rather than attack the “single winner” leg, we can attack the “majority election” leg. The advantage here is that these methods are useful for single-seat offices, like a mayor, governor, or president; not just for large, multi-member legislatures. Plurality voting, where you can pick just one name and then have to shut up, is certainly a simple method of voting, but it doesn’t collect enough information from voters to make a clear choice between more than two options. That’s why we always devolve to having just two option, and once those two options are set, it’s very difficult to change them (and the last one precipitated the Civil War.)

    There are, like with PR, a large number of different single-winner voting methods. But most of them (any using ranked-order ballots) still tend toward two party dominated politics. One of the exceptions–and my personal favorite because of its simplicity–is called approval voting.

    Approval voting is almost exactly like our current plurality voting method. The only difference is, you can cast your ballot for more than one candidate; nothing else changes. The most votes still wins. If there are only two candidates running, you will (probably) still vote for just one. But if there are MORE than two, then things change. You don’t have to decide between a long-shot chance on your favorite non-mainstream candidate and the lesser of two evils; you can vote for both of them. If all you want is to “throw the bum out”, you can vote for every candidate except the incumbent.

    Political science research has shown that approval voting, and similar methods, are better-able to pick consensus candidates; ones who represent the views most-acceptable to all voters, not just half of them. They let third parties run, and grow, without being spoilers, which means they can be much more likely to eventually win.

    The two party system is NOT good enough. But if we want to change the party system, first we have to change the voting system.

    (I am an Anchorage resident and have been writing about voting reform for three years at The Least of All Evils, http://leastevil.blogspot.com )

  3. I recommend reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alstair Smith. One interesting point they make is that it only takes one fifth of the vote to control both the US Presidency and Congress, if the votes are efficiently placed.

  4. When it comes to politics, I’m not sure the “paradox of choice” applies. In his book, Mr. Schwartz used grocery store examples, like which cracker among many to chose. Representative government holds an inherent value greater than that of snack options. I do not chose a cracker that defines me. I believe in choosing, and having the ability to chose, a political party the most- note, not “more”- closely reflects my own views. (Full disclosure: I am a registered Democrat completely dissatisfied with the party.)
    Of course, the question in our particular two-party system is, do we currently even have a choice? We see great debate on certain hot button issues, but there are no grand disparate economic or social philosophies from which to chose. Money has balanced the scales. Large corporations give almost equally to both parties. This is how you get so-called bipartisan legislation like the JOBS Act and the FAA Re-authorization passed, which merely strengthen the position of business. This lack of separation between the parties breeds cynicism, and, I would argue, widespread apathy.
    It is only in the past several years, with the Tea Party and Occupy, both dissatisfied by the current parties, that a constructive national dialogue has resumed. That is the job of a three- or four-party system: to shift and generate dialogue. Eugene V. Debs ran for president five times as a Socialist. He did not win, but his success, and the success of other populists, at the polls shifted the conversation. Two decades later, we had Social Security, the WPA, and the Wagner Act. Multiple parties encourage legitimate compromise and lessen the influence of business in politics. Our two-party system is certainly not “good enough,” and good enough is never a government I would chose.

  5. There are actually two issues here:

    1) Is a two-party system better than a multi-party system?
    2) Given that we have a two-party system in America, what should we do about it?

    The answer to 1) is almost certainly “No,” for all of the reasons folks have listed above and more. Just having more than two parties isn’t all there is to representative democracy–the malign outcomes produced by Israel’s terrible list-PR system are well known. But, generally speaking, multi-party systems are more representative and lead to a wider range of views being held and expressed by elected officials. Nothing will ever be perfect–crooked timber of humanity and all–but Germany and New Zealand are among the countries that get it about as right as they can.

    2) So two-party systems aren’t great, but we have them in the US. What should we do about it? To grossly oversimplify, the answers are “Do nothing” and Change it.” Changing it in meaningful ways–as Marcel pointed out, we have tw parties because we have winner-take-all elections–would require some pretty significant changes to the entire Constitutional order, and these would be opposed by all manner of entrenched interests. Doing nothing means accepting that the two-party system is here to stay, and working within that system to further whatever aims you have. Now, our system isn’t ideal, but it’s done some neat stuff: American democracy invented national parks, defeated Nazi Germany, built the interstate highway, and put folks on the moon. If dedicated, idealistic liberals focus on working *within* the party system (by which I mean, working and voting for Democrats), we can accomplish a lot. Not everything, but a lot. So even though I disagree with Jeremia’s *reasons* about why a two-party system is good enough, I agree with his ultimate conclusion. It’s what we have, and what we ought to work with.

  6. Maybe I am over simplifying the issue, but I am not sure if more parties or even the two-party system is the answer to our many issues. Perhaps the issue is having parties at all. Perhaps we should support candidates not because of party, but for their ideals, solutions and what they bring to the table. So maybe the answer isn’t more parties, but non at all. We have a majorly broken system and I have never meet one person that would fit in a 2-party or even 22 – party system. I personally and a proud member of the Chris Bailey Party. And no you cannot join.

  7. The problem with “Let’s get rid of parties” is that it’s not actually a solution. People will naturally get together to make common cause to support candidates they like. This is basically all that political parties are: folks who agree with each other enough, most of the time, to be willing to work together to elect certain candidates. I don’t think we want to ban people from forming parties, and it’s the natural thing to do in our system, so they’re here to stay.

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