John Anderson and Fairvote

I received this appeal from John Anderson today. I make such a contribution every year, and I hope some of my pro-reform American readers will consider doing the same:

December 18, 2007

My fellow friends and supporters of FairVote,

I write from my law school office in Florida, having just put the final touches on another semester of teaching constitutional law. Perhaps it is my regular opportunity to engage so intensely with our nation’s future leaders that stirs in me an ongoing passion to have our nation move to democracy’s cutting edge. Certainly it serves to reinforce one of my deepest commitments: the remarkable work of FairVote as it advances “the way democracy will be.”

I know many of you already appreciate FairVote’s work. Each year our supporters grow in their number and giving, with their recognition of our unique position: we are the one national organization winning a full range of structural reforms necessary to free the voter from the chains of America’s 18th century electoral laws. We turn every gift into innovative thinking, strategic advocacy and one more step toward a democracy that can meet today’s challenges.

Allow me to be as bold as FairVote’s mission: please consider a donation to FairVote this year, as we move to the next level of reform impact. I firmly believe that our time is not coming. It is here. And we need your help.

It’s hard to convey all the successes of our dedicated staff. Rob Richie’s report is a good start. Perusing fairvote.org is even better. But I wish you could have joined me for our Claim Democracy conference and intensive training session with advocates of instant runoff voting and proportional voting from across the nation. Our board meetings sparkle with ideas. You would feel the energy – and see how much change flows from our work.

I wanted to give special thanks to those of you who filled the hall for our 15th Anniversary dinner. The staff surprised me with a tribute, and being there with family and so many FairVote allies made for a moving evening. Fellow board members Krist Novoselic, Eddie Hailes and Rick Hertzberg spoke powerfully about FairVote’s remarkable progress and exciting future. Change is coming, and it is a joy to have an opportunity to be part of it.

My profound thanks and best wishes to you and your family at this special time of year.

Yours sincerely,

John B. Anderson
Chair, FairVote Board of Directors

John Anderson was the first presidential candidate whose campaign I ever worked for, and also the first I voted for. In fact, I was the Garden Grove Area Petition Coordinator, helping him get on the ballot in California in 1980. I wish I had a photo of the old red Cougar I was driving back then and dubbed The Andersonmobile for the multiple (and also red) Anderson stickers affixed to it. I even briefly participated in a movement to draft him as the Reform Party nominee in 2000, but it was clear that Anderson was not interested and the Reform Party wasn’t worthy of either word in its name. ((Let me make clear that the faction–groupuscule would be more like it–that I was loosely involved with had no connection to the eventual Reform nominee, Pat Buchanan. Many of its members were, in addition to Anderson, also interested in drafting John McCain, but most eventually turned to Ralph Nader.))

I had the pleasure of meeting him for coffee about six years ago (when he was in San Diego with the World Federalist Movement). That makes him one of three presidential candidates I ever have had the opportunity to meet personally (the others being Ralph Nader and Bill Richardson). Anderson’s commitment to reform impressed me in 1980–when I supported him as much for his energy-saving gas-tax increase as for anything else. He still impresses me today, especially for his role with Fairvote.
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Popularity of Congress and the need for a new party?

Following up on a couple of interesting posts at the ever-interesting PoliBlog…

Steven refers to a piece by Mark Tapscott, who suggests that it is time for a new party, on account of what is being reported as the “10-year low popularity of the US Congress,”* just months after Democrats took control of the institution.

There is thus a growing perception of Washington as a Tweedle-dee/Tweedle-dum kind of place in which the two political parties are merely two sides of the same coin.

This is the single most significant fact about the political landscape – a growing public disgust with both major political parties.

As Steven notes, the single-seat districts (SSDs) under first-past-the-post (FPTP) by which the US congress is elected makes the emergence of new parties difficult. He mentions both the interparty dimension (the high barrier to entry for a new party created by the need to win a substantial share of the vote in order to gain any significant representation) and the intraparty dimension (the ability of individual legislators to cater to their districts with pork and services distinct from the national party identity).

Really, two-partism is over-determined in the US. It’s not just FPTP. After all, most FPTP systems, such as the UK and Canada, have far more important parties other than the top two. It’s also presidentialism, yet most presidential systems, too, have more than two major parties. Also the use of primary elections and the electoral college–both of which are unique to the USA and either raise the barriers to new parties (the interparty dimension) or increase the opportunities for local tailoring of legislative campaigns (the intraparty dimension).

My response to such arguments about the unlikelihood of new parties absent institutional reform is always as follows:

I can’t name one case in which major change away from single-seat districts to a more representative and democratic electoral system ever occurred without the rise of new parties first.

So, my advice to people who feel it is time for a new party is simple: Find one and participate in and vote for it.

Since 1990, third-party voting in congress is at the highest it’s been in the post-WWII era (see graphs). Make it higher.

On the Tweedle-dee/-dum question, Steven notes that it sounds a bit old-fashioned nowadays:

Ironically, one could argue that with the re-alignment of Southern conservatives in the 1990s from the Democratic to the Republican Party that the two parties are more distinct now than they were ten to twenty years ago.

That certainly is fundamentally right. The centers of gravity of the two parties are further apart than ever, due to greater internal discipline and homogeneity In turn that’s a result of increasing geographic segregation of the parties’ electorates and the impact that has in a single-seat district system. But I doubt the full range of represented views is any greater than in the past. In fact, we would not expect it to be if the major change in the party system is simply the movement of one block of interests (“southern conservatives”) from one party to the other.

Even more to the point, I suspect that that actual range of views represented in the US Congress it is actually narrower–largely as a result of the ever-increasing need for corporate money–once you discount the few who speak up for relatively radical viewpoints from the safety of their own uncompetitive districts (Tancredo, Kucinich, etc.).

On the general subject of congressional approval (the subject of the other PoliBlog post I alluded to), it seems to me that these numbers need to be situated in the context of a major change that has taken place in the last decade (-plus).

Before Newt Gingrich became the closest thing the USA has ever seen (by far!) to a “co-habiting” prime minister, the Speakership and the Congress-as-an-institution that the Speaker heads never had a position within our political system of significant national and partisan profile.

I continue to ask myself: how long can we sustain this new combination of increasingly partisan, nationalized congressional elections with a constitutional structure designed for non-responsiveness to the democratic (small-d) will and more suited for nonpartisan, localized congressional elections?

And, yes, to articulate demands that are currently either not represented at the national level or are bargained away at the elite level, generating frustration and low public approval of our democratic institutions, we do indeed need new parties. And institutional reform. But we’ll need new parties to arise in the current system before we get democratic institutional reform.

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* No discussion of this story would be complete without a link to Charles Franklin’s analysis of the trend.

Arnold and the post-partisan blues

As the quote from Droop at the top of the left sidebar says, most voters in two-party systems are less interested in the “particular points at issue between the two parties” and much more in seeing their country or state “being honestly and wisely governed.”

Reelected in November to his second and final term as California governor, Arnold Schwarzeneger apparently “gets it.” Having run in 2003 above party (bypassing the regular nomination process because the special election concurrent with the recall did not have a primary) and elected by a cross-party electoral coalition, Arnold tried to use his popularity to push through key pieces of the Republican agenda in a special election in 2005. The gambit failed badly, so Arnold reinvented himself again as the “post-partisan” governor. Some of his second-term agenda seems almost Democrat, and some of it even Green, while he maintains broadly popular “conservative” Republican principles on other policies.

In an era when the percentage of independent voters in the state has risen from 9% in 1990 to 19% now, the percentage of independent or third-party members of our state and national legislative bodies has remained barely above zero.

California is not alone in the trend. As noted in the LA Times, a study by Rhodes Cook based on data from 27 US states shows only 75% of voters registered with one of the two mainstream parties (down from82% in 1994). That means a quarter of the electorate in this sample of states–not all states register voters by party–is now independent or other party. Most independents are moderate, non-ideological voters disgusted with the polarization of the main parties on many issues. Many “other” party registrants hold views that are from beyond the mainstream, or even of fringe ideologies, yet–as I noted in the previous two plantings on these topics–even these parties and their voters may have practical solutions for honestly and wisely governing their country or state that would be valuable contributions to the debate.

Now, continuing with the Droop quote:

if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

Of course, this danger of uncontrolled power to the former “outs” under majority voting is precisely the risk faced nationally with a change of power in Congress: will Democrats exceed the mandate they obtained from moderate voters who swung their way? And it is also the risk faced by moderate California voters, as the successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger may be another “party hack” in the mold of Davis or Angelides.

Who speaks for the moderate, non-partisan (and multi-partisan) electorate? Hardly anyone, given the lack of representatives speaking for this section of the electorate, and only episodically does a “post-partisan” executive come along to articulate the frustrations of what elsewhere I have called “the radical middle” that is frustrated with the lack of practical solutions offered by the two big parties.

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Related post:

Searching for the center: A citizens assembly for California? (7 February 2006)

From Beyond the Mainstream to views shared by the majority?

Is it a contradiction that some ideas could be “beyond the mainstream” yet shared by a majority of the public? It may seem so, but political reality is a good deal more complex than that, for at least two reasons.

First, what is “mainstream” in terms of accepted political debate within and in the context of election campaigns for our “representative” institutions may be much narrower than the real range of ideas shared within the electorate. That was the essence of the point I was making yesterday about the narrowness of political debate offered by realistic candidates for the US presidency. And, as I noted, the range of options offered to voters in legislative elections is narrower still, even if most views are in fact represented by “the chance opinions of individual members” in districts where it is “safe” to articulate what the rest of the body politic considers beyond-the-mainstream views (quote from Droop).

The second reason that it may not be contradictory that some views might be from beyond the mainstream of regular discourse and yet held by a majority is that the public is generally not highly ideological. Some ideas that are not well represented by the established political parties may, in fact, be quite popular and practical. The key is getting them aired and then represented in the legislature, thereby broadening the debate and facilitating the adoption of practical solutions that might otherwise be easily dismissed as “fringe.”

The context of this planting is a comment given over at PoliBlog to a previous comment of mine. My comment was essentially a rough draft of yesterday’s planting on From Beyond the Mainstream. The follow-up comment claimed that I was wrong to characterize Tom Tancredo’s views on immigration as beyond the mainstream because, according to the commentator, “Tancredo’s views on illegal immigration are … shared by 75% or so of the country.”

Now, I am no expert on public opinion on immigration, or on immigration policy. And my intention is not to debate with someone who runs a blog called The Lonewacko Blog whether his own or Tancredo’s views are beyond the mainstream. However, I would argue that on this issue, as on many others, our immigration policy would be something more sustainable than the mess it currently is if the legislature were elected with some form of proportional representation.

Under PR, the broader spectrum of views among the electorate on the issue would be represented, and the balance of that representation in congress would shift with shifting public opinion as to which issues are most important and what proposed solutions to them are most resonating with the electorate. Rather than festering because the narrow range of mainstream interests is deadlocked on the issue or prefers not even to open it up for long periods of time, the agenda would be more open and the proposals more diverse.

Personally, I abhor the views of someone like Tancredo. But I would welcome a political party articulating his views having a block of seats in congress that would shift in size depending on the size of the electorate that chose to endorse a hypothetical party led by Tancredo.

No, it is not a contradiction that views on a policy may come from beyond the fringe yet be consonant with a majority of the public: We can’t know where the median is on an issue if voters across the country do not have the opportunity to cast an effective vote for their preference among the widest feasible range of views, including those from beyond the mainstream. On that score, our current system of “representative” institutions fails us badly.

From Beyond the Mainstream: Welcome to the fray, Tancredo, Paul, and Kucinich

The number of contenders for the presidential nomination of the two major parties continues to grow in advance of what promises to be the most open presidential election in memory. This planting inaugurates a new orchard block on VOTES >> USA >> ’08, and also will grow in the AMERICAN POLITICAL REFORM >> PR-USA block.

One of the many unusual features of the American political system is the far greater diversity of views represented in contests for the presidency (both the big-party nominations and the occasional notable third-party or independent candidate in the general) than for the national or state legislative races.

Henry Droop, one of my “trinity” of great Anglo-American philosophers of political institutions, noted that the two-party system produces

an assembly in which the particular differences of opinion upon which the division into two parties is founded, are represented to an exaggerated degree, while subordinate divisions of parties and the various opinions existing upon other questions are only represented by the chance opinions of individual members, and not by members authorised to speak upon these points in the name of their constituents.

Today’s formal entrant is Tom Tancredo, a Republican House member from Colorado who is best known for his xenophobic position on immigration. Of course, as Steven Taylor commented, “he won’t win the nomination, let alone the presidency.

Ron Paul, another potential Republican candidate, likewise has no chance.

Nor does Dennnis Kucinich have any chance to win the Democratic nomination that he recently announced he was seeking, let alone the presidency.

Nonetheless, I welcome all of these men (and, why, so far, only one woman?) to the debate, and I hope more candidates with beyond-the-mainstream ideas will enter the fray.

It quite striking that two of these beyond-the-mainstream candidates are Republican–and we could add a third in Duncan Hunter (catering to a similar constituency as Tancredo) and a fourth in Sam Brownback (catering to a Christian “ultra” base), while only one of the national legislators likely to run for the Democratic nomination (see list below) is a politician who could meaningfully be characterized as beyond the (very narrow) mainstream of the US partisan duopoly.

Is the Republican congressional caucus really so much more diverse than the Democratic? That would be ironic and surprising, given the level of cohesion and ideological policy-making behavior maintained by the Republicans over the last six years.3

Yet, there it is in the announced field of presidential contenders from within Congress: Paul (Republican, but formerly a Libertarian), Tancredo (who should be in the American Independent or the misnamed Constitutionalist Party1), and Brownback (who could be in something like a Christian Heritage party2). Yet all of these men operate under the label of a major (and allegedly mainstream) “conservative” party. On the Democratic side, only Kucinich (perhaps really a Green) is out of place in the mainstream centrist party that candidates like Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Kerry all seek to lead.

It’s a shame of our system that the only way voters who share the beyond-the-mainstream ideas of Kucinich, Paul, Tancredo, and Brownback can vote for a like-minded candidate is in presidential primaries and not in legislative elections, where such voters could actually be represented.

And, even with regard to presidential nominating races, voters can cast a (semi-meaningful) vote for one of these candidates only if by quirk of geography and calendar they happen to live in a state that votes early, before the field is winnowed to the moneyed few who reflect “the particular differences of opinion upon which the division into two parties is founded.”

As for legislative races, voters with views represented by one of these politicians are themselves represented only if they happen to live in (safe) districts where “the chance opinions of individual members” are in line with their own.

If only there were a system that would mimic the presidential nomination contest in being about the voters’ preferred policy direction for the country, yet resulted in their ability to elect “members authorised to speak upon these points in the name of their constituents.”

Of course, there are such systems–they are called proportional representation!

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The list:
The LA Times published this list of likely presidential candidates who were members of congress in 2002 and how they voted on authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

Democrats
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.)…YES
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.)…YES
Sen. Christopher J.. Dodd (Conn.)…YES
Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.)…YES
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.)…YES
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio)…NO

Republicans
Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.)…YES
Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.)…YES
Rep. Duncan Hunter (El Cajon)…YES
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.)…YES
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas)…YES*
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)…YES

Given the importance of this issue as an indicator of the character and judgment of a potential president, there is only one on this list who is even in the running for the much coveted Ladera Frutal endorsement.

* In the comments below, a Ron Paul supporter says that the Times was wrong about Paul’s vote.

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Notes

1. Tancredo co-authored a book, Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders, with Jim Gilchrist.

2. The name of a similar small party in Canada and formerly in New Zealand (where an allied, but much more moderate, Christian party merged into the rather socially conservative United Future); notwithstanding that some of this ideological persuasion was incorporated over the last six or more years into the Republican orthodoxy; that does not make it “mainstream.”

3. But, wow, how that has broken this past week!!

Tail and dog in PR systems

13 August: Additions near the end on parliamentarism and the Virginia Plan.
15 August: More discussion at the OTB post by Joyner that is grafted at the bottom of this planting (and in his comment thread).

At the propagation bench to yesterday’s “blogiversary” planting on two-party politics in the USA, James Joyner (whose Outside the Beltway post prompted mine) suggests that PR might seem good on grounds of “fairness” but that he has often thought PR to be impractical because of the “tail wagging the dog” result.

Fairness to cooky voters like me who favor nutty little parties is all well and good. But the ‘fairness’ argument is the less compelling case for PR. The compelling case is in its aggregate effects on representation, accountability, and governance, not on how nicely it treats society’s cranks of the far left or right or whatever ideological fringe.

But what about the supposed “tail wagging the dog” problem? That’s a systemic issue (the “dog” being the system), and if the problem is real, then we should be very cautious about PR indeed, for we certainly do not want to empower the tail.

So, do small parties have “disproportionate” influence over coalitions that larger parties must form in order to govern? The actual evidence that this happens is, well, nil. I’ve talked about that here (especially in the New Zealand and Germany blocks), as have many of the propagators over the past year.

The best single paper by a political scientist on this question that I can think of is:

Basically, there just is not much evidence that small parties get more than their weight in votes would entitle them to, nor that they are able to hold “hostage” the bigger parties (which, after all, are also minority parties that get, by definition, disproportionate influence under plurality elections!). And if it does not happen in Israel (where the largest party often has only a third of the votes and seats, the country is a single 120-seat district, and a party can win a seat with just 2% of the vote) it is unlikely to happen almost anywhere.*

Small parties may be needed for coalitions, but they need the larger parties just as much–and often more–in order to exercise any influence and to be able to bring any policy or other rewards back to their voters.

An additional factor in limiting small-party “extortion” ability is a simple fact about multiparty systems: For almost all voters, there are more parties close to the voter in the ideological space than is the case in a two-party system. In other words, small and large parties alike are always under pressure from competitors, and if they overbid, they can be shut out and replaced by some other party that a chunk of their constituency likes almost as much (and perhaps more, if it can actually deliver). Those of us who think competition is an inherently good thing–in the markets for goods and yes also in the market for policy ideas–thus like PR. More competition, more prospects for satisfying the greater number of voters.

In two-party systems, on the other hand, the problem for a voter who wants to punish one party was well summed up by Henry Droop in the passage from a longer and rich paragraph that I am so fond of quoting (so fond that the beginning of it is up there on the left sidebar). Droop notes that the problem with majority or plurality systems and just two major parties is that moderate, nonpartisan voters:

can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

With PR, given that there are almost always multiple possible majorities that can form–the essence of Madison’s famous argument about checking “factions,”–it is much harder for any one party to push its advantage too far. If it does, it risks breaking the coalition. This, coupled with the presence of multiple parties competing to please unafiliated voters, gives such voters a voice between elections, something recent experience in the USA clearly shows is lacking (as I wrote about last November).

James raises a valid point about fragmentation in the USA currently and how it would be reflected in a PR system. Actually, that fragmentation of interests is one of the best arguments for PR: With multiple parties, rather than just two (at best–increasingly districts and states are not even two-party competitive), these interests are reflected in a way that is transparent. Under our current winner-take-all systems, interests are reflected by individual members of congress who are accountable to no one outside their districts, and given safe seats, not even clearly within them. It is much better that voters and politicians alike be able to see–from shifts in the votes for Greens and Libertarians and so on–which direction the electorate is moving in. Two-party competition–and again, in fact, we do not even have that in many places–is an awfully blunt instrument. So, numerous interests are represented, but in a nontransparent and non-accountable way. And many interests aren’t represented at all.

Then there is the question about presidentialism. Of course, multiparty politics works best with a parliamentary system–to keep the coalition partners that run the executive accountable to the people by way of the proportionally elected legislature. We might have had a parliamentary system if Madison’s original Virginia Plan had not been thwarted by the small-state delegates. (The plan called for the House to elect the executive–and also the Senate, with the latter election based on nominations from the state legislatures, each state represented by population.) Alas, we did not get parliamentarism or weak bicameralism–the best systems for multiparty politics. We wound up with presidentialism along with strong bicameralism.

Looking on the bright side of the not-so-Great Compromise at Philadelphia, an advantage of presidentialism in a multiparty system is that the chief executive does not “fall” when coalitions shift. However, that is also a disadvantage, inasmuch as it limits the range of possible alternative coalitions that can form and rules out the possiblity of early elections to refer interparty disputes back to the electorate. Besides, as I alluded to above, the role of small parties in forcing such crises in parliamentary systems is much exaggerated anyway.

Basically, presidentialism would be almost certain to keep Democrats and Republicans as the major parties even under a House (and ideally, Senate, but that’s more complicated) elected by PR. Smaller parties ideally should be given a role in forging coalitions for presidential elections, which is hard to do with the electoral college. But even if the electoral college were not abolished, the National Popular Vote concept would be highly likely to generate pre-election coalitions for presidential competition–and especially if PR were also adopted.

One concern I have with the NPV idea (which, basically, would have states collectively having 270+ electoral votes agree to give their electors to the national popular-vote winner) under the current congressional electoral system is that third parties would expand their influence in presidential elections without a corresponding influence in congress. For multiparty politics to work, it has to be in both branches, consistent with the Madisonian incentives for interbranch cooperation upon which the entire edifice of separation of powers is premised. (Already, third parties are more active and receive more votes for president than for congress, though the gap is not as great as it once was, and in 2004–unusually for the USA–third party voting was higher for House and Senate than for President.)

Would US Presidents appoint coalition cabinets if neither their nor the main opposition had a majority in Congress? I do not know. Behavior in other presidential systems is mixed on this point. It would be advantageous to them to do so, but they would retain the right not to do so. But just eliminating the single-party Leviathan in control of the House of Representatives (and, to a lesser degree, the Senate) would be in itself a powerful advantage of PR: No more minoritarian governance of the legislative bodies.** It would become genuinely majoritarian, in that parties collectively representing a majority of the electorate (and less regionally biased, too) would be in control of the production of legislation.

With a direct vote for President and PR in Congress, you come pretty close to a best-of-both-worlds scenario (or at least as close as one can get under presidentialism): Pre-election coalitions among parties to elect the president (and these coalitions could shift from election to election), and inter-party bargaining in Congress between elections to keep the partners accountable to their respective constituencies.


Footnotes

* What about Italy? I think the evidence is also limited there, though I am aware of no study of precisely this phenomenon. However, there were various factors–more or less unique to Italy–that might have made Italian small parties more capable of making high demands than elsewhere: the absence of a feasible coalition centered around any large party other than the Christian Democrats (because of the large Communist party), the high internal factionalization of the largest party, and the presence of secret voting by MPs on most matters in parliament. Of course, since 1993, Italy has abandoned PR (and, no, it did not return to it in April, 2006). The peculiar form of a mix between overall majoritarianism and intra-alliance PR that both Italian electoral systems since 1993 have consisted of probably–and ironically–gives small parties far more blackmail potential than is the case under almost all PR systems.

** Whereby the leadership of the single party in control–which can even be the second most popular party nationwide–often refuses to bring to a vote a bill on which there is majority support in the public and even in the chamber itself, but which divides the party internally.

Two-party politics in the USA–why?, and here to stay?

Joyner and Taylor have addressed the question of whether two-party politics is here to stay in the USA or not. This is as good a topic as any with which to mark the first anniversary of Fruits and Votes!

Joyner (expanded at TCS Daily):

The Constitution all but assures that our politics will be dominated by exactly two parties.

I would say that the US constitution comes close to guaranteeing that parties will be programmatically weak, but not what their number will be. Joyner goes on to note the extent to which the “catch all” nature of US parties–closely related to their relatively non-programmatic nature–makes them so adaptable that the current two parties are likely to remain our two parties for a long time to come. He may well be right about that. However, it is worth focusing on the extent to which institutions–both the constitutional structure and the legislative electoral system–can be considered to “all but assure” the domination of “exactly” two parties. Is the relationship really so deterministic? Could multiparty politics emerge? Could multiparty politics even be emerging?

Let’s start with the constitutional structure of the executive. Only a few presidential systems have genuinely programmatic parties of the sort that typify all the advanced parliamentary democracies (and, to a significant degree, even most of the new parliamentary democracies of the post-Communist world).

The key distintion is that parties form in parliamentary systems to constitute the executive, based on their control of or bargaining power within the legislature. Parties form in presidential systems to elect an independent executive, or to transact with the executive from within the legislature. This is really a fundamental distinction, and someone should write a book about it. (Note to self: write this book!)

However, it is also the case that very few presidential systems have only two major parties. In part that is because very few presidential systems use our plurality system to elect the legislature. Nearly all presidential systems use proportional representation or some form of mixed system. But even in the Philippines, which uses a mostly plurality system, multiparty politics prevails: many parties, almost of all of which are programmatically weak.

It is important to realize that programmatic parties–by which I mean parties that present reasonably coherent policy platforms and act more or less as a unit in the legislature–typify parliamentary systems regardless of whether parliament is elected by plurality or proportional representation.

It is also important to realize that multiparty politics also typifies parliamentary systems, regardless of the electoral system. The UK is not a two-party system, and really has not been for about thirty years. Yet it uses a plurality (FPTP) system, just as the USA uses to elect its congress. And then there are Canada and India, which no one would confuse with two-party systems, notwithstanding their use of the plurality electoral system.

So, to sum up so far, we have presidential systems with multiparty politics and we have legislatures elected by plurality that have multiple parties. And then we have the USA–presidential and plurality–with two-party politics and with third parties barely present.

I agree with Joyner that part of the reason is the electoral college and, specifically, the “unit rule” by which states give all their electors to the candidate with the most votes (even if this is under 50%). But such a rule could generate separate regional party systems, and of course that is exactly what it did in the years leading up the Civil War. The 1948 and 1968 elections showed tendencies in that direction, too, though they were not sustained into subsequent elections.

The legislative electoral system used in the USA is likewise compatible with regional subsystems–just as has been the case in India and (to a lesser extent) Canada.*

So, while Joyner has correctly identified presidentialism, the electoral college, and plurality voting as factors that inhibit third-party success in the USA, the entrenchment of the two parties is actually somewhat difficult to account for, because either presidentialism or plurality voting is typically associated with much more competitive politics than we find in the USA. And, while the electoral college with its unit rule hampers national third parties, it might be expected to facilitate regional parties (and has done so in the past).

On the “here to stay” question, Taylor chimes in:

The only way there is going to [be] a substantial deviation from a two-party system in the US would be radical reform of the electoral rules that would shift us in the direction of proportional representation.

As much as I would consider it a gift from on High for PR to suddenly appear in the USA, this formulation actually puts it backwards. Where does PR come from? I can’t think of any case in which a change from plurality to proportional representation has occurred without a prior emergence of competitione among three (or more) parties.

Electoral systems shape party systems (where have I read that?), but major electoral reform follows party-system change, not vice versa.

And, of course, the arguments allegedly favoring plurality elections are all post-hoc. The plurality system was never consciously designed. (Really, presidentialism, with the concept of national electoral campaigns for separate executive office, never was, either.) Plurality systems were simply an inheritance of pre-democratic forms (and presidentialism an adaptation of a very different idea of executive structure born of expedient compromise at the US Constitutional Convention).

The arguments in favor of PR, on the other hand, began to emerge before actual electoral reform had made much headway. The set of national or state/provincial jurisdictions around the world that have adopted or made affirmative decisions to keep plurality is close to an empty set. When the issue is seriously debated, PR almost always results, in some form. But, again, such debate happens only after three or more significant parties are present. (And, of course, there are exceptions where majoritarian-leaning mixed systems replace PR or other systems more favorable to third parties, but it is almost an iron rule that no one consciously adopts plurality, as opposed to reinstates it after an authoritarian period or inherits it from a colonial or authoritarian regime.)

So, what would it take to break the hold of two-party politics? It would take the emergence of one or more programmatic parties that threatened the electoral position of one or both of the major parties.** Such a party could not just exist at the presidential level, a la Ross Perot. It would have to contest seriously at least some House and Senate races.

The emergence of multiparty politics could come in the form of a party that plays “spoiler” and thereby makes one of the major parties’ internal calculus about the electoral system shift.*** That would at least put electoral reform on the agenda, and even if the other major party were to be quite happy to see its major competitor “spoiled,” once PR is on the agenda, experience in other cases where reform has been adopted or seriously debated says the genie (and genius!) of the idea of PR can’t always be put so easily back in the bottle(neck) of big-party politics-as-usual.


* Canada now has something close to three-party politics nationwide, with only Quebec having a distinct regional party in federal elections. India, on the other hand, has numerous parties that contest only in one or a few states, as well as national parties that refrain from contesting districts in some states out of deals struck with local parties.

** The first part of this–the emergence of new parties–has been underway for some time, as I have shown with graphs. In most US presidential, House, and Senate elections since 1990, neither major party has won 50% of the vote. This has yet to rise to the level of threatening the major parties, however–at least in a way that has changed the debate. (In the 1968, 1992 and 2000 presidential elections, third parties were clearly a factor; we probably need many more such elections!)

*** The extent to which the major US parties are non-programmatic complicates this, however, to the extent that parties are much less cohesive, strategic actors in the way that they tend to be in parliamentary systems. However, the parties–especially the Republican–have clearly moved in a direction of acting more like programmatic and strategic decision-making units in recent years.