Let a Thousand Parties Bloom
The only way to prevent America’s two-party system from succumbing to extremism is to scrap it altogether.
Somewhere in the multiverse, the United States took a slightly different turn on Nov. 8, 2016. Hillary Clinton narrowly won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and became the 45th president of the United States. This version of Earth—let’s call it Earth 2—is a safer, less polluted planet than our own.
But U.S. democracy in this alternate reality is no less precarious. The Republican Congress on Earth 2 is fiercely relitigating every old Clinton scandal and boldly innovating new ones. In the 2018 Earth 2 midterms, Republicans gained seats in both chambers by running against Clinton and promising to finally “lock her up.” The right-wing media echo chamber froths at the prospect of impeaching both Clinton and Vice President Tim Kaine and making newly selected House Speaker Mark Meadows president.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump remains a media personality and the front-runner for the 2020 election, though Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley are outdoing each other for recognition as the most belligerent fighter against the so-called globalist Democratic Party and its anti-Christian socialist agenda. Right-wing militias, meanwhile, have more than doubled in membership after the so-called stolen election of 2016 and are preparing for a civil war if Democrats steal the 2020 election, too.
The problems of U.S. politics are deeper than the results of a single presidential election. They reflect a binary party system that has divided the country into two irreconcilable teams: one that sees itself as representing the multicultural values of cosmopolitan cities and the other that sees itself as representing the Christian values of the traditionalist countryside. Both believe they are the true America. The many individuals and groups that don’t slot neatly into one of these two teams have no other place to go.
Climate change is proceeding faster than expected, as China’s economic and political rise continues. Americans can’t afford a broken system while policy problems worsen. But no problems can be solved until the divisive, zero-sum, polarized politics breaking U.S. democracy are dissolved. The only way out is to change the U.S. electoral system to allow for more parties and hope the pieces can rearrange themselves into a functional governing system.
U.S. political history has shaped today’s disasters. In 1787, the Framers thought the existing Articles of Confederation were inadequate. The new Constitution reflected a happy confluence of pragmatic politics and political theory centered on the premise that while a central government was necessary, it should require broad compromise across many competing interests to take decisive action.
Even if some of the pragmatic summer-of-’87 deals wilt under modern scrutiny—most notably the compromises over slavery—the underlying theory is still mostly sound: Forging broad deal-making is a tried-and-true path to sustainable, legitimate government. But it requires that lawmakers be flexible enough to form coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis. “Extend the sphere,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” More factions would mean less likelihood of any faction being a majority. Making laws would require broad compromise. Broad compromise would prevent tyranny.
A divided two-party system makes effective governing difficult under any political system, but almost impossible given U.S. governing institutions, by sacrificing the flexibility of officials to party discipline. But while the Founding Fathers thought and worried a lot about divisive partisanship (as John Adams warned, “a Division of the Republick into two great Parties … is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil”), they gave little thought to electoral mechanisms to prevent partisanship from becoming too divisive. That’s forgivable. At the time, national electoral precedents were few, and the Framers unthinkingly imported Britain’s simple 1430 innovation of place-based, first-past-the-post elections. This enabled the almost immediate formation of a two-party system, with Thomas Jefferson and Madison’s power-to-the-people Democratic-Republicans teaming up against the more trust-the-elites Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, Adams, and (more or less) George Washington.
But for most of U.S. history, the two parties were sprawling, mixed-up coalitions of state and local groups—and thus flexible enough to compete in most places with different faces and with enough overlap to make deals in Washington. Much as critics complained about the lack of meaningful choices and complex, parochial logroll politics, incoherent and nonideological parties worked well with U.S. governing institutions. Weak partisanship allowed majority coalitions to come together on an issue-by-issue basis—just as the Framers had intended.
In the 1960s, the old system gave way. Civil rights shook U.S. politics and set in motion a decades-long realignment of the party coalitions. Politics nationalized, and pragmatic economic materialism gave way to culture wars and fights over national identity. By the 1990s, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans began to go extinct, unable to survive in this new environment, leaving only liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. By 2010, America became a genuine two-party system, with two distinct party coalitions.
Partisan polarization thus took on a reinforcing dynamic in which the parties pulled further apart, the electoral stakes grew higher, and the thought of voting for the other party seemed more anathema. The electoral system reinforced this divide in profound ways. Because winner-take-all elections offer no reward for winning less than a majority vote share in a given district, Republicans abandoned the urban districts, and Democrats closed up shop in rural districts. The parties stopped competing for each other’s voters and instead swiveled to their most loyal supporters.
But it wasn’t only the urban-rural divide shaping partisan conflict. Other social identities—including race, religion, and region—sorted between the parties, turning partisanship into one overwhelming “mega-identity,” to quote the political scientist Lilliana Mason.
With the country becoming more diverse, and previously marginalized groups suddenly gaining status, the two parties had greater reason to emphasize the zero-sum nature of their deeply divided competition. And with two parties of roughly equal electoral strength, every election felt up for grabs. Meanwhile, the economy shifted, rewarding the highly educated in the knowledge economy, especially in the thriving cities, and punishing the poorly educated, especially in the industrial, resource extraction, and agricultural heartland. Inequality grew everywhere, fueling resentment.
Under these pressures, and with more and more corporate and billionaire money pouring into politics to exacerbate the inequalities, America’s complicated political system groaned, shuddered, and began to crack. Resentment and distrust fed on each other, and in zero-sum politics, where everything became about winning and losing, Trump, the blustering alpha male who promised only winning, rose to the top. He crowd-surfed the waves of resentment-fueled polarization into a presidency so divisive that very few Americans’ opinions have changed about its merits since day one.
Where do we start untangling the raveled spool of trends and forces that produced the current mess? The temptation is to pull first on the ugliest and most obvious knots.
Take the Electoral College, that cockamamie Rube Goldberg mechanism that never quite worked as intended. By any measure of democratic fairness, the Electoral College is awful: The larger your state, the less your vote counts. The less competitive your state, the less anybody cares about your vote. Five times in U.S. history (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016), it delivered the White House to the popular vote loser—Trump among them.
Of course, a national popular vote is fairer, especially if a new electoral law could ensure a true majority winner through a two-round system or an instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting mechanism. But the Electoral College is a difficult knot to untangle right now. It’s in the Constitution—amendable in theory but in practice stuck in place as long as one party sees an advantage in the status quo. The current popular workaround, a compact among states to abide by the popular vote winner, is supported only by solidly blue states.
Abolishing the Electoral College would certainly boost Democrats’ chances of winning the White House, at least given current demographics and party voting coalitions. Congress, however, would present the same problems. The Senate—which apportions two members to each state, regardless of size—has even more of a rural, small-state bias than the Electoral College. And that means that while the partisan divide remains an urban-rural split, the Senate will have a strong Republican bias. The House also has a pro-rural and therefore pro-Republican bias. That’s because, as the party of the cities, Democratic voters are overconcentrated in solidly safe districts, while Republican voters are spread more efficiently—an asymmetry exacerbated by Republican gerrymandering. A national popular vote for president without a change to the Senate or House will keep reinforcing the same divisive politics.
End gerrymandering? Of course. But how? Independent commissions are an improvement over politicians drawing maps for partisan advantage. But with parties divided between cities and rural areas, drawing competitive districts is hard. And, again, because Democrats are overconcentrated in cities, ensuring partisan fairness will come at the cost of other districting goals. Single-member districts limit the possibilities.
Make it easier to vote? Absolutely. But for six decades, reform after reform has made it easier to vote in the United States, and turnout has barely budged. That’s because competition, candidates, and campaigns drive turnout, far more than rules. Few elections are competitive. Few candidates are inspiring. And few campaigns invest in serious voter mobilization. In the current political environment, higher turnout would likely help Democrats win more elections on the margins. But that won’t solve the zero-sum partisan polarization at the heart of the political crisis.
Encourage more civility and tolerance in politics? Of course. But notice what has happened to the few remaining politicians who have charted a path of civility and moderation in recent years? They’ve retired, either because they feared they’d lose their next primary or because they felt so alone in a world of total partisan warfare.
Better ethics regulations? Again, sure. But ethics rules are only as good as their enforcement and congressional oversight. In a normal world, bipartisan majorities would have supported Trump’s impeachment already. But in highly partisan politics, even facts become selective, partisan things.
Campaign finance reform? Of course. The U.S. campaign finance system is a porous and poorly regulated mess. In a perfect world, there would be publicly funded elections or at least small-donor-oriented elections with public matching (a significant provision contained in House Democrats’ HR 1, a major pro-democracy bill passed this year). This might actually reduce polarization a little. As the political scientist Andrew B. Hall has shown in his new book, Who Wants to Run?: How the Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization, the high costs of campaigning deter many moderates but provide less of an obstacle for passionate extremists.
But polarization needs to be sharply reduced, not just trimmed. Or at the least, it has to work with, rather than against, America’s governing institutions. Under the two-party system, U.S. politics are stuck in a deep partisan divide, with no clear winner and only zero-sum escalation ahead. Both sides see themselves as the true majority. Republicans hold up maps of the country showing a sea of red and declare America a conservative country. Democrats win the popular vote (because most Americans live in and around a handful of densely populated cities) and declare America a progressive country.
The only way to break this destructive stalemate is to break the electoral and party system that sustains and reinforces it. The United States is divided into red and blue not because Americans want only two choices. In poll after poll, majorities want more than two political parties. Few Americans enjoy the high-stakes partisan combat. The United States is divided because in winner-take-all plurality elections, third parties can’t emerge. And even if Americans agree on wanting a third party, few are willing to gamble on an alternative for fear of wasting their vote. Nor can Americans agree on which third party they would want, either. The United States would need five or six parties to represent the true ideological diversity of the country.
All else equal, modest multiparty democracies (with three to seven parties) perform better than two-party democracies. Such a party system regularizes cross-partisan compromise and coalition building. 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.
Some might cite Brazil, Italy, or Israel as paradigmatic and thus cautionary cases of chaotic multiparty democracy. But these are very different countries. Political culture and political history both matter tremendously. Brazil and Italy have long histories of corruption that challenge any party system, and Israel is perpetually surrounded by hostile enemies. Brazil and Israel have too many parties, the result of electoral rules that make legislative representation too easy for parties to obtain, rather than too hard. A sweet spot is between four and six parties—enough to give voters meaningful choices, and offer coalitional variety, but not so much to fragment a polity and make coalition management difficult. Comparing countries is always difficult, but the more appropriate comparisons for the United States would be the modest multiparty democracies of Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia—hardly dysfunctional polities.
To facilitate more parties, first-past-the-post elections have to go. The search for a replacement should start with the Fair Representation Act, which Democratic Rep. Don Beyer has introduced, adopting a system that Ireland has used successfully for almost 100 years. It proposes to combine existing congressional districts to elect multiple members per district. Instead of each of five districts selecting its own top finisher, one larger district would send its top five finishers to Washington, using ranked-choice voting. The result would be a system of modest proportional representation.
I’d suggest going even further than Beyer’s bill: Try increasing the House to 700 members to make it more representative and getting rid of primary elections, instead letting party leaders nominate their own candidates, as parties in other democracies do. A single, proportional November election would give challengers space to run as third-party candidates—as well as fourth-, fifth-, and maybe even sixth-party challengers. All of these changes are fully within the Constitution and have historical precedent. Before 1842, states regularly used multimember districts. Up through the early 20th century, the House increased its membership almost every decade, and there were no primary elections.
The Senate is harder to make proportional since the Constitution limits states to two senators. But similarly eliminating primaries and using ranked-choice voting—which wouldn’t require constitutional changes—would do much to dissolve the zero-sum partisanship alongside a transformed House.
Democrats would probably split into two parties: The Social Democrats, representing the very progressive left, and the New Democrats, representing the center-left. Republicans would probably split into three: a center-right Reform Conservative Party (think Marco Rubio), a consistently conservative Christian Republican Party (think Cruz), and a populist-nationalist America First Party (think Trump). Maybe a small Libertarian Party would win some seats. As with most other advanced democracies, coalition government would prevail. Politics would grow more complex. But some complexity is a virtue in politics. It forces citizens and politicians to think harder, to be less certain.
Elections would be competitive everywhere because every vote would now matter. Increased competition would boost turnout because campaigns mobilize more voters when elections are competitive. And with more parties, more voters would feel represented. This is why turnout is consistently higher in proportional democracies. Gerrymandering would disappear since it only works with single-member districts and predictable two-party voting patterns (the main reason why it is a uniquely American problem).
Presidential politics would become more complicated. Rather than counting on a reliable 40-45 percent of partisan voters in the two-party system, candidates would succeed by building broad electoral coalitions and governing supermajorities. Presidents would no longer depend on automatic partisan majorities in Congress to cut them a free pass—but nor would opposing parties in Congress deny a president everything for the sake of winning the next election. Instead, cross-party coalition bargaining would return to Washington. This would likely mean governing again from the middle. Ideally, the presidential election system would evolve into a national popular vote, with ranked-choice voting to ensure majority support. But this is more likely to pass under a new, multiparty system.
Unlike many other reforms being proposed, changing the electoral rules to open up the party system doesn’t clearly benefit either Democrats or Republicans. Instead, it would effectively break both of them up. While leaders in both parties would likely oppose such reforms, enough entrepreneurial politicians chafing at top-down leadership might embrace a change that gives them new opportunities. Few elected officials enjoy the zero-sum binary polarization strangling Washington. And solid majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters say they want more than two political parties—a rare demand with bipartisan support. Certainly, solving the problems depends on more than having the right political institutions; it also depends on leadership, creativity, and some luck. Institutions are ultimately tools. But while the right tools can never promise success, the wrong tools can ensure failure.
Electoral reform to facilitate multiparty democracy would not fix everything in U.S. democracy. But democracy is not a problem to be solved. It’s an ongoing struggle in the still improbable task of self-governance in the face of imponderable scale and wicked cross-generational problems.
U.S. democracy faces many challenges. But the core problem is a two-party system that has divided the country into two distinct parties representing two competing visions of national identity, with no middle ground, and a political system that requires broad compromise to do anything. Until we solve this fundamental issue, we’re just tugging at the knotted ends of a tangled spool while the clock ticks and this world, Earth 2, and any other alternative futures all hang in the balance.
This story appears in the Fall 2019 print issue.