Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Abyss Stares Also

There's been a lot of talk recently among people who dream of bringing the two-party system low, and ushering in a new era of three-party politics; with, of course, their own favorite third-party as the newcomer. They see their new party as a mediator, keeping the other two parties honest, and everyone, Republican, Democrat, and $NEWPARTIER alike will all be better off!

Let me lay this out in no uncertain terms: it won't happen; not like that anyway.

Here's the problem: it's a two-party system. I know what you're thinking, "This guy has no vision, no drive; history is written by those who believe in doing what others say can't be done; forget him!" No, that's not it at all. What I'm telling you is this: if you suceed—and I wish you the best of luck—it will not be by creating a three-party system where there was once a two-party system, it will be by destroying and taking the place of either the Republicans or the Democrats.

There are several lines of reasoning to support this; let's start with history. As I covered in a five part series late last summer, while parties have collapsed (Federalist), split (Democratic-Republicans), died (Whigs), and re-cast themselves over again (Democrats, Republicans), there has never simultaneously been more than two strong nation-wide parties. There are some people who seem to think that the Republican party began as a third-party movement and grew to supplant the Whigs, but that's not the case. The Whigs were well on their way to destruction when the Republican party formed among the despondent anti-slavery Whigs, and it then immediately attracted strong support from the anti-slavery faction of the Democrats. And this happened in a historical blink of an eye. In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs took over 43% of the vote. In 1856, they didn't even hold a convention, and the Republicans took over 33% of the vote. The change in congressional seats tells the same story; the complete supplantation of one party by another in just four years (and this rapid change rippled across America before the invention of the telephone, let alone the internet).

The second line of reasoning is mathematical. It really is a two-party system. This is an application of Duverger's Law, which is the tendency of all single-member plurality voting systems to favor just two parties (note: I would personally extend it to all single-member spoiler-prone voting systems, but Wikipedia disagrees with me.) No amount of wishful thinking, inspired begging, or hard work can ever change that. This doesn't mean that your dreams of power for your preferred third-party are hopeless, not by a long shot; it means that if you are successful, you will become (half of) the two-party system.

But before you get excited about that idea, let's pause for a moment. In 1860, this nation snapped. Yes, the two-party system changed, something that it seems everyone always wishes will happen, and yet something that so rarely does. And over 600,000 died, and the echoes from those battles still haunt our politics today.

Why do I advocate for better voting systems? Because the system we have now, that we've used for over 200 years, too easily allows for politics to become calcified, for the government to become unresponsive, for the people to become disengaged and despondent. And when that happens, the nation is ripe for corruption, disorder, and in the worst cases, civil war. Spoiler-free election systems would allow a smoother and more graceful transfer of power because they allow a third-party to rise up non-violently.

So, if you are successful, remember what happens to he who fights with monsters. And if you want your success to come more organically, consider supporting score and approval voting now.


  1. The U.S. had a 4-party system in 1854. There can be more than 2 strong parties simultaneously, for at least brief periods of time. Wisconsin had a 3-party system during 1934-1944 (Progressive, Democrat, Republican). In the Wisconsin State Senate after the 1934 election, there were 14 Progressives, 13 Democrats, and 6 Republicans. In the House there were 45 Progressives, 35 Democrats, 17 Republicans, 3 Socialists. By after the 1940 election there were 60 Republicans, 25 PRogressives, and 15 Democrats. No party had a majority in either house of the legislature after the 1936 election as well.

  2. I would quibble that 1854 was a fleeting transition-in-progress.

    I mean, can you even call the American/Know-Nothing party a party? Yes, in '54 they had almost 1/4 of the house, but they lost over 85% of that two years later, and went down hill from there. They were a blip, a road bump as the Whigs fell down and the Republicans rose up.

    But Wisconsin is still interesting; the Progressives there seem to have done better for themselves than even the Vermont Progressive party has done recently. Do you have links to further information; perhaps with seats-by-party for each year?

    But even here, Wikipedia says they were virtually swept from power in '38, four years after their dramatic rise. Again, even they held on for another six years before throwing in the towel, this looks like a Know-Nothing-esque blip.

    So sure, a three-party system can stand... for an election or two. It's inherently unstable though, and will collapse back to a stable two-party system, because that's the only stable configuration under single-member plurality elections.