The American Two Party System is Actually Pretty Great

by Benjamin Studebaker

There are lots of folks who think that the answer to America’s woes are more political parties, and the way to get more political parties is to adopt electoral reforms which move America in the direction of continental European-style proportional representation. I used to like electoral reform once upon a time, but I have increasingly become convinced that this is not only never going to happen but it is actually a bad idea. Here’s why.

The story we hear for electoral reform goes something like this–the two parties are corrupt and really bad, and no one bothers to vote for third parties (which are pure and good) because no one believes they can actually win. But if we had proportional representation (PR), then people who vote for third parties would be able to win offices with very small vote shares. If you voted third party, you’d no longer be throwing your vote away. Then, everyone could turn from the evil and very bad two parties and vote for the pure and good third parties, and we’d all live happily ever after.

It’s a nice story and I bought it when I was 18. When you go to Europe, they tell you more lovely things about PR–it makes the political system more democratic and the countries which have PR are more economically equal than the countries without it. Look at the Netherlands’ top 1% income share. It’s barely moved in decades:

In 2011, Britain had a referendum on electoral reform–not PR, but “alternative vote”, which was a modest step in that direction. I supported alternative vote at that time, a little over a year before I started this blog. But then I started observing what actually goes on in the European countries that have PR. It’s less cool than you might think.

The key thing is that nearly all the governments are coalition governments, because the electorate fragments into a bunch of little pieces. The lower the voting threshold for representation in the legislature, the more fragmented things become. In Germany, where the threshold is 5%, there are seven parties represented in parliament. In the most recent election, Merkel’s party won 32.9% of the vote. In the Netherlands, where the threshold is 1%, 13 parties won seats and the lead party came away with just 21.3% of the vote. It’s incredibly difficult to win a majority without a coalition.

What’s more, it’s pretty much impossible to form a governing coalition which doesn’t include a centrist or center-right element, so the left never gets to do anything interesting. In Germany, Merkel’s center-right party is in a coalition with the center-left social democrats. Previously, it was in a coalition with the social democrats. Before that, it was in a coalition with the center-right free democrats. Before that, it was in coalition with the social democrats again. Before that, the social democrats were in coalition with the greens, but both the social democrats and the greens were committed to third way politics, so it didn’t really matter. That’s the other thing–most of the center-left parties in Europe still moved to the right in the 80s and 90s, just like their British and American counterparts. The last time a proper left-wing government governed Germany without a coalition with a centrist party was…never. That is not a thing that has happened.

If we look at the Netherlands, the situation is even more ridiculous. The current government includes the center-right VVD, the Christian democrats, the socially liberal D66, and the Christian Union. The previous government was VVD with the Labour Party. Before that it was VVD with the Christian Democrats. Before that it was the two Christian parties with Labour. Before that it was the Christian Democrats with VVD. Before that it was the Christian Democrats with VVD with D66. Before that it was the Christian Democrats with right wing populists and VVD. The Dutch haven’t had a Prime Minister from a center-left party since 1998, but even then Labour was in coalition with VVD and D66. Every single Dutch government since World War II has been a coalition government including at least one centrist or center-right party.

So why are countries with proportional representation more equal? Because once you introduce policies into a country with PR which create and maintain a more equal distribution of wealth, the PR system makes it almost impossible to change that. The whole country becomes mired in path dependency. People say PR is democratic, but it strips democracy of one of its main advantages–the ability to throw the bums out and try new things. In countries with PR, the bums play musical chairs, and everything is always the same.

How did continental Europe get these policies? They’re mostly due to World War II and the Cold War. After the war, these European countries were devastated, and the United States was worried that they were going to go communist. So the Truman administration approved the Marshall Plan, which gave piles of foreign aid to America’s western European allies. The idea was that the Europeans would avoid communism by creating powerful welfare states and strong public services. America paid for the Europeans to do this stuff and proportional representation makes it difficult for them to change any of it unless there is a mighty national consensus in favour of doing so. And don’t think we didn’t have a hand in that either–Americans often had significant influence over the post-war constitutions in liberated European states. These constitutions were designed to keep the left far from power, and they’ve been very successful at doing just that. It’s reductive (because of course there were many Europeans who struggled for this and politically contributed to it), but you could argue that the Truman administration New Dealers deliberately installed social democracy in Europe to stop communism. Without American money and support, the European welfare states would have died on the vine and the Soviets might well have overrun the west.

Image result for marshall plan

This is largely how all the mid-century concessions were won–the state got scared of communists, especially anti-war communists, and threw jobs and money and free stuff at people until they were so pleased with their situations that they forgot all about communism. In the meantime, the communist countries–which were poorer–could never keep up, and the comparison gradually shredded their morale.

Of course, we Americans didn’t get the benefit of Europe’s ultra-New Deal, because shortly after the Marshall Plan was approved we drifted into the Second Red Scare. The Republicans were conflating the New Deal with communism and destroying the reputations and livelihoods of all the New Dealers they could get their hands on. The Democrats began pulling right in a bid to ward these accusations off. But prior to this, the entire blueprint for contemporary social democracy came more or less directly from the late period Roosevelt administration, which was in the early 40s arguably the furthest left of any democratically elected government which had existed up until that time. The left-wing governments which had won in Britain, France, and Germany in the 20s were relatively orthodox in their economic policy, did everything they could to stay on the gold standard, and got blamed for the depression.

We invented proper, functioning mid-century social democracy, and we did it with the two-party system. The two-party system got Franklin Roosevelt on the radio in 1944 calling for a second bill of economic rights:

The two-party system also landed us with Vice President Henry Wallace in 1944. Wallace ran for president on a third party ticket in 1948, got endorsed by the Communist Party during the height of the Red Scare, and refused to disavow their endorsement. If FDR had died in 1944 instead of 1945, Wallace would have been president. Somewhere between 1940 and 1948, Wallace moved from “Vice Presidential material” to “can’t even run as a Democrat”. Historians have since discovered from Soviet documents that during the Truman years Wallace reported to the Kremlin. That’s how far left the Democratic Party was in the early 40s.

Today, Americans love to essentialize the Democratic Party as this unchanging, centrist, icky thing. But it has changed immeasurably over the course of its lifespan, moving a significant distance to the left even in the first half of the 20th century, when decisions about who would run for office were made by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms. In the 70s, the smoke-filled rooms were gutted–you can now run on the Democratic Party ballot line if you can scrounge up enough primary votes. This makes it much easier to change the Democratic Party than it is to change any of the European center-left and left-wing parties, most of which still select their candidates behind closed doors through a top-down approach. But hey, in Europe you can always start a new hopeless party which will never govern alone.

So far, it’s the center which has made the most of the Democratic Party’s openness–not the left. The left has struggled in America not because of the party system or the structure of the Democratic Party, but because for nearly half a century the American identity has been defined by the right as anti-communist, and therefore any leftward drift at all–even mere social democracy–has been equated, again and again, with un-American activities. When Ronald Reagan opposed Medicare, he claimed it would make us like the Soviets and he insinuated that the Democrats wanted to do it because they were communist dupes:

And yet despite all this–even as late as the 60s, when the Johnson administration shunted Medicare through–the Democratic Party was debuting new social programs that really did make a difference for people.

Today, the Cold War is over. Its impact on our domestic politics is wearing off. We should rediscover what has long been the truth–that our two-party system is actually pretty good, and we can do a lot with it.

The main obstacle in our system is not the party system or the electoral system, it’s the sheer number of offices there are to win. The House, the Senate, the state legislatures, the governorships–you need piles and piles of them to overcome the federal system’s checks and balances and push cool new stuff through. That’s not going to change anytime soon. We have to work with what we’ve got. But at least we have something to work with. Many Europeans are stuck with proportional representation, and they’ll keep electing the same collections of misfit toys over and over again. And we’ve seen that it is possible to win powerful, dominant majorities in America with the right message at the right time. Roosevelt had 75 Democrats in the senate out of 96. Did the New Dealers do enough? No. But they did a lot more than the Democratic Party of 1928, which nominated Al Smith for president. Smith hated the New Deal so much, he supported the Republicans in 1936 and 1940. The Democrats went from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt in four years. Without primaries. At a time when our campaign finance laws were so full of holes that we have no idea how much most campaigns spent or where their money came from.

So many people think the past tells a story of an unchanging Democratic Party, of an unchanging party system. What it really tells us is a story of unexpected, unanticipated shock realignments, in which the two-party system is constantly morphing to meet the need for the state to legitimate itself. Often times the state legitimates itself by keeping rich people happy. But there was a time when it legitimated itself by keeping the rest of us happy, at least to a point. The two-party system will let this happen again, if we would make it so.