Duverger’s Blah: The Two-Party Travesty

It’s funny how we, as Americans, admire our political Forefathers. We praise their ideals and their undertakings to create this nation we call home. Yet these same men that we adore are almost universally ignored when it comes to the actual substance of their principles and their writings. While these men had many glaring flaws, they also provided almost omniscient views and warnings of the American political future…and yet we seem to have learned nothing.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, warned citizens of what he saw as a forthcoming threat to the American Republic. Political parties, Washington argued:

“…are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Two hundred and twenty years later, and I sit here Googling “Washington and Nostradamus connections”. While it may not necessarily be the most bold of predictions, Washington’s clairvoyance stands out especially in today’s political climate. As the Republican National Convention wrapped up last week and the Democratic National Convention has swung into gear, we stand at the precipice of a new era in American politics and political parties, and the 2016 General Election may prove to be a decisive factor in where we head as a country.

On one end, you have a Republican Party that has, after more than a year of infighting and ugly name-calling, circled the wagons around their 2016 presidential nominee, Donald Trump, easily one of the most divisive political figures in the past century. Despite challenges from candidates from the GOP’s establishment and the Tea Party fringe, Trump gained the nomination by feeding off the fears of voters representing both active and passive areas of political participation. Why, you may ask, is Trump the sign of a broken party system if he battled against the Republican establishment? It’s not the nomination that is telling, but the Party’s reaction. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a notable critic of Trump’s throughout the primary cycle, has backtracked on several of his critiques since Trump’s victory. He even argued at the Convention that supporting Trump in the General Election was akin to North Carolina fans voting for NC State and vice versa in a hypothetical NCAA championship. As a UNC grad, I can tell you that Ryan needs 1. a lesson on how college rivalries operate and 2. a revitalization on his views of party unity.

As the highest ranking member of the GOP, Ryan has criticized Trump repeatedly and disavowed any support for his controversial comments previously (on issues including a ban on Muslim immigration, support from a KKK leader, and the effects of Mexican heritage on a judge’s ability to oversee a case, to name a few). At one point in the primary season, Trump even threw a veiled threat at Ryan in his usual cocky demeanor, claiming that Ryan will “pay a big price” if he does not step in line with Trump’s new vision for the party’s future. So, how does the previous nominee for vice president for the Republicans respond once it becomes clear that Trump will be the nominee? Does he remain steadfast in his criticism, or even step aside and refuse to play a part in the presidential election as a form of protest? No, Ryan shows up to the RNC as a drone of Trump’s Republican Party, preaching unity and persuading the more concerned and stubborn moderates and establishment supporters to throw their support behind one of the most schismatic presidential nominees in recent memory.

It would be unfair to fail to mention that there have, in fact, been some members of the Republican establishment that have refused to step in line. Both George H.W. Bush and son, George W., have taken a stand against the fear-mongering movement of the Trump & Pence ’16 ticket, as have former presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney. “43” went as far as revealing to advisers recently that he fears he may be “the last Republican president” due to the effects that Trump’s campaign will have on the party’s future. While these “rebels” have chosen to voice their dissent within the GOP, the recent slide in support towards Trump within the party since the nomination indicates that, for many, Party rules over Principles.

On the other side of the aisle, the system has also wreaked havoc on the ability to trust party motives, though the differences are not nuanced by any means. While the Republican primary consisted of nearly 20 candidates scrapping it out via name-calling, back-alley infighting, and surreal televised debates, the Democratic primary consisted, more or less, of a two candidate race. Despite several controversies related to her past as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton represents the Democratic establishment while Bernie Sanders, who has served in Congress as an Independent, ran on a fringe platform that attracted a wide, yet sporadic, base within and outside the party. Upon Clinton’s victory in the primary, many Sanders fans have joined the Clinton cause due either to her serving as the next closest alternative or simply due to him serving as their “Never Trump” candidate.

While Sanders’ somewhat unexpected rise as a formidable flag bearer for the Democrats served as a catalyst for the revival of the young Democratic support base (a la Obama’s victory in 2008), it also led to a recent debate on inner party politics. As an organization, political party employees are expected to serve as neutral servants of the party’s general aims during the primary season and are barred from favoring any particular candidate. However, a spate of email leaks from Democratic Party employees has revealed somewhat sinister plans to tar the Sanders campaign to ensure Clinton’s victory in certain states that has led, understandably, to a sense of distrust and paranoia from a large portion of Bernie’s more ardent supporters and other party watchdogs. How can one reasonably run an effective primary campaign aiming to dislodge the party establishment when the party’s inner workings are fixed against you and your followers?

So how do you solve our political system’s base problems that are 200+ years in the making? According to Duverger’s Law, a political theory created by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, any system built upon a plurality, or first-past-the-post, electoral process will inherently lead to the creation of two major political parties. In his “Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System”, Duverger argued that while a proportional system leads to multiparty coalition governments, a system where the candidate or party owning a plurality of the vote will lead to a two-party system. Instead of parties forming a coalition to lead AFTER an election, the plurality system causes both majors parties to create an internal coalition BEFORE the electoral process in order to achieve as large of a voter base within the electorate as possible to achieve the aforementioned plurality.

This structure, which Duverger appeared to believe was inherent and unbreakable, leads to a fear of how to respond when those two major “coalition” parties are corrupted or no longer represent the best/majority opinions of their base. Is voting for a third-party candidate truly a waste of a vote? Are you liable for the outcome of an election when using your vote on an outside candidate that has no realistic chance of winning? Is there a way to perform an exorcism of both major parties of the greed and selfish ambitions that have endangered our political system? The purpose of this post may not be to answer these questions but they are certainly worth pondering as we evaluate our political future.

But here’s the thing that neither the Republicans or the Democrats want us to know: Duverger’s Law is dead. For something titled a “Law” of politics and considered a theory by various political scientists, it holds little weight outside of the United States. For instance, the United Kingdom, another first-past-the-post system, has several non-major parties that have held strong support and representation within Parliament for decades. As of 2016, minority parties in the House of Commons hold 88 seats within the 650-member house. While Parliament is still dominated by the British equivalents of the Republican and Democratic Parties, the Conservative and Labour Parties respectively, minor parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party have found ways to garner significant electoral support. With representation in the legislature, these parties have thereby forced their will on policy creation and have debunked the idea of an inevitable and unavoidable two-party system in plurality voting structures.

While the argument for minor parties and their strengths is better left for a different post, the significance of dismissing Duverger’s Law in order to change our party system cannot be understated. With wider support for third-party candidates, demands for more party transparency, and greater voter knowledge, the major players in our current structure will be forced to adapt. An electorate composed of informed citizens supporting a multitude of candidates (rather than a dichotomous choice between the Democrats and Republicans) may not completely solve the inherent ills of the political party, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.