Although it may be a pastime to bash the two-party system, it is probably better than any of the alternatives.
As Americans, we tend to value few things more than freedom of choice — whether in the grocery aisle, on our TV screens or at the ballot box.
It’s intriguing, then, that the colorful array of choice on display in most of American culture doesn’t appear to extend to our politics. While democracies like France and India often see dozens of organized parties vying for political power, voters in the United States rarely see realistic voting options outside the Democratic and Republican Parties.
For a country so attached to freedom of choice, this restricted selection often appears to be no choice at all. Third party supporters on both sides of the political spectrum are either distraught that there is “no difference” between Democrats and Republicans or that the two parties are too far apart ideologically to represent the average moderate voter.
The two-party political system has been an American staple since the country’s founding — and complaints that the system works toward the country’s ruin are just as old. But the established political parties are becoming more and more routine punching bags for people frustrated with gridlock and inaction, especially in an increasingly polarized political landscape.
A 2015 poll conducted by Gallup saw the average favorable rating for the Democratic and Republican Parties dip to a near-historical low of 39 percent. 43 percent of respondents refused to claim affiliation with either party at all, describing themselves as political independents.
But just because common wisdom says the two party system is to blame for civic dysfunction doesn’t make it so. Multiparty systems may give voters the appearance of more choice, but would just make problems within the Democrat-versus-Republican dichotomy worse without doing much at all to solve the quandary of constrained choice.
Britain’s snap general election earlier this year showed just this — more political parties to choose from on a ballot doesn’t mean outcomes that are any more representative or based in the will of the people. After losing the Conservative Party’s outright majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to negotiate an agreement for the support of Northern Ireland’s minor Democratic Unionist Party to form a ruling coalition.
The decidedly lax “confidence and supply” agreement between the two parties, which promised the DUP around ￡1 billion in increased spending on Northern Ireland, pleased almost no one. Other regions of the United Kingdom clamored for their own fair share of the spoils and pro-choice Tories wondered whether their party leader’s deal would tie them to the DUP’s retrograde stance on access to abortion. Even some in Northern Ireland denounced the deal, with the Northern Irish Sinn Fein Party calling the coalition a betrayal of the region’s voters’ interests.
British voters were given a choice of four or five different political parties, depending on locality, to vote for in their most recent election. But in the end, even those who chose the “winner” were left largely empty-handed.
The solution to what seems like this paradox is in the nature of the coalition-building process. The United States and the United Kingdom choose who to place in power in coalitions in very different ways because of their parties’ structure. Since both countries have large numbers of voters who are very different from each other, combining the political strength of different interests is unavoidable.
Countries like the United Kingdom with more than two major political parties form their ruling coalitions in much the way May did with the DUP — in the aftermath of a split popular vote, with an eye to political intrigue and one step removed from the common voter. In the United States, this same process occurs, just before the election. Instead of seeking coalitions with those already in government, our parties do so with the voters themselves.
Surely this isn’t something third party supporters would condemn ― when decisions are made closer to the level of the individual voter, democracies are typically more responsive and representative. Yet, questions persist.
Last year’s presidential election confirmed for many that the Democratic and Republican Parties couldn’t offer a palatable choice to the voters. Although this Democrat supported Hillary Clinton, masses of Bernie Sanders supporters were anything but excited to support their party’s presidential nominee. Many Republicans had similar difficulties with Donald Trump.
It’s difficult to deny that the outcomes of our electoral system are problematic. But this might not be so much because we don’t have enough parties as that we don’t have diverse enough parties.
In a society as varied as the United States, national political parties can’t be majoritarian and cater only to a single bloc of voters both at once. Of course, a party has to stand for something. But that doesn’t mean that that something has to be identical everywhere.
Much more so than the the continuance of the two-party system, centralization of political parties are behind the gridlock that’s so prominent today. If Republicans didn’t run the same kind of candidates in New York as in Texas, they would have not only a more successful coalition of voters under their umbrella, but a more moderate one with wider appeal. A similar strategy also applies to the Democratic Party.
Choice is not antithetical to a two-party system — as far as who does the choosing, it’s likely more democratic than a system with more than two parties.