Frustration alone will not change the two-party system


With much fanfare, former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang joined moderate Republicans, including former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, to announce a new centrist political party, Forward. The goal is laudable: to avoid the increasingly difficult choices of two sides, each meeting the demands of their strident base.

But without serious structural change, Forward’s mission cannot succeed. Commentators point to the risk of Forward breaking the Democratic Party, benefiting Trump’s Republican Party in the upcoming midterm elections, or worse, the 2024 general election. The concern is not silent. In our political system, third parties have historically played a confusing role, either as spoilers, taking advantage of the major party that was ideologically further removed from the voter who supported them, as Ralph Nader did with Al Gore in 2000, or the outcome between the two major party candidates. randomly, voters draw from both sides, betting on which a multiple will rule. Bill Clinton won his first presidential election with 43 percent of the vote. Although Ross Perot eventually got more votes from George HW Bush, his candidacy posed risks for both major candidates.

This helps explain why Yang announced Forward’s plan to support Democratic or Republican primary candidates who support his new party’s platform, rather than leading her own presidential candidate. But there’s no reason to believe that the Forward endorsement will suddenly make moderates who have failed in the past succeed. Forward also endorses ranked elective voting and open primaries. For this to work, we either need candidates who represent multiple parties, which Forward says they don’t, or we need to interfere with the constitutional protections parties have in choosing the procedures for selecting their nominees.

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Yang notes that two-thirds of Americans are frustrated with our two-party system. I’m there with them, and that’s why I’m writing a book about how to make serious change that allows real third parties to flourish. The trouble is, frustration alone won’t change the system that produces it.

Consider the well-known game known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Police separate two individuals charged with a crime, telling them that if both remain silent, they will each be convicted of a minor offense and sentenced to six months. If one betrays the other and the other keeps silent, the rat runs and the silent one is sentenced to five years. If both reject state evidence and betray the other, each will be sentenced to three years. The best combined strategy is for everyone to be silent, but with pencil and paper it is easy to see that, by acting rationally, each prisoner betrays the other, leading to a worse result of each three years.

One of the most profound insights of game theory is that recognizing that you are in a prisoner’s dilemma will not get you out of it. The fact that two-thirds of our electorate are frustrated with our electoral system doesn’t mean that the will to create a third party will make it stick. A better result calls for a better game. The only way to actually produce third (or more) parties is through structural reforms, creating a market that rewards rather than punishes those who support them.

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We have a two-party system because of direct elections for both Congress and the presidency. French political scientist and lawyer Maurice Duverger noted that direct district elections, as in the US and UK, lead to two-party systems. But two-party systems are not inevitable. Around the world, democracies routinely have multiple parties, although not all multiparty systems do well. Scholars have noted that some multi-party systems are prone to serious administrative challenges in assembling governing coalitions, and in cases of extreme fragmentation, this can lead to corruption and bribery.

The most difficult task in devising a well-run democratic system is to achieve the Goldilocks principle – striking a good balance, with not too many parties and not too few. There are ways to do this, but the way forward is not simply to call out a new party, at the risk of making things worse in a system that is not structured to accommodate it.

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It is true that in the US we have had more than two parties at various times in our history. The Republican Party has irreparably broken an earlier party, once known as the Whigs. But it did this by driving a wedge separating the Whigs who were willing to accommodate slavery and the Whigs who refused to do so. Once that happened, there was no room for the Whig party, even as the Republicans themselves were divided on how to end slavery. Our system changed from one two-party system, Democrats and Whigs, to another, Democrats and Republicans. Those two parties have dominated our politics ever since.

The difficulty facing Forward is that there is no clear means by which that party will displace the Democratic or the Republican parties. It’s a hopeful gamble, but a gamble nonetheless. If it fails, Forward’s leaders will not bear the cost. We all will. The better way forward is not to declare a third party. It is to engage in serious conversations about the necessary structural reforms needed to create space for real third parties to thrive.

Max Stearns, JD, is the Venable, Baetjer & Howard Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. His forthcoming book “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radiically Repairing Our Broken Democracy” will be published in 2024 by Johns Hopkins University Press.



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