A Look at Different Party Systems
With Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats like never before and bipartisanship quickly becoming a thing of the past, the need for a solution to the growing crisis that is political polarization is greater than ever. For example, bipartisanship in Congress has decreased 30% over the past 29 years as measured by the decreasing rate of Congressmen cosponsoring bills of the opposite party. Furthermore, Congress has recently been introducing more bills but enacting fewer than ever compared to the last fourteen Congresses. One prospective solution that many people like to throw around is the U.S. beginning to adopt a multiparty system instead of the existing two-party system. Proponents of a multiparty system in the U.S. believe that having many parties as opposed to two dominant ones will foster greater political compromise and decreased political gridlock. Given the seeming popularity of changing the country’s party system, I think it would be informative to take a look at the different types of party systems.
A multiparty system is exactly what it sounds like: there tends to be more than two viable (feasibly electable) political parties in a multiparty system. What makes more political parties viable in the multiparty system as opposed to the two-party system? The answer lies in the electoral system of a given country. Multiparty systems tend to exist in countries with proportional representation, like in Germany, while two-party systems tend to exist in countries with a winner-take-all system. Also, multiparty systems are more common in countries with a parliamentary system than with a presidential system, as is the case with Germany once again.
Proportional representation works by guaranteeing seats in the legislature to a political party based on the number of votes they received. For example, if a political party won two percent of the vote in an election, that political party would be guaranteed two percent of the seats in the legislature. In addition, there are different types of proportional representation systems as well. The most popular of these systems is a party list proportional representation system, being used in 85 of the 94 countries with proportional representation. In such a system, the voter is essentially choosing from a selection of lists of candidates prepared by each political party. The more votes a political party receives, the more people from the party list are elected. However, different countries with proportional representation have different electoral thresholds. An electoral threshold refers to the minimum percent of the vote that a political party must receive to ensure any seats in a legislature. For instance, if a country’s electoral threshold is five percent, a political party that receives two percent of the vote will not get two percent of the seats in the legislature because they did not exceed the electoral threshold. Electoral thresholds are critical because too low an electoral threshold — like in Italy — leads to a highly fragmented legislature and unstable government. Meanwhile, Turkey, which has the highest electoral threshold in the world at 10%, had 46.33% of the votes (or 14,545,438 votes) go unrepresented in parliament in 2002.
With so many political parties in the equation in a multiparty system, it is unlikely that any one political party will have a majority in the legislature. As a result, a coalition government has to be formed, which tend to be less stable and have less political power due to their heterogeneous and fragile nature.
A coalition essentially consists of political parties teaming up to form a majority in the legislature to implement a government that will work to advance their presumably similar policy goals. However, being made up of multiple different entities might lead to instability in coalition governments. For instance, a coalition might have to include potentially dangerous fringe parties whose policy goals will have to be taken seriously by a majority party or risk disbanding the coalition. The effectiveness of coalition governments is determined by the discipline of the involved political parties. Undisciplined parties that allow their legislators to vote on their own (against party preference) often lead to short-lived coalitions with little power as was the case with the Third French Republic. On the other hand, parties are often stricter with how legislators vote when a coalition forms to oppose a coalition on the other side of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, these opposing and polarizing coalitions lead to the same problems as those facing two-party systems. On the flip side of polarizing coalitions are centrist coalitions, in which center-left and center-right political parties band together to fight off political extremists. Centrist coalitions are not perfect either because while limiting radical beliefs, the government becomes unresponsive to change. The center left and farther left compromising may lead to slow leftward change, but the center left and center right compromising may lead to no change at all as was the case with Germany amid the Weimar Republic with Catholic centrists and social democrats teaming up.
America’s existing two-party system is one in which two political parties have always been dominant. Even long before the current struggle between Democrats and Republicans, Federalists and Anti-Federalists were hotly debating how strong the federal government ought to be while writing the Constitution. No third-party movement has ever really taken off in the U.S. because of our first past the post, winner-take-all elections. Instead of proportional representation, seats in the legislature are tied to a geographic district. Whether or not a candidate wins a majority (51%) of the vote, the candidate with the most votes wins.
Due to this system, voters know that third parties have no real chance of winning office in such a system and have to choose between the Democratic or Republican party. Essentially, voting for someone who finishes in second place or lower means your vote doesn’t count. Also, the inclusion of a new party in a two-party system means allowing the other party victory, often for decades on end, as evidenced by the transition of political parties from Federalists and Democratic-Republican Party to Whigs and Democrats to today’s two parties, as similar political parties split the vote so that a contrasting party will win.
In a system of proportional representation — which the U.S. does not have — votes for a second place finisher would still count toward a political party. In contrast, plurality voting — which the U.S. does have — makes it so that votes for anyone but the first place finisher don’t count. Therefore, third party candidates have to demonstrate that they have a solid chance of winning, or else voters will just be throwing away votes on them. Another reason why third parties have struggled in the U.S. is that voters are afraid to split the vote. For instance, third party candidate Ralph Nader is blamed for stealing Democratic votes that might otherwise have tipped the presidential election in Al Gore’s favor during the 2000 presidential election.
America’s two-party system suffers from the hyperpolarization pervading politics lately. In a world with so many problems that require bipartisan solutions, political polarization is making it so that less and less is achieved by Congress. In a world with so many problems, more effort seems to be devoted to partisan conflict than coming to compromises on how to fix those problems. Adopting a multiparty system could encourage bipartisanship, but multiparty systems come with their own set of problems. Whether we simply tweak our current party system or replace it entirely, something needs to be done to address the lack of inter-party cooperation within Congress.