Two Parties Are Better than Three

Recent trends among the electorate, as reported in news and opinion columns of the New York Times, have two related foci. Younger voters especially are disaffected with the American political system, and many are interested in establishing a third party as a remedy. Exhibiting the first attitude, 58 percent of those interviewed for a recent Times/Siena College poll reportedly found the American constitutional system in need of “major reforms or a complete overhaul.” 

According to the Times’s interpretation, dissatisfaction among Republicans is fed by the unfounded claims spread by Donald Trump about the illegitimacy of the 2020 election. For their part, Democrats are said to exhibit discontent because, despite their control of the White House and both houses of Congress, “it is Republicans, joined with their allies in gerrymandered state legislatures and the Supreme Court, who are achieving long-sought political goals.”

There is, in sum, no substantive agreement on policy issues or personal grievances between disaffected members of the two parties; they just share unhappiness that things aren’t going their way. Nonetheless, 53 percent of those surveyed judged that “the American political system was too divided to solve the nation’s problems,” a “sentiment” said to be felt most strongly among black voters and younger ones. 

Yet the explanations offered by those quoted in the Times story of July 14 hardly indicate much evidence of serious reflection on the nation’s problems, let alone a consensus on how they should be addressed. One voter said that “officials at every level of government needed to be removed and replaced with people ‘who believe in the United States.’” Another, a woman exercised by the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, remarked of the decision simply, “It’s just not right, I mean, it’s just not right.” A third, who reported that “her family had been involved in progressive politics since her grandfather served as an economist in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration,” expressed her disillusion “with the difficulty of persuading the American government to respond to what people want.” At the same time, Trump’s election had revealed to her “the scope of American racism and the extent to which Republican elected officials would cater to it.” 

Here is where the argument for a third party comes in. A 22-year-old independent from Austin found “little reason to vote because the country would not function as long as its government operated under the two-party system.” Broadening that view, Times columnist David Brooks reported widespread “detach[ment]” among voters “from the two political parties,” with some 62 percent of Americans believing “a third party is needed.” 

Even the description of a new self-styled “Moderate Party” by one of its founders, Democratic representative Tom Malinowski, exhibits this partisanship. The party is intended (according to his Times op-ed) to ally “Democrats of all stripes, independents, and moderate Republicans hoping to win an election while pursuing a reform to the election laws that could empower swing voters to save our democracy from toxic polarization.” That the party aims to combine Democrats of all varieties with only Republicans who favor unspecified changes in election laws suggests that Malinowski’s goals are not strictly centrist. 

While recognizing that third-party candidacies, such as those of Ralph Nader and Jill Stein in 2000 (or Ross Perot in 1992) have long been regarded as “spoilers,” and “for good reason,” Malinowski’s proposal is limited to having states legalize “fusion voting,” such as has long been practiced in New York State. This allows people the option of voting for whichever of the two major-party candidates they prefer, but on a different line. In New York, that might mean voting for the Democratic candidate on the Working Families line, sponsored largely by public employee unions, or for Republicans via the Conservative Party on the right. 

Even though the two secondary parties Malinowski names tend to be more ideologically partisan than the major parties, he somehow believes that his proposal would wind up uniting centrist voters who support the police and favor enforcing “our immigration laws,” while also favoring legal immigration and believing “that corporations should pay taxes” (as if that principle were widely denied), even while holding “that the success of American business depends on leading the world to clean energy.” In the New Jersey district he represents, Malinowski reports “a yearning for community” and for “politicians to focus on fighting inflation, not fueling culture wars” (presumably, by seeking to ban abortion or the inclusion of transgender education in elementary schools).

A country is far better off when its two parties each perform the function of what political scientists call “interest aggregation” – that is, forming a coalition of diverse interests along with ideologically-based groups.

Not surprisingly for a Democrat, Malinowski’s program, while far from extreme, leans more left than right, and hence seems unlikely to have a moderating effect on members of his main party. More fundamentally, the whole idea that America needs a third party to cure its current ills rests on a delusion. America’s two-party system is strongly encouraged by the country’s constitutional structure, with its “first-past-the-post” election system making the election of a third-party candidate to Congress or even state legislatures a rarity. Meanwhile, the federal nature of our elections guarantees members of the Federal and state legislatures (in contrast to British M.P.’s) a considerable range of discretion in the policies they espouse. They can adapt their own platforms in response to local wishes. 

Since the restoration of the two-party system in the Jacksonian era, there is only one instance of a successful third party (which rapidly replaced one of the previous major parties): the birth of the Republicans in the 1850s. But that event reflected a political and cultural crisis far more divisive (let us hope) and less susceptible to compromise than anything on America’s horizon today. As the excerpts I’ve quoted from the Times poll indicate, dissatisfied voters are chiefly unhappy that the Federal government isn’t currently pursuing the policies that they happen to favor. But such disillusion – which the Times emphasizes is a particular attribute of the young – reflects the fact that the Democrats’ margin in the Senate is minuscule, making it hard to enact partisan policies over the resistance of Republican filibusters, or even over the opposition of one or two Democratic senators; that the current President’s unstable manner and evident mental decline are hardly such as to inspire a great popular movement in his favor; and that after over six decades in which the Supreme Court steadily moved Constitutional interpretation in a direction favorable to liberal Democrats, Republican appointees have at least for now restored the notion that its decisions should have some serious grounding in Constitutional and legal texts.

Those who seek to promote the rise of a true third party are deluding themselves in thinking that it would yield more energetic and decisive policymaking. The evidence is clear from nations that already have multiparty systems, such as Italy, Israel, and France. We see frequent instability in the former two countries, and the risk in the latter that most voters will feel a lack of real choice in the final, runoff election, if one of the two finalists is a Marie LePen, still perceived by most as an extremist. 

A country is far better off when its two parties each perform the function of what political scientists call “interest aggregation” – that is, forming a coalition of diverse interests along with ideologically-based groups – with a view to winning the election, rather than leaving that function to the legislative body. Elections create powerful incentives for compromise and negotiation. This is far more difficult to achieve in a multiparty Congress, potentially with a President who got elected – as the “National Popular Vote” movement would allow – with considerably less than a majority of the electorate.

Young people who express disaffection with the existing American system because they resent its dominance by older generations are largely expressing an age-old outlook of youth. This is documented, for instance, in Machiavelli’s Prince. (Admittedly, when it comes to Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the geriatric factor is unusually strong, but it’s not likely to perpetuate itself.) Rather than kvetch, or riot, they would do more good by getting involved in regular political life, whether through activity in the national political parties or in local affairs.

Above all, the dissatisfaction expressed with our Constitutional system, including such features as the separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law (rather than of irresponsible bureaucrats) and a judiciary committed to following the Constitution’s text rather than inventing new “rights,” reflects a failure to appreciate the very meaning of representative government. In its modern sense, invented by Thomas Hobbes, the notion that government “represents” the people doesn’t mean that it does whatever a given, often temporary, portion of the electorate favors. Rather, when government acts chiefly for the limited (“liberal” in the original, Lockean sense) purpose of securing the people’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the “pursuit of happiness,” it represents not merely the winning party in an election, but the people as a whole. In this case, members of the losing party in an election have never been compelled to flee the country before it’s too late, as they frequently do in various Latin American, Middle Eastern, and African countries today.

Only a tyrant gets to see his will obeyed in all things. Even he may not enjoy that privilege very long. Those who complain of the miseries that America’s political system imposes on them today might think back to the far greater troubles our citizenry suffered in the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Great Depression. It would be helpful if genuine civic education were restored to the nation’s schools and colleges. Students need to understand why the Founders devised a political regime that, while ultimately deriving its sanction from what Publius calls the people’s “deliberate sense” (not just passing whims), prevents the rule of a tyrannical majority, while enabling firm executive action when the country’s situation demands it.