Second Rate Democracy

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

The Seventeen Issues: Elections > 10. The Two-Party Duopoly

The Two-Party Duopoly

Imagine that you walk into the produce section of your supermarket and find that the only choices are the two most popular vegetables: broccoli and corn.  No tomatoes, no carrots, no celery, no lettuce, not even brussels sprouts! And when you get to the cereal aisle, the shelves are bare except for the two national best sellers:  Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Flakes.  Undoubtedly you – and everyone else – would be outraged.  A consumer revolt would soon be organized.

But this is exactly the same kind of frustrating situation that American voters run into every time they enter a polling booth.  We have a two-party system, and usually there are only two parties on the ballot, the Republicans and the Democrats.  Sometimes there might be one or two third-party candidates, but they stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. So if you think of yourself as a Green, a Libertarian, or an independent, you are out of luck. You are not going to get any representation.  Americans come in a wide variety of political stripes but you’d never know it by looking at our two-party dominated legislatures.

Most other major democracies offer voters much more choice. They have multiparty systems with both major and minor parties in the legislatures.  Importantly, these multiparty legislatures are more inclusive and more representative, and produce policies more in tune with public preferences.  In the U.S., we’d be much better off with a multiparty system.

The Problem

Many Americans are deeply unhappy with our two-party system.  A recent poll found that 42% of citizens don’t think of themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, but as independents. Over 60% of Americans think both the Republican and Democratic parties are “out of touch” with citizens’ concerns. And even among those who identify with a major party, many only feel a weak commitment to their party. Only about 25% of Americans define themselves as strong, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats or Republicans. In addition, most people want to see third parties challenging the two major ones in elections. Surveys show that six in ten people think we need a third major party. Only a few, 34%, think the two current parties are sufficient.

Many of us are forced to vote for parties we don’t relate to and for candidates we are not enthusiastic about.

This high level of public dissatisfaction with our two-party system is hardly surprising.  It has a number of undemocratic and undesirable characteristics. One major problem is the way it limits voter choices. For voting to be a truly democratic exercise, voters have to have a range of choices among parties and at least some candidates that they identify with.  But usually we only have two really viable choices: the Republicans and Democrats. So many of us are forced to vote for parties we don’t relate to and for candidates we are not enthusiastic about.

Limited parties also mean limited political debates.  In a healthy democracy, there is a marketplace of ideas with a variety of political perspectives and policy suggestions up for debate.  However, when there are only two viable parties, this duopoly constricts debates and offers only a limited range of political ideas.  This is particularly true in presidential elections where both the major parties often try to appeal to undecided voters.  It is little wonder that many of our most important political reforms – like giving women the vote and the popular election of the Senate – and policy innovations – like abolishing child labor, and passing Social Security – were first proposed and championed not by the two major parties, but by third parties.

Probably the most undemocratic result of our two-party system are legislatures that do not really represent the spectrum of political opinions among the electorate. Virtually all of our legislators are Democrats or Republicans, but not everyone in the country is. This is unrepresentative and undemocratic.  We should have policymaking bodies that are an accurate representation of the variety of political opinions that American have.  That way policy choices can truly embody the public interest.  This is not possible when we can only be represented by Democrats or Republicans.

Why We Have a Two-Party System

If Americans are really so dissatisfied with our two-party system, then why do we still have it? It’s because it is created and maintained by the particular kind of voting system that we have.  We have a winner-take-all system.  As seen in another article on this site, our winner-take-all election system undermines democracy in several ways.  But one important way is its contribution to creating our two-party system.  In winner-take-all elections, only one candidate can win, and that winner is one with the most votes – the plurality of votes.  In practice, this means that only the two major parties have a realistic chance to receive the majority or plurality of the vote that produces victory. A popular third party might pick up 20 percent or even 30 percent of the vote but it would still fail to elect anyone. This discourages anyone who is thinking of voting for these candidates. Worse yet, if people do vote for a third party candidate, they may actually help elect the candidate they like the least. This is the classic “spoiler” problem. For instance, if you vote for a Green candidate this only takes a vote away from the Democratic candidate and helps the Republican to win. In the 2000 election, votes for the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, allowed George W. Bush to win Florida—and the presidency.

The two-party duopoly is created and maintained by our winner-take-all voting system.

A system that discourages third party voters also discourages voter turnout – which is abysmally low in the U.S. compared with most other major democracies.  If you don’t like either of the major party candidates and know that a vote for a third-party or independent candidate will be wasted – why bother to vote at all?  It is not surprising then to find that independent voters tend to turn out at lower rates than partisan voters.

Americans have said over and over again that they want to see more third parties competing for office.  And more than a thousand minor parties have been created since the beginning of the Republic.  But given that our voting system discriminates against them, very few of these parties have had much electoral success and most disappeared in a relatively short time. A party that can’t win not only can’t attract voters, and it also can’t attract the media attention or donations it needs to build its support.  And the final nail in the coffin for many third-party efforts is that state governments, controlled by the major parties, often make it difficult for them to even get on the ballot.

Other Democracies Do It Better

Almost all other Western democracies have more than two parties in their legislatures and enjoy the benefits of multiparty systems. Political scientists have a measurement called the “effective number of parties” in a legislature.  By this measure, Portugal has three parties, Spain four, Norway and Sweden five, and Belgium six. Voters in these countries  have much greater choices at the polls – typically an array of major and minor parties that span the entire political spectrum. In Germany, for example, there are the liberal Social Democrats, a large party that has traditionally represented working class interests.  To its left is the smaller Left Party—representing democratic socialists. The large Christian Democratic Union and its smaller sister party the Christian Social Union are conservative parties. Farther on the right is the small Free Democratic Party, which champions business interests, individual liberty and an unfettered free market.  On the far right is the Alternative for Germany, a nationalist, anti-immigration party. Finally there are the Greens, a minor party that emphasizes environmental sustainability and other progressive social and economic policies.

Voters in other democracies have much greater choices at the polls – typically an array of major and minor parties that span the entire political spectrum.

These kinds of multiparty systems make it much easier for people to find parties and candidates that actually express their political values and policy preferences.  This encourages people to vote and this is one of the reasons most of these countries have substantially higher voter turnout than we do in the United States.  Voters also turn out in higher numbers because when they vote for a minor party they are not wasting their vote or helping their most hated party to win.  In Europe, you can vote for a minor party and actually help to elect a candidate from that party.  And not surprisingly, campaign debates are much more wide-ranging and informative than those we have here.  You hear from a wider variety of political points of view and are exposed to a greater diversity in policy ideas.

The ultimate pay-off in these multiparty systems is a multiparty legislature.  These legislatures much more accurately correspond to the varieties of political opinions found in those countries electorates.  This means that power is more widely shared among several parties – not just the single party that usually dominates in our Congress.  In most multiparty systems, it takes a coalition of major and minor parties to make up the majority of the seats necessary to pass policies.  These coalitions give minor parties and the voters they represent the opportunity to have some input into policy decisions – something that never happens in this country.

Two-Party Wars vs. Multiparty Negotiation

Lee Drutman has written an insightful book exploring the benefits a multiparty system would have for the U.S.: Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop:  The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. He argues that a multiparty system would dramatically alter the way political parties relate to each other and improve our culture of politics for the better. In a two-party system, each party battles to get a majority in Congress and rule without compromising with the other party.  And when the parties are as polarized as ours are, it becomes a no-holds-barred war. Supporters of each party see the other party as a threat to their identity and way of life. And with no middle ground left, compromise becomes equated with treason. This toxic competition justifies doing whatever is necessary to grab power and save America, including breaking long-standing rules of fair play in democratic politics. A good example was the Republicans’ stealing a Supreme Court from the Democrats by refusing to consider any nominee put up by the Obama administration. Other examples of political cheating can be found in elections, where the parties pursue unethical strategies like trying to prevent the other party’s supporters from voting and gerrymandering district lines in order to steal seats from opponents.  Experts on the demise of democracies have warned that this kind of unwillingness to play by the rules is one step down the path toward a more authoritarian politics.

Studies find that citizens in multiparty countries are “more satisfied with the state of democracy.”

In contrast, in multiparty systems, it is very unlikely that a single party will be able to win a majority in the legislature and rule by itself. Several parties – often one large party and several smaller ones – must come together to create a stable governing coalition. Voters support parties knowing that they will form these coalitions and have to compromise to make policy. This arrangement, as Drutman explains, has important advantages: “Since parties need to work together to govern, more viewpoints are likely to be considered. The resulting policies are more likely to be broadly inclusive and broadly legitimate, making voters happier with the outcomes.” This kind of political culture of building alliances and compromising is much healthier for a democracy.  And it is not surprising that studies find citizens in multiparty countries are “more satisfied with the state of democracy.”

A Different Party System Requires a Different Voting System

Most other Western democracies have multiparty systems because they use a different kind of voting system:  proportional representation.  Proportional representation systems (PR) allow parties to be represented in the legislature according to the proportional of votes they win.  Instead of using many small single-member districts, they use fewer, bigger multi-member districts.  For example, anywhere from four to ten or more seats might be elected from one large district.  Parties get the number of seats that match their proportion of the vote in the district. So if a large party gets 40% of the vote in a 10-member district, it gets four of those ten seats.  If a small party gets 10% of the vote, it gets one out of the ten seats.  Unlike winner-take-all voting, minor parties don’t have to get a near-majority of votes to win a seat, they can get seats with a much smaller portion of the votes.  So virtually all voters get some representation and countries end up with multi-party legislatures and all the political benefits that come from that arrangement. (For more details on how PR voting works, see Proportional Representation Library.)

Some Concerns

Being unfamiliar with multiparty systems, many Americans have a lot of concerns, but most of them are unwarranted. For example, many believe that having multiple parties in Congress would make it much more difficult to pass needed legislation.  If we have trouble passing laws with two parties, wouldn’t more parties only make it worse?  Actually, no.  The experience in Europe has shown that their multiparty legislatures are usually more efficient in passing policies than our Congress.  Multiple parties don’t get in the way because they usually form long lasting coalitions of major and minor parties – usually a center-right or a center-left coalition – that have no trouble passing important legislation.

There are some more valid concerns about PR and multiparty systems.  It can be a problem if there are too many parties (say over a dozen) in the legislature, with several small radical parties.   This can make it hard to cobble together a stable governing coalition.  Israel has had this problem in the past.  But must multiparty countries avoid this problem by having a minimum percentage of the vote that a party must win – usually 4% to 5% — to win any seats in the legislature.  This barrier keeps out many very small and radical parties and keeps the number of parties in the legislature to a reasonable number – with three to five parties being the norm in most Western PR countries. So this problem can be easily avoided.

The Solution for the United States

The obvious solution would be for the U.S. to embrace a true multi-party system – like those in most other major democracies.  Americans would then have more real choices at the polls, they would turn out in higher numbers, and our legislatures would finally represent the actual variety of political perspectives that exist in this country.  As a result of all this, it is much more likely that our policies would more accurately reflect the public will.  Studies have shown that laws passed by multiparty coalitions are more apt to represent the views of average voters. For example, a Congress controlled by a coalition of Democrats and Greens would most likely pass the kind of strong climate and environmental policies that most of the public want.  In the end, this is the key advantage of a multiparty system – it gives citizens much better control over the policies passed by government.

Laws passed by multiparty coalitions are more apt to represent the views of average voters.

It is not hard to imagine what a multiparty system would look like in the United States.  The two large umbrella parties would remain, but be joined by a number of small parties, such as a Libertarian Party and a Green Party.  And perhaps a Christian Coalition Party or a Progressive Party might be organized as well. In some areas, there could be a Latino Party or an African-American Party. A Centrist Party might emerge in the middle of the political spectrum, as well as small parties at the far ends of the spectrum, like a Rightwing Populist Party or a Democratic Socialist Party. It all depends on what people want. Ultimately the size and character of the party system would be determined by the voters – not by the two major parties or the voting system – and that is the way it should be in a democracy.

However, as explained above, getting this kind of multiparty system here requires a change to a more minor-party friendly voting system.  This reform must come first.  Currently there are two such voting systems garnering some interest in the United States:  single-winner ranked choice voting and multi-winner ranked choice voting, the latter of which is a form of proportional representation.

In single-winner ranked choice voting (or RCV), legislators are still elected one to a district.  But voters rank the candidates – first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. – instead of just voting for their one preferred candidate.  If no candidate gets a majority, then the candidate with the least votes is dropped out and their votes are transferred to their second-choice candidate. This process of dropping out the lowest candidate and transfering votes continues until one candidate gets a majority of votes. (This system is sometimes also called “instant run-off voting, or IRV.)

Consider a contest where the Republican candidate gets 42%, the Democrat 38%, the Green candidate 14%, and the Libertarian 6%.  In a regular winner-take-all system, the Republican would win this election, even those most people voted for other candidates.  In single-winner RCV, no one has over 50%, so the lowest candidate, the Libertarian is eliminated and his or her votes go to their second choices.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s say they all go to the Republican, who now has 48% (42% plus 6%).  Still no majority winner, so the Greens are eliminated and again, to keep it simple, assume all the Green’s second choice votes go to the Democrat. – who would now have 52% of the vote (38% plus 14%) and would be declared the winner.

This voting system is somewhat more third-party friendly than our current winner-take-all, plurality voting system.  It means that a vote for a third-party candidate might not be wasted, it could eventually be transferred to a candidate who wins.  And it lessens the chances of spoilers, where a third-party vote inadvertently helps to elect the candidate most hated by the voter.  In the example above, Green Party supporters could vote for their candidate without the fear that it would actually help the Republican get elected.  So single-winner RCV would probably encourage more people to vote for minor party candidates.  However, it is still a winner-take-all system and so it’s still very difficult for third party candidates to get elected.  Winning candidates need a majority of the votes, a high number that minor party candidates can rarely attract.  So while this voting system is a bit better for third-party supporters, our legislatures would probably remain essentially two-party systems.

A true proportional representation (PR) system is necessary for a real multiparty system to develop here. The form of PR that gets talked about most in the U.S. is called “multi-winner ranked choice voting.” (This system is used in Ireland and Australia, and Cambridge, Massachusetts). It uses ranked choice ballots like the single-winner version discussed above.  And it uses a similar, though more complicated, vote transfer technique.  For example, the lowest candidates sometimes are dropped out and their votes transferred to their supporters’ second choices.  But instead of single-member districts, there are larger multi-member districts with anywhere from four to ten or more representatives being elected.  And there are multiple winners, not just one.  The key thing is that in PR, the winners don’t have to get near-majority to get elected.  In a ten-member district, a candidate needs to only get around 9% of the vote to get elected, which allows minor party candidates to win seats in the legislatures.

The important point is that only proportional representation will produce a fully multiparty system and all its benefits:  fairer representation, higher voter turnout, no spoilers, wider ranging political debates, and policies more accurately representing average Americans. So for those interested in moving from a two-party system to a multiparty system, proportional representation voting is the reform that should be at the top of their agenda.

Chances for Reform:  Mixed

There are forces working both for and against the adoption of PR and a multiparty system in the United States.  On the positive side is the worldwide trend in voting systems. Since the early twentieth century, the trend amongst major Western democracies has been to replace winner-take-all (WTA) elections systems with PR.  And virtually all the new European democracies emerging after the demise of the Soviet Union have adopted PR or semi-PR systems.  Revealingly, there have been no public demands in these countries for a switch to winner-take-all American-style elections.  Instead, there have been substantial political movements in the few remaining Western democracies that use winner-take-all elections – particularly Canada and Great Britain, for a move to PR elections.

On the negative side, there has been little public demand for PR in the United States. Americans have little awareness of PR and its many advantages. As we’ve seen, there is a great deal of public dissatisfaction with our two-party system, but most people have not made the connection between our problematic party system and the winner-take-all voting system that creates and maintains it.  So there is little understanding that this WTA system must be changed to PR for a true multiparty system to emerge.  A lot more public education around this issue is necessary. (Someone should write a book making the case for PR in the U.S.  Oh wait, I did!)

There is a voting system reform movement growing in this country but it is currently focused on promoting the single-winner ranked-choice voting system described above. Some cities and the state of Maine have already embraced this alternative voting system, and momentum is growing.  Whether this emphasis on ranked choice voting will help or hurt the effort to get PR is not at all clear.  By solving some of the problems of winner-take-all elections – eliminating spoilers for instance – ranked choice voting might actually make the WTA system more palatable and undermine efforts to replace it with PR.  Some voting system reformers, however, think ranked choice voting could help with the effort to get PR.  It makes citizens more aware of the political impacts of voting systems.  Also, once people use the single-winner form of ranked choice voting, it may make them more amenable to adopting the multi-winner, PR form of ranked choice voting.  The jury is still out on this.

Making PR more politically feasible is the fact that we don’t need to change the Constitution to use this system for U.S. House elections. The Constitution stipulates that House members be elected by a system agreed upon by Congress and individual states. So theoretically, a state could decide to elect its House members by proportional representation, opening up the possibility for some minor parties to occupy seats in Congress.  There is one political obstacle to this, a law passed by Congress that requires that House elections be single-member district, winner-take-all.  That would have to be repealed to get PR for House elections.

Naturally, the two major parties would fight tooth and nail against establishing PR and a multiparty system. They have no interest in giving up any of their power to small parties.  And our current policymakers have no interest in passing a law that would abolish the voting system that brought them to power. Further, the wealthy special interests that currently fund the two major parties would also likely oppose any move away from a two-party system.

There is a glimmer of possibility, however, on the local level.  Many cities and states allow the use of referendums and initiatives.  This allows reform movements to by-pass the powers that be in the city and state legislatures and to institute changes in voting systems.  In fact, there was a period in the early twentieth century when a number of U.S. cities did use referendums to adopt proportional representation, including New York City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Cambridge.   These experiments did succeed in producing more diverse and politically representative city councils, but almost all eventually fell victim to repeated repeal efforts by the two major parties.

So clearly, there is a strong potential to build an active grassroots movement promoting proportional representation and a multiparty system in the United States. But until that happens, we will continue to suffer from our second-rate, two-party system and all the political disadvantages it brings with it.

read the next issue: 11. Low Voter Turnout


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