A multiparty system is better than a two-party system!

I have started, or contributed to, several GD threads about electoral reforms that would open the field in American politics to parties other than the Republicrats:

“What do you think about proportional representation in the US House of Reps?”

“Instant-runoff voting: avoiding the third-party “spoiler” problem”
Instant-runoff voting: avoiding the third-party “spoiler” problem

“Yet another electoral-system reform: “ballot fusion,” or “cross-endorsement””

“Should the U.S. adopt alternative, pro-multipartisan voting systems?”

In these threads, I and other pro-reform Dopers have argued mainly on the grounds that such systems are more fair and democratic than a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system. (See note* at the end of this OP.)

But in this thread, I want to turn the question around and look at it in terms of the likely practical results – such reforms almost certainly would lead to a multi-party political system in place of our current two-party system. And I wish to propose this argument for debate: A multi-party system is better than a two-party system, in and of itself. For the following reasons:
1. A two-party system inflates the importance of the “center” while marginalizing all other viewpoints.

A lot of people assume that the American electorate is “centrist” or “center-seeking.” It only appears that way because we have only two important parties, and each one can take a wide swath of public opinion pretty much for granted. The Republican Party has actually done very little to implement the agenda of religious conservatives – but what are the chances they’ll vote Democrat? That leaves only the “swing voters” at the center to be fought over, and all campaign rhetoric is directed at them. This gives a false impression that the American people’s views form a kind of “bell curve” that bulges at the center. But that is not true.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, from 1987 through 1999, conducted several studies of Americans’ political attitudes, based on telephone surveys, and developed the Pew Political Typology (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=98). They found the people fall into ten groups of roughly equal size. (Click on this link – http://helios.acomp.usf.edu/~jfbohren/floridairvcoalition/pew_typology.htm – and you can see a pie chart I’ve prepared, with descriptions of each group.)

PARTY ID: 72% Republican; 24% Independent, Lean Republican

PARTY ID: 76% Republican; 22% Independent, Lean Republican

PARTY ID: 72% Republican; 25% Independent, Lean Republican

PARTY ID: 69% Independent, 21% Republican, 5% Democrat

PARTY ID: 73% Independent, 8% Democrat, 6% Republican

PARTY ID: 56% Democrat; 41% Independent, Lean Democrat

PARTY ID: 70% Democrat; 27% Independent, Lean Democrat

PARTY ID: 75% Democrat; 21% Independent, Lean Democrat

PARTY ID: 85% Democrat; 12% Independent, Lean Democrat

PARTY ID: 54% Independent, 25% Democrat, 10% Republican
2. A multiparty system is more intelligent than a two-party system.

A legislative assembly is supposed to be, among other things, a sort of collective brain for society. But a two-party system distorts its habits of thinking by reducing everything to two alternatives. In fact, there are almost always many more than two sides to every question. An individual who realizes this, and who always looks at a problem from all sides and considers all the possibilities before making a decision, is much wiser than a person who habitually reduces any question or problem to just two alternatives. And so it is in a parliament or congress. A legislature composed of several different blocs with very different ways of thinking is a much more intelligent “collective brain” than a two-party legislature, even if the average intelligence of its individual members is not one point higher.

For example: A Libertarian of my aquaintance once argued forcefully for solving transportation problems by deregulating the jitney business – allowing anybody who has a car to become an independent full-time or part-time cab driver, without any stringent licensing requirements (or at any rate, without any limitations on the number of licenses issued). He had very persuasive arguments, which I won’t go into here. The point is, it might be a good idea, and nobody but a Libertarian would ever have thought of it, and under our present system it is unlikely any Libertarian would be in a position to try to persuade our public councils of its wisdom. But if we had a multiparty system, that and all other kinds of ideas could be seriously proposed and discussed. Which leads into my next point:
3. A multiparty system widens the range of policy options that can be seriously placed on the public agenda for discussion.

A two-party system tends to freeze out certain points of view and render certain things off-limits to discussion on the grounds that they are “obviously” unthinkable, or politically impossible.

For instance, we’ve had a lot of threads on this board about legalizing marijuana. A lot of Americans smoke marijuana regularly and occasionally get into trouble with the law for it. Marijuana offenders make up a large part of our state and federal prison populations. But how much discussion does this issue get where it counts?


CONGRESSCRITTER A: “I’d like to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana. How do you think I should go about it?”

CONGRESSCRITTER B: “You’re joking, right?”

CONGRESSCRITTER A: “I’d like to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana. How do you think I should go about it?”

CONGRESSCRITTER B: “Well, the Libertarians will back it for sure, you don’t even have to ask. Ditto with the Greens. The Constitution Party will be dead against it. So will the America First Party, and probably the Populist Party – it’s a moral issue to all of them. The Business Republicans – well, they’ll at least be open to the idea – in fact, the tobacco companies will jump at the chance to branch into a new product; but there’ll be a lot of negotiation on terms and details and age limits. The Social Democrats will be for it if the new marijuana industry is adequately regulated and taxed . . . No guarantees, but it’s got a shot if you push it hard enough . . .”
Or substitute your own favorite Issue that Dare Not Speak Its Name – single-payer health care, abolishing Medicare, abolishing the IRS, taxing away all private incomes above $100,000, abolishing NAFTA, expanding NAFTA, paring down the defense establishment, reviving the draft, getting government out of education entirely, death penalty for drug dealing, outlawing organized labor, outlawing non-organized labor, etc., etc. All open for discussion. And no one party in a position to call the shots by itself. The change would not necessarily move the political center of gravity left or right or up or down; it would, however, make public policy a vector sum of more different vectors.

4. In a multiparty system, each party could play a constructive role of its own.

In a multiparty system, there likely would not be any majority party in Congress or any state legislature, every again. Every party would have to concentrate on what it could contribute as a permanent minority party. This might be a problem if we had a parliamentary system, where the parliament must “form a government,” and put together a coalition for the purpose if no majority is elected. But in the U.S., at the federal and state level, we use the separation-of-powers system – the president or govenor is elected separately from the legislature, and appoints his or her own cabinet secretaries. (Or else, in some states, some of the secretaries are elected on their own – that’s a detail.)

If we had a multiparty political system, I expect legislative “coalitions” would form, but they would be momentary and issue-specific.

E.g., suppose a scenario where the parties represented in Congress are the following:

1. Republican Party (http://www.rnc.org/) – a remnant left after the religious-social conservatives, the libertarians, and the nativistist-isolationist-populists all split off and go their own way. This party would be more purely (and more obviously) the party of established business interests and of agressive foreign-policy neoconservatism. Mostly pro-choice on abortion.

2. America First Party – (http://www.americafirstparty.org/) – Pat Buchanan’s new party. It already exists, but if we moved to PR it might find itself augmented by a mass exodus from the Republican Party. Nativist-isolationist-populist, with a solid base in working-class religious people, especially Roman Catholics like Buchanan himself. Socially conservative, pro-life, against immigration, but also hostile to big business, big government, economic globalization, NAFTA, WTO, and American military adventures abroad. Hostile to the Iraq War, hostile to American support of Israel.

3. Constitution Party – (http://www.constitution-party.net/) – the party of the Religious Right. Already exists, might get bigger. Rooted in Southern Evangelical Protestantism. Agenda would be as it is now – ban abortion, revive school prayer, support vouchers and home schooling, etc. Also would be supportive, for religious reasons, of American support of Israel and military intervention in the Middle East – which would be its main point of difference with America First. Mainly a middle-class and working-class party, which on most economic issues would align with America First, Labor, the Greens and the Progressives – and against the elite-dominated Democrats and Republicans.

4. Libertarian Party – (http://www.lp.org/) – again, already exists, would get bigger. Different from the Republican Party in being pro-market, not pro-business – would deregulate businesses, but also would refuse to bail out foundering corporations or award sweetheart porkbarrel contracts. Also hostile to the national-security state, the military-industrial complex, and foreign military adventuring. Pro-choice, pro-legalizing drugs, anti-welfare-state, anti-big government.

5. Democratic Party – (http://www.democrats.org/) – again, a remnant, after several groupings now under the Dem “big tent” go their own way. This party would represent “neoliberalism,” economic globalization, the politics of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Socially liberal but inclined to ally with the Republicans on business-related issues.

6. Labor Party – a party rooted in working-class people who are more liberal than the America Firsters, but still pretty socially conservative. Centered on the labor unions and devoted to fighting for working-class interests. Would be pro-choice on abortion but with reservations. Might form around what is now a very small Labor Party (http://www.thelaborparty.org/), founded in 1996, which has never yet run candidates for office.

7. Green Party – (http://www.gp.org/) – environmentalist, tinged with a concern for “social justice” that differs from most models of socialism in being highly decentralist.

8. Progressive Party – a party for all the real “leftists” in American politics, other than the Greens – communists, socialists, social democrats, radical feminists. Similar to the Labor Party, but different in being more socially liberal. (This is what I had in mind in my recent GD thread: “What are the chances for a broad party of American leftists and progressives?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=267521.)

9. Independence Party – (http://www.mnip.org/) – again, already exists – when the Reform Party split in 2000, its main factions formed America First and Independence. This is the party of John Anderson – and Jesse Ventura, in Minnesota. As with some others, might get bigger if we adopted IRV and PR. It would be “Progressive” in the older, early-20th-century sense of the term – devoted to good government, honest, transparent, vigorous and effective government, but also fiscal responsibility with no deficit spending. Devoted to a technocratic, professional vision of government that purports to transcend ideology, class interests and partisanship – an old Progressive slogan was, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street.” Would agree with the Libertarians on most social issues.

Now, if we had all these parties in Congress, they might align in different ways on different issues.

E.g., if you introduce legislation to drastically pare down America’s defense spending, the Progressives, the Greens, the Libertarians, and the America First Party all would support it. The Republicans and the Constitution Party would be against it. The Democrats, the Independence Party and the Labor Party might be split.

If you introduced a bill to recognize gay marriage, the Greens, Progressives, Independence Party and Libertarians would be for it. The Constitution Party and the America Firsters would be against it. The Democrats, Republicans, and Labor Party might be split and might push for a compromise solution like “civil unions.”

If you proposed legalizing marijuana, the Republicans might be open to the idea (as presenting new opportunities for the tobacco industry to branch into a new product). The Progressives would require only that the new marijuana industry be properly regulated and taxed. Libertarians, Greens and Independence would support it. The America First and Constitution parties would be against it. Labor might be split.

If you introduced some strict new environmental-protection legislation, the Greens and Progressives would be for it, the Libertarians and the Republicans would be against it, and everybody else would want to carefully study each element of the proposal before making up their minds. E.g., Labor would be environmentalist in principle but they wouldn’t want to do anything that might eliminate jobs.

And so on.

In each case, nothing actually gets done unless a given proposal can muster support from enough different groupings to make up a voting majority.

And if there’s “logrolling” – e.g., the Libertarians agreeing to support Republican proposal X only if the Republicans support decriminalizing pot – what’s wrong with that? We’ve got logrolling now. This change just adds more logs.

It also adds more information, more content. For instance: The Libertarians might never get their way all the way on anything. But there will be a few of them on every Congressional committee, state-legislative committee, county commission, etc. They would always be there to put forth arguments as to why this or that regulation should be eliminated or simplified, this tax should be cut, this course of government action should be avoided. And sometimes, they will be persuasive. The Greens will always be there to point out how this proposed policy affects the environment, the Progressives and Labor to call attention to how it affects the working class and the poor, Constitution to criticize in terms of America’s moral traditions.

While all this is going on, we still have only one president in the White House – a president who probably won on a “fusion” ticket, being the acceptable choice of several different parties who have agreed more or less to work together, at least for this election cycle. Sometimes the president would be a joint choice of the Democrats and Republicans, and would solidly favor globalization and business interests. Sometimes he might be a Labor-America First nominee and always support the interests of the working class. Sometimes he might be an America First-Constitution choice and fight for social conservatism. Or a Green-Progressive-Labor president who would be socially liberal and fight for the working class and environmental protection. But, at any rate, only one president at a time, steering the ship of state in one direction – which direction would be a vector sum, just like now, but involving more vectors than are in play now.

(*The more-democracy-and-fairness line of argument essentially comes down to the following: Suppose there were a few hundred people attending a New England direct-democracy town meeting. I and a few likeminded citizens stand up at the meeting and propose something – something relevant to municipal government – that is a very radical fringe idea by the standards of this community. Now, nobody says we have a right to get our way, even if we few are absolutely right on this particular point and everybody else in the whole town is wrong. But the rest of the meeting does have to listen, so long as we speak in turn and in order and in the time alloted by whatever rules of order the meeting uses. And who knows? Maybe if we present our case well enough, we might sway public opinion our way – or part of the way to our way – maybe not at this meeting, but maybe at the next one. In the final analysis, however, nothing is going to get done, no definite change is going to be made, until a majority is persuaded to vote for it. That’s the way deliberative democracy should work. Now, of course, the U.S. is not a New England village, it is a nation of close to 300 million people. We can’t all get together in a national meeting, or even a state or county meeting. So we elect representatives to meet and discuss public affairs in our stead. That’s called representative democracy. But the representatives are supposed to think, more or less, the same way the people think. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, I forget which one, remarked that the legislature should be “as exact a transcript as possible” of the general public. Another commentator has said that the legislature should be a “miniature portrait” of the electorate. But our winner-take-all single-member-district system produces a legislature that is not a miniature portrait, but a distorted image from a funhouse mirror, with some elements grotesquely exaggerated and others shrunk to invisibility. A change to PR can reduce that distortion.)

Unless “A multiparty system is better than a two-party system!” is the title of the latest Christina Aguilera album, you have placed this in the wrong forum. :smiley:

I thought Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was more of an existential exercise than a political commentary.

Mods must be on vacation. I reported this 15 minutes ago, and they still haven’t responded.

  1. Is this really a Cafe Society topic?

  2. In any case … Here in New Zealand, we switched over to a more-or-less proportional voting system a few years ago. Lot of parties represented in Parliament now, but the world doesn’t seem to have ended. :smiley:

What we have found is that every govenment since the switch has been a coalition. Some people seem to think that that’s bad, but I’m not sure why. After all, it means that in order to get a bill passed, the dominant party actually has to persuade someone else that it’s a good idea. That’s bad?

Sorry. I posted this in CS by mistake. I have posted a duplicate thread in GD and posted to this thread asking the mods to delete, but apparently the hamsters ate that post.

OK, I’m closing this one. Go to ]A multiparty system is better than a two-party system – the Great Debates thread to discuss.

Hey, you’re complaining because a mod didn’t see this for an hour or so? … some of us have lives, on a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon.