There’s an odd little article in the Washington Post tonight about some people trying to put together a unity ticket for 2008, a bipartisan presidential ticket.
This is sort of the opposite of what we hear fairly often from both left and right about “ending two-party politics.” (or, according to some rhetoric, “ending one-party politics”) I think a unity party is marginally more likely to happen than multi-party democracy, but both are at the moment looking at probabilities comparable to monkeys typing Shakespeare. But let me point out why, and explain why I’m actually quite opposed to multi-party democracy in the US.
The key to why we have a two-party system is our electoral system, which is basically winner-takes-all over large geographic areas. This means that in a many-way race, only one party is going to get anything, and they just need to edge out their nearest competitor slightly in order to get it. So any small party is guaranteed to get nothing (except by acting as a spoiler, and that’s famously ineffective as a way to get one’s demands met). Instead, the rules favor small parties getting together to run a single candidate, and each large party being just big enough to edge out the nearest neighbor. (There’s no incentive for either party in a two-party system to try to get 60% of the vote rather than 51%; it would take a lot more work, and money, which could better be spent in getting 51% elsewhere, and you get nothing extra for it. This is also why our system doesn’t favor a single party.)
In countries that have a multi-party system, e.g. Israel or Germany, the rules are different: you vote for a party (not a person!), the total seats in the parliament are divided among the parties according to their vote totals, and then the parties hand seats to their members, typically by some internal rank order. In these cases, the Prime Minister is chosen by the parliament, not elected directly, so you’re really voting for a party in all cases. (If you elected a president directly, you would be back in the two-party situation above) This means that small parties can still effectively get seats… but, of course, they can’t form a cabinet unless they join a coalition.
So that’s the interaction of election law with the number of parties. But surprise: I don’t believe that two-party systems offer less choice than multi-party systems at all. The difference is more nuanced: basically, the question is whether you form coalitions before the election or afterwards. In a multi-party system, each party is elected to the Parliament, and then they have to find which other parties they can work with enough to form a ruling coalition — elect a Prime Minister, push legislation through, etc. Smaller parties, their number of seats now assured, can therefore make demands to the larger parties in order to join their coalition. In a two-party system, on the other hand, each party is in effect a coalition already formed before the election; each interest group (which would form its own party in a different system) mostly associates itself with one party. (Sometimes a faction will split, e.g. the Log Cabin Republicans; but the same logic applies) The difference is that in this case, the small groups are joining the coalition before the election, so they have less bargaining power.
And in the case of the United States, I actually think this is a damned good thing. Multi-party politics amplifies the power of groups at the fringes; two-party politics forces more of a politics of the center. In a country of this size and power, whose every move has so much impact on the world, which has such a powerful army, such a powerful economy, and so on, I sleep better at night if the people in charge are fairly moderate, and aren’t beholden to people at the fringes to maintain a fragile coalition.
My reference point is Israel: one party, for decades, managed to establish itself as basically the party of religion and corruption. It would join whichever coalition would pay its extortionate demands, and basically sapped resources straight out of the society and into its own coffers with impunity. Other times, moves in the peace process which had widespread public backing got stymied, because most of the parties on one side didn’t have quite enough support for that for their whole party to move over and join the coalition, but enough parties inside the coalition decided to oppose it (typically because they had some strong belief very far from the center) that the ruling coalition couldn’t push it through, either. Sometimes this led to mid-term reshufflings of coalitions, votes of no confidence, and general pause in everything until it could be resolved. Imagine the effects on, say, the world economy if the US were to do that — and the effects on the world as a whole if the economy were to tremble so easily.
On a related note, most people whom I know who advocate a multi-party system for the US lean to the left; but if there were a multi-party system, what I’d expect to see are big center-left and center-right parties (roughly analogous to our current parties), the next party over being a religious party, a horde of small left-wing parties, a smaller horde of small far-right parties, and some other non-aligned parties like the Libertarians. My money says that the right-wing fringe parties will win much more in this deal than the left-wing fringe parties, because they’re better organized and more prone to join a coalition — but they’ll demand some very specific concessions, and be able to leave a government and force elections on the spot if they aren’t listened to at every moment.
Oh yes, and one-party system, like that article suggests? Not likely. Who has incentive to support this candidate? Members of either the left or the right coalition are going to gain if their coalition wins power, not if a bipartisan coalition that they haven’t joined wins power. So effectively this behaves like any other third party.