Are More Parties Better Than Two Parties?
Despite occasionally strong performances by third parties, America is one of the few nations that has maintained an enduring two-party political system, beginning with the Federalist and Antifederalist parties in the postcolonial period. Today’s Democratic Party is the world’s oldest viable party; the younger Republican Party dates from the 1850s. America’s stubborn loyalty to its two parties has been complicated by persistent criticisms of both of them, including charges that they are not very different from each other and that they monopolize political power, choke off new ideas, and restrict the influx of new leaders with different ideas.
These and other criticisms have produced support for the idea of a multiparty system (any political system with three or more active parties is considered a multiparty system). American history supports the idea that third parties can help the political process. First, new parties can raise new and important issues ignored by the two major parties. In the pre–Civil War era, the Liberty and Free Soil parties advanced the cause of slavery abolition when the dominant Democratic and Whig parties were unable to come to grips with the issue. Early in the twentieth century, the Progressive Party advanced a vast array of social and political reforms that Democrats and Republicans eventually embraced. Ross Perot’s Reform Party moved issues such as deficit spending and budgetary responsibility to center stage in 1992. Second, as these examples suggest, a third-party option gives voters more choices among candidates and issues, addressing a persistent voter complaint. Third, most democratic nations have a multiparty system, showing that the idea not only is viable but is a routine part of the workings of democracy. Fourth, new parties might spark renewed voter interest in an electoral system that now attracts fewer than half of the eligible adult electorate to the voting booth. And fifth, states such as Minnesota and New York have maintained an active multiparty tradition (although in these states, the two major parties still dominate), suggesting that some version of the idea could indeed work on a national level.
Supporters of a two-party system argue that the virtues of the existing system are taken for granted. First and foremost, a two-party system produces automatic majorities, for the obvious reason that one will always receive more than 50 percent of the vote. In a nation as large and diverse as America, governance could easily become impossible, or at least far more difficult, if multiple parties produced a bevy of candidates with no clear winner, or if American legislatures were populated with representatives from many different parties, barring any one party from organizing power. A second and related point is that the compromises that produce two candidates from two large parties also generally encourage moderation, compromise, and stability. Multiple parties might well heighten polarization and paralysis in America in a way that would make contemporary political gridlock seem tame by comparison. And although many democracies have multiparty systems, politics in those nations is often polarized and unstable. The Italian multiparty system, for example, produced over forty different governing coalitions in its first fifty years after the end of World War II. Third, the charge of exclusion of new factions and ideas by the two parties misses the fact that the two American parties are large and diverse. In other nations, political conflict plays out among multiple parties. In America, much of that conflict occurs within the parties, especially during the nomination process. Fourth, America’s enduring two-party system is a product of its political culture and historical development. The idea that a multiparty system could simply be transplanted onto the American political landscape is a leap of faith little supported by actual experience.