In Defense of Political Parties

Ohio Governor John Kasich recently made headlines when he declared in an interview with ABC’s John Karl that Americans may be witnessing the end of the two-party system. While it may be difficult for Americans to imagine a political system in which multiple political party parties can compete, such a system could improve productivity within Congress, increase voter turnout, and boost overall confidence in our democracy.

Since the Great Depression, Americans have only known a two-party political system. Parties had previously come and gone every few decades. After Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party in the early 19th century, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton formed the opposing Federalist Party. And after those two parties faded out later in 19th century, it was the Democratic Party facing off against the Whigs. In the 19th century, the Liberty Party and Free Soil Party earned impressive ranks in a series of presidential elections around the Civil War. Later on, Theodore Roosevelt came in second place in the 1912 presidential election running under the Progressive Party platform.

More recently Ross Perot garnered 19% of the vote in 1992 presidential election running as an independent. Additionally, the U.S. Senate currently has two independent members, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — though they both caucus with the Democrats. Aside from those examples, third party candidates have enjoyed little success in American politics. This may be for structural reasons. French sociologist Maurice Duverger theorized that the American winner-take-all system only allows two parties to be competitive because earning 20 or 25 percent of vote does not come with any reward. Thus, voters are forced to choose between two candidates who are more likely to win even though their views may be more closely aligned with a lower-polling third party candidate.

The two-party system is convenient because it allows for extended periods of unified government. Republicans enjoyed unified government from 1901 to 1911 and again from 1921 to 1931. (Though few would argue the roaring 20’s came to a satisfying end.) Similarly, Democrats had unified government during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From 1933 until 1945 Democrats not only held the presidency, but also claimed large majorities in the House and Senate. As a result, the Democrats were able to achieve many legislative victories during this time period. The FDIC, Social Security and a federal minimum wage were just some of the major legislative victories Democrats scored during the Franklin Roosevelt years. These victories can be attributed to strong majorities the party held in Congress.

After the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, extended periods of unified government have become less frequent. Americans gave President Richard Nixon a resounding victory in the 1972 election over George McGovern, but also handed Democrats a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. At no time during his presidency did Richard Nixon or his successor President Gerald Ford’s Republican Party enjoy a majority in either chamber of Congress. For a while, this didn’t chip away at the convenience of the two-party system. Republicans held a majority in the Senate for the first six years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but never once controlled the House, and Bill Clinton’s last six years in office saw Republican Senates and Houses, despite being handily reelected in 1996. But in spite of years of divided government, both Reagan and Clinton were able to accomplish a lot of legislative business, including Social Security and welfare reforms.

Legislative achievements made during the twentieth-century didn’t always yield positive results. But the two-party expedited the political process, which made the people feel that the government was responsive to their needs.

The two-party system, however, is losing its convenience. A dismal 16% of American voters polled by Gallup last September approved of the job Congress wasi doing. Among the reasons cited for such low approval ratings was “little major legislative success” during the year 2017. Even in an era of unified government, Republicans have failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cannot agree on a clear immigration plan, and just barely passed an unpopular tax bill in the final days of 2017. All the more, for the first time in U.S. history, the federal government shut down when the same party held the presidency and both chambers of Congress. As Kentucky Congressional candidate Michael Coblenz notes, in the 21st century “each side is more extreme, and each bases their political agenda on demonizing the other side.” Essentially, as partisan gerrymandering, media, and increased money have become more prevalent, voters have been left to choose between two corporate candidates.

Now is the time to begin examining alternatives to the Presidential System of the U.S. One such alternative is the European Parliamentary System. In Great Britain, eight parties currently hold seats in the House of Commons. That is opposed to just two parties which comprise the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under this system, voter turnout is higher than in the United States. British turnout was 68.7% in last year’s snap election compared to a “higher than average” 60% in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Similarly, in midterm elections, voter turnout in the U.S. hovers around 40%. According to PBS News, “Many of the states with the lowest turnout are dominated by the Republican Party in the South.” When voters feel like their vote does not matter, they often choose not to participate. Whereas, in Great Britain, voter participation is more equitable across all counties. Parliamentary systems in general also tend to comprise more women and minority representation. And, as opposed to the U.S. system where voters are often forced to choose a “lesser of two evils,” or simply not vote, parliamentary systems give voters choices from all points on the political spectrum.

Another alternative to the American system is ranked choice voting, which is used in San Francisco city elections. Under this system, voters rank their first, second, third and possibly succeeding choice candidates. If no candidate reaches a plurality, then the candidate who earned the least amount of votes is eliminated. The votes of those who ranked that candidate first are then given to their second choice candidate. Candidates continue to be eliminated while their first choice voters’ votes are given to each voter’s second choice. This process continues until one candidate reaches a plurality and is declared the winner of the election. Ultimately, ranked choice voting gives the voter the opportunity to vote for a third party candidate who more closely aligns with their views while avoiding a “wasted” vote scenario.

These policies would be difficult to implement, since Americans have been somewhat resistant to sweeping changes in recent history. However, the ripeness for change may not be that far in the future. A 2014 poll conducted by Pew reported 50% of millennials identified with neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party. This is up 12% from just a decade ago. The same poll also found that 31% of millennials see no difference between the two major parties. The tides appear to be turning and as George Chueng notes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Without any significant change to the US electoral system, we should expect continued political disaffection by young people.” In other words, it does not just appear that change is going to happen, but that change needs to happen in order to avoid continued dysfunction.

Americans are frustrated with Washington and our current political establishment. Political parties have beared the brunt of that frustration, some of which is warranted, but instead of seeing parties as the problem we should see them as the solution. The U.S. should first abandon the two-party system, since allowing more political parties would give Americans more choice at the ballot and would likely boost an abysmal voter turnout rate. Then, to ensure the majority still rules in a multi-party system, the U.S. should enact either a ranked choice voting system or a second-round system which is used in French elections. More political parties means more voice and more legislation at a faster rate. Like any system, it may not be perfect, but there is reason to believe it would increase voter satisfaction.