Should America Adopt a Multiparty System? An Updated Perspective.
Arguments favoring a multiparty system are spurious
In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, many felt that America was edging closer to a new civil war due to the ever-widening gap between the Democrats and Republicans. This era of hyperpolarization and partisan politics have some observers asserting that the primary problem is our two-party political system, which forces voters to choose between two ideological extremes, creating a vicious cycle of fueling — and rewarding — candidates who win at all costs without any concern for actual legislation.
This is where Lee Drutman comes in. He’s been publishing copiously on why America needs to move towards a multiparty democracy like those found in other countries, where voters are “happier” with their chosen parties because they align more directly with their stated values. He also advises adopting ranked-choice voting, multi-representative districts, and other systemic changes that would allow for better representation of voter diversity, leading to more efficiency in the legislative process.
If it were only that easy.
This article aims to consider Drutman’s assertions by focusing on three criticalities between two-party and multiparty systems: political stability, legislative performance and proportional representation of voters.
We begin with the most important metric: whether a multiparty system is inherently more stable than a two-party system.
Part 1: Stability of governments under multiparty vs. two-party systems
On September 19, 2022, Drutman and colleagues wrote an open letter to Congress, urging them to make systemic changes that resemble multiparty systems like those found in other parliamentary democracies. They support their thesis by citing Hungary’s fall towards autocracy led by Viktor Orbán who changed the country’s political system to model America’s. Drutman summarized their reasoning in a letter to The Chicago Tribune, which includes this excerpt:
“When Orbán came to power, he and his Fidesz party made three key changes that helped consolidate authoritarian power — changes that mimic key features of the U.S. electoral system. First, Orbán’s Fidesz party took a more proportional voting system and made it more majoritarian. In reducing the size of the legislature, Fidesz also increased the share of parliamentary seats chosen through “single-member districts.” Second, Fidesz gerrymandered the new single-member districts, echoing recent efforts in the U.S. (by both parties but predominantly Republicans). Third, Fidesz abolished runoff elections, allowing candidates to win with only a plurality rather than a majority of the vote — the same way most federal general elections in the U.S. work too.
This is 100% true. But it’s also only 50% of the story. And it’s the less important half, at that.
Specifically, Drutman’s scenario begins when Orbán and the Fidesz party had already been elected and were given the power to make these systemic changes. That begs the questions: How did Orbán and his party come to power in the first place? And what was the political system like then?
A history of Orbán’s ascendancy is outlined in the article, “Disinformation in Hungary: From fabricated news to discriminatory legislation.” When the Fidesz party and Orbán began, Hungary had the type of multiparty political system Drutman proposes, but the Fidesz party was too small to assert any power on its own, and their platform did not garner popular support. So it formed coalitions with other far-right parties, each of whom faced similar struggles. But together, they conspired to spread disinformation through a variety of media campaigns similar to America’s conservative disinformation media. These efforts led to populist support among different Hungarian parties, which allowed the Fidesz party to grow and eventually take control of the government. That’s when Orbán changed the political system and related voting laws to secure his position.
Hungary is not alone in this pattern. Research by V-Dem shows that multiparty parliamentary democracies around the world are going through similar experiences. An examination of individual countries provides a detailed view. In almost all cases, disinformation is the primary cause of democratic decline. And it is always led by small, far-right parties in multiparty systems.
A number of papers have been published recently, drawing similar conclusions. Several are cited in Max Fisher’s NY Times article, “How Democracy Is Under Threat Across the Globe.” Similarly, Richard H. Pildes’ 2021 paper, “Political Fragmentation in Democracies of the West,” lead to nearly identical conclusions, which are summarized in his NY Times article, “Why So Many Democracies Are Floundering.” In it, he finds that the more parties a country has, the greater the risk of falling towards extremism, fueled largely by disinformation campaigns.
Disinformation is highly effective in multiparty systems because only small percent of the country needs to be persuaded to elect extremist politicians from fringe parties. Once in the government, they can exert power by asserting leverage through coalitions.
Obviously, this is not strictly limited to multiparty systems, as evidenced by the widespread problem with disinformation in America. The J6 insurrection is a direct byproduct of that very phenomenon. That disinformation can destabilize a democracy regardless of the number of parties does not cancel itself out. Rather, it becomes a probability of risk.
That very risk factor has been reduced to a mathematical prediction model by Manus I. Midlarsky in his paper, “Political Stability of Two-Party and Multiparty Systems: Probabilistic Bases for the Comparison of Party Systems.” Midlarsky shows that, of democratic governments with various parliamentary style systems, the most stable and productive are those where each of the top two majority parties constitutes between 40–45% control, suggesting that the most stable countries are those whose top two parties command between 80–90% control of government.
Odd as it sounds, America is as stable as it is because of its two-party system. To put that into context, Pew Research found that, of the 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020, only 7% conceded that Biden definitely won the 2020 election without a doubt. That’s 68 million people who believe in some aspects of the Big Lie about election fraud. As a percentage of the population, it’s big, but not enough to destabilize a two-party system. Hungary and other countries have fallen to extremists with far less popular support as a percentage of the population.
The lesson is that attaining authoritarian power in a democratic system requires disinformation, which is easier and faster in countries with multiparty systems and lax media laws. Retaining power requires altering the political system.
As stated, the multiparty aspect only increases risk. To reduce risk in any political system, strong media laws are required protect against political disinformation. Granted, disinformation is hard to curb in an open democracy that favors free speech and a free press, but there are ways to deal with it, which has nothing to do with how many parties there are. Japan is a good example, and it has a multiparty parliamentary system.
In the NY Times article, “Why QAnon Flopped in Japan,” we see that the Japanese, like Americans, are very friendly to conspiracy theories of all types. But when it comes to politically-oriented lies and conspiracies, QAnon and others were never able to take hold in Japan, because their National Broadcast Law requires that “programming must avoid distorting facts, stay politically fair and not harm public safety.”
Those few words have hampered the rise of disinformation, while also making it more difficult to stoke political or cultural divisions. Politics in Japan is quite boring by American standards. And they certainly have their challenges — don’t we all? But the government is very stable, and it’s a multiparty system. But, as with everything in politics, it’s not that simple.
A detailed discussion and analysis of American disinformation — and ways it can be addressed — can be found in the article, “How to Frame the Discussion About Disinformation.”
Part 2: Measuring legislative performance across political systems
Setting aside “stability” as a risk factor, another point of comparison between a two-party and a multiparty system is legislative performance: Are laws getting passed? And are they productive?
Let’s begin with a basic definition: Legislative Performance is the combination of Legislative Efficiency (passing legislation free from gridlock — quick, responsive, and agile) and Legislative Efficacy (whether the legislation that just passed was the right thing to do).
“Efficiency” is where multiparty advocates feel parliamentary systems are better. Eric Black asserts that parliamentary systems are relatively gridlock-proof because those systems have coalitions that keep legislation moving more smoothly. He states:
“A parliamentary system is designed to put one party into legislative and executive control and give that party (or a coalition of parties constituting a parliamentary majority) the tools to both enact and implement its program. The job of the out-of-power party is to criticize and oppose the in-power party, to describe its alternative ideas for how to run the country and to explain why the country should put the in-party out and the out-party in in (sic) the next election.”
Some believe this is exactly what’s going on in America now. Whichever party is in control of Congress passes the legislation they want, which angers the opposing party, motivating opposition voters in the next election cycle. Then the pattern repeats.
This does happen, but both the media and each of the two parties claim this is happening, but in fact, it’s not that simple. Away from the spotlight of partisan rancor, American government does get things done. US News and World Report published a lengthy list (and analysis) of a suite of significant and effective bipartisan bills that have been passed throughout the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. These include packages large and small, including several significant financial rescue plans, several large infrastructure bills, medical billing, suicide prevention, protecting pregnant workers, supporting people with disabilities, the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids, fighting substance abuse in prison, and supporting inmates upon their release, and more. These are among many, many examples that many Americans don’t hear about, quickly forget, or are misrepresented by biased media sources.
Not to get too ahead of ourselves, it’s also true that America has also passed a lot of laws that aren’t popular among the majority, but this happens for different reasons than in multiparty systems. First, America has many individual states with more autonomy than what is found in other countries, and each of those states has supermajorities from a single party (largely the result of partisan gerrymandering). According to Ballotpedia, there are 27 state legislatures where one party holds a veto-proof majority in both legislative chambers, eighteen of which are controlled by Republicans and nine by Democrats.
It’s also the case that America has a supermajority of highly conservative justices on the Supreme Court that are having a greater effect on the legislative order than ever before. Many laws that go against the majority will are managing to survive largely because of the far-right Supreme Court, which is also ruling against laws that used to have widespread popular support. Recent rulings on abortion, gun control, and speech are familiar to most Americans now.
Multiparty advocates claim that this is where the two-party system is less efficient because coalitions cannot form among different (smaller) parties to act as a check on the major party in power. But this myth hides the reality of legislating — you know, where the sausage is made, a distasteful process that no one wants to watch.
The reality of any society is that whenever groups of people collect to negotiate terms that go into legislation, people of like-minded ideas will form coalitions and strategize to advance their ideas. In a democratic government, these groups of people are collectively called “political parties.” They will exist in one form or another. The efficiency and effectiveness of how to structure those groups is what differentiates different political systems.
In theory, a two-party system is one where each party is incentivized to reach a much broader base of voters (unless they can game the system) to gain sufficient power in government. Here, not all members will agree with all positions their party holds, but behind the scenes, lawmakers negotiate with each other within the single party to present a united front against the other party. In a multiparty system, where each party represents a much smaller set of voters, lawmakers negotiate with those from other parties, but are less incentivized to moderate or negotiate, because doing so would alienate their small base of voters.
There are obvious pros and cons to each, but either way, this is where many politicians and voters experience the paradox of politics. As Mario Cuomo famously quipped, “politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose:”
“The poetry of campaigning is lofty, gauzy, full of possibility, a world where problems are solved just because we want them to be and opposition melts away before us. The prose of governing is messy and maddening, full of compromises and half-victories that leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.”
In other words, effective politicians must learn to accept compromises and half-victories if they are going to succeed in a functional democracy (that hasn’t been unduly disrupted by disinformation). Those that don’t accept compromises tend to be too ideological and less pragmatic. In a multiparty system, candidates in smaller parties appeal to a smaller set of voters (and financial supporters) because they can focus on fewer issues and promise not to compromise in negotiations. Hence, they can advance through to higher positions in government, even though they represent a much smaller proportion of voters relative to the whole country.
Israel’s recent history illustrates just how bad things can get when ideologically extreme parties assert their power: The country has had five elections in six years, each time, failing to form a government because coalitions keep falling apart. In the latest round of coalitions, the far-right Likud party has asserted control and is attempting to weaken the judiciary to keep itself in power, generating massive protests across the country.
By contrast, a two-party system encompasses a much broader size and diversity of voters and financial supporters, which tend not to reward ideological inflexibility or an unwillingness to compromise. The current Republican Party may appear to contradict that assertion, but as stated before, this is largely due to conservative media disinformation, which is leveraged by a small, but powerful faction of the GOP. This is more of a byproduct of disinformation in conservative media than the political system itself.
Americans may not see it this way, but other countries do. In the wake of U.K.’s “Brexit” conundrum, where the U.K. left the European Union despite popular opinion against it, the Business Times published this analysis on the British Parliament’s legislative history, focusing on the continued havoc that smaller parties create in upsetting the legislative process. The article even cites the desire to achieve “two-party politics with strong majorities” like America.
Part 3: Proportional representation
Legislative performance notwithstanding, the claim that multiparty systems do a better job of proportional representation — whether people have a chance to vote for candidates that represent their interests — is similarly mythical. The objective is sincere; the question is how to do it within a two-party system.
Among many proposals is instituting ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to vote for more than one candidate at a time, but rank them in order of choice. First, second, third, etc. Advocates claim such a model provides better chances to lesser-known candidates that may represent smaller districts; that it promotes more cooperation and moderation among candidates; and that it can eliminate costly and time-consuming run-off elections. Ultimately, voters feel as though their vote is not wasted if they pick an underdog candidate as their first choice.
But there are also drawbacks, such as bad actors exploiting the system by creating coalitions of candidates who aim to dilute the slate of candidates by overpopulating the ballot with non-serious candidates (which confuses voters), splitting votes among parties (which would be even worse with multiple parties) and creating opportunities for groups of candidates to pool their support towards a pre-arranged disruptor candidate. An article published by Ethnic Media Services also raises concerns that ranked-choice voting overwhelms low-information voters, and is particularly harmful to minority groups, especially immigrants. (A somewhat brief list of pros and cons — along with case studies — can be found in the Congressional Digest.)
Of course, the jury is still out as to whether ranked-choice voting is actually beneficial, as only a handful of municipalities have implemented it (including Maine and Alaska). Even Lee Drutman has said that America’s politics and culture are unique enough that it would take time to determine if there’s a net benefit.
That’s the thing about politics: Things are never quite that simple, and time and experimentation are required to work out the kinks and bring improvements. There are also the “bad actors” in any political system that learn to adapt to the parameters of whatever system is in place. They find the loopholes and exploit them, which causes lawmakers to tinker with the system more. It’s a game of building a better mousetrap to catch an increasingly more sophisticated mouse.
This does not necessarily suggest ranked-choice voting or other proposals won’t work. They may even improve things. But while we’re doing that, we’re avoiding dealing with the most real, tangible, and measurable dysfunctions in American politics: disinformation, partisan gerrymandering, and a highly partisan Supreme Court.
Even if these issues are addressed, nothing will eliminate partisanship, nor would Americans be suddenly happy with their chosen political parties, nor would toxicity in social media be a thing of the past. But addressing those three criticalities would change the nature of the candidates that run for office, not to mention the laws they pass, which would lead to more reasoned and constructive legislation, while also keeping democracy safe.