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Next to England, the United States has the second oldest party system in the world. And for 160 years, that party system has been dominated by Democrats and Republicans, even though most voters see features of both parties that they don’t like and don’t respect. How is it that we end up with this perverse result?

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It has to do with how our government is structured and the rules that govern our elections. Most important is the fact that we have a “presidential” system, as distinguished from a “parliamentary” system. In our system executive authority is vested in a president who is elected for a fixed term and cannot be removed except by impeachment by Congress. The president is by far the most powerful official in the country, and is not dependent on the support of the Congress to hold office. In a parliamentary system (like Germany or the United Kingdom), the executive (prime minister or chancellor) hold office only so long as she/he has a majority in the parliament.

So we have this very powerful office to which individuals are elected. Because whoever gets the most votes wins the election, this puts intense pressures on voters to maximize the size of the coalition they support (their party), even if they must compromise on some issues to do so.

It’s actually even worse because we have this peculiar anachronism called the Electoral College. So instead of having a single national election, we have elections in each state, where whoever gets the most votes wins ALL THE STATE’S ELECTORAL VOTES (except in Maine and Nebraska, where whoever wins each congressional district wins one electoral vote). The Electoral College magnifies the winner-take-all character of the presidential election, thereby increasing the pressure on voters to compromise in order to maximize their coalitions.

Fundamentally, we have a two-party system because our government is presidential and because our elections at all levels are winner-take-all.

And, almost all other elections, from local to the United States Senate, also have winner-take-all: the one person to be elected will be the one with the most votes. (Again, Maine is an exception: they have recently gone to ranked choice voting in most elections: the voter ranks the candidates, and if the preferred candidate falls short, the voter’s second-choice will get the vote.) But the basic point is that up and down the ballot, the one person elected to an office will be the candidate with the most votes. The same logic prevails: voters are strongly pressured to compromise to maximize their coalition.

Fundamentally, we have a two-party system because our government is presidential and because our elections at all levels are winner-take-all.

But why do we have THESE parties? We have the Republicans and Democrats because we have them. In any election, by taking her vote away from the established party she prefers a voter enhances the chance that the established party she opposes will win. Of course, maybe she hates both established parties equally, but most voters in practice will be closer to one or the other established party.

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What would it take to break the Republican/Democrat duopoly? It’s happened only once, in 1860. Before that we had the Democrats and the Whigs, both of which tried with decreasing success to maximize their coalitions by systematically avoiding the most divisive issue of the day: slavery. The Republican Party emerged in the 1850s with an unambiguous stance on that issue: they wanted to stop the spread of slavery to the territories, and eventually to end it.

Confronting this challenge, the Whigs simply collapsed. Their northern supporters moved to the Republicans, the Southern Whigs became Democrats. But the Democrats were also divided in 1860: there were three distinct Democratic candidates for president. The result was that the Republican, Abraham Lincoln, with a minority of the popular vote, managed a majority in the Electoral College by getting the most votes in enough states to capture the Electoral College majority.

Since then there have been many attempts to supplant one or the other of the major parties, but all have failed. Most Third Party or independent campaigns have been irrelevant to the outcome, but some have taken enough votes from one of the parties to shift the outcome. Most clearly that is what happened in 1912, 1968 and 1992. Some have made the argument that Nader voters in 2000 shifted enough states to give George W. Bush enough states that the outcome in Florida was decisive.

It could be different, but it would take major changes in the iron cage of our political institutions. If we had a parliamentary system like the British or the Canadians, it would be easier to develop a multiparty system, even though both those countries still use winner-take-all elections. In the absence of the overwhelmingly important presidential election, regional parties (like the Scottish Nationalists in Britain, or the Parti Québecois in Canada) would find it easier to actually win elections on their home turf.

If our elections were proportional rather than winner-take-all, new parties would find it much easier to emerge and win seats in legislatures. The Scandinavian countries all use proportional representation, and all have multiple parties that form coalitions to control parliamentary majorities.

If you’re unhappy with the choices presented by the two major parties, join the club. Most people who pay even a little attention to politics are unhappy with their choices. Sometimes, when the winner of an election is clear beforehand (one thinks of 1932 and the defeat of Herbert Hoover) a third party vote might be satisfying. But mostly, our rational choice will be to support “the lesser of evils.” The place to start working for change is in the institutions (the presidential system, winner-take-all). Until we change those, voters who go for third parties are wasting their time—and their vote.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler

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