Federalism and The Two-Party System:
Why Having More Political Parties Won’t Help Our Electorate.
After the 2016 general election, there was and continues to be a huge discussion on how we elect people to office in this country. From abolishing the electoral college to creating more political parties, the questions and solutions are fast and furious. In this essay, I’ll address the proposal to increase the number of political parties and why that may not be the best answer.
In order to address the issue of why more political parties won’t work to solve our woes as a civil society, we need to do a bit of homework, specifically some poli-sci 101. At the heart of our two-party system and the plurality vote that it encourages, is federalism. Federalism is the division of sovereignty between national government and regional government.1 The Founding Fathers, in order to compromise and get the delegates from the states on board with a new Constitution, had to ensure that the states would maintain sovereignty from the federal government. Had they not created this compromise, we very likely would never have ratified the Constitution.
So, the first obstacle that federalism creates is the division of power, and thus the power to create disparate election rules between the states and the federal government. This division of sovereignty is why we do not have a centralized voting system. Each state is free to create whatever voting rules and systems, within the confines of the Constitution, that best suits their citizens. Thus, in order to create a national voting system that ensured all states complied, we would have to pass a constitutional amendment that brought ALL voting and elections under federal jurisdiction. That is all but impossible as the concerns over states’ rights are arguably as strong today as they were in 1776.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument that we did adopt a federal voting system that unified all 50 states. We would also have to then federalize a run off system to counter the inevitable close races and no majority races that a majority voting system needs. Thus, federalization of our voting system would have to be two-fold; bringing all states under one federal voting rule system and requiring a run off system for close races. A tall order, to be sure.
The next obstacle to a multi-party system in the U.S., is our plurality voting system. Simply put, ours is NOT a majority wins system. Plurality voting is awarding the election win to whomever gets the most votes first, among individual opponents. Contrast that with majority voting which requires the winner to have more votes than all of the other opponents COMBINED. It’s a uniquely American voting system.
What about proportional voting you ask? Well, in a proportional system, such as most other advanced democracies have, the power is distributed among all parties with the understanding that a coalition will be formed with all parties having a say in proportion to their voting block size. This system is common in parliamentary democracies where there is no winner take all, but rather power is shared. We do not have that kind of democracy, ours is a single member district system. To change this system, again we would have to amend the constitution, whether state or federal.
All hope is not lost though. There is a way that we can make elections more representative of the vast diversity of the electorate.
The political parties themselves could adopt a proportional primary system. As I wrote in my last article, addressing the Democratic party specifically, it is an impossibility for either party, certainly the Democrats which are more diverse, to represent all of the concerns and policy needs of the party. So, what if the democrats, historically known as the party of the underdog and the minority, could please all the people all of the time? White, black, poor, wealthy, college educated, high school educated, everyone.
If the Democratic party adopted a proportional primary system, modeled after a parliamentary system, they could solve several problems at once. They could centralize their party agenda without seeming hypocritical and over promising and under delivering and they could share the power with ALL of the party via a coalesced agenda, not just the agenda of the supporters of the winner. A third benefit would also unfold; no longer would third or fourth or fifth parties dilute the vote to the exclusion of everyone. If no one gained a majority, then a run off would ensue until a winner emerged and all parties would become a coalition. This would also greatly reduce primary animosity and voter antipathy towards other party candidates.
How would it work?
First, the party would have to draft a set of new rules, binding all candidates to the new system. Primaries would be run as usual, the winner would receive either the plurality vote, or the majority vote with a run off option, just as they are done now. However, upon winning, the victorious candidate would, under new rules, be compelled to form a coalition of the other primary candidates and craft a party agenda based on that coalition’s interests. The party and the candidate would be bound by this platform if elected to office.
The downside to this primary system would be that by having all voices heard and policy guaranteed to be implemented, this would inevitably push the party farther to the left and thus likely alienate moderate voters in the general election. History has shown us that extreme policy agenda’s, mostly alienate moderate voters, which are the majority of voters. Party realignments are rare, but it is political climates like the one we are living in that birth these realignments, so while not perfect, and a gamble, if the democratic party is going to make a change, now is the time.
Over our history however, a few party realignments have worked out for both parties; the Civil War realignment of the GOP, the 1896 election, post 1893 bank collapse, and the 1930’s Great Depression realignment. It can also be argued that the fourth realignment was the Great Recession of 2008, which ushered in Barrack Obama as our first black president.
In closing, multi-party politics could work at some level in the U.S., if we re-write our constitution or re-write how our political primaries are run. Both solutions are long shots given the political impotency of our legislative branch and rampant voter apathy. The Founding fathers warned of a “concerted minority”. The GOP today is that minority, we have to find a way forward and blunt the extreme agenda of that party. Diluting the electorate with special interest, single issue parties is likely not the best answer right now.
1, 2 Patterson, Thomas E. We the People: a Concise Introduction to American Politics. Eighth ed., McGraw-Hill, 2011.