Why A Two-Party System Is Inevitable In The United States (& What To Do About It)

I have struggled for years to concisely explain why a two-party system is an inevitability in the United States. The primary reason for this is our voting system, which is known as “First Past the Post” or “Winner Take All.” With a few exceptions in a few states, virtually all of America does it this way, which is the simple rule that you don’t have to get a majority of votes to win, you just need more votes than anyone else.

C.G.P. Grey’s wonderful video explains in a few minutes better than I ever could why this winds up giving you a default status of two major parties that rarely changes. Watch it!

All of this, by the way, is why I scoff at most third party efforts and why I think Americans Elect is probably silly at best.

I agree with Grey that an alternate voting method is desirable, but there is a problem: Gorilla and Leopard will fight against changing it. To get it done in the United States it would have to start by reforming things on a city by city, county by county, state by state level. This would take many years. That’s no reason not to try, but we should realize it would take a while. The easiest change to start with would seem to me to be the Alternative Vote, which Grey explains masterfully here, because it threatens the two big parties least in the short run and is also pretty easy to implement at a local level. The Australians have been using this system for quite some time, so we know it works.

All of that said, I will defend the two party system to this extent: it forces us as voters to compromise. Unless you are one of that minority of folks who is truly a party-line Republican or Democrat, you know walking into the election booth that you’re voting for someone you don’t entirely like, or at least, you are voting against whomever you most vehemently disagree with. This may seem unappealing, and it probably causes a lot of people to not bother voting at all, but it does give us a system wherein most people are not completely happy, which is why civil war and revolution are pretty rare. And if you look at life under our current system in comparison to dictatorships and absolute monarchies, you really shouldn’t be completely unhappy because you have it a lot better than they do most of the time even if the candidates you really want never win.

Still, there’s good reason to work for improvement, and Grey explains that masterfully. Check out all his videos on the subject.

(This item cross-posted to Dean’s World.)

Author: DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

Dean Esmay is a long-time associate of Joe Gandelman and The Moderate Voice. He is Managing Editor of A Voice for Men. He also blogs on a variety of issues at Dean's World, one of the world's first blogs and one of the few that was archived as Historically Significant by the Library of Congress for the 2004 elections. You can also follow Dean via Twitter here.

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17 Comments

  1. other systems force compromise too… there is no advantage to just having two parties… unless you are a member of one of the parties.

    the way we elect the President is flat out silly. Could our holy founding fathers been wrong?

  2. Instant runoff voting would be a great model for those who care about 3rd party viablity. As for “compromise”? That word seems to have a lot of definitions lately but I’m pretty sure obstruction and capitulation isn’t one of em. Traditional compromise is great in theory, but in reality it requires both parties to bring reason, honesty, and a genuine desire for cooperation to the table.

  3. Btw, thanks for the video Dean. I agree that gerrymandering should be done away with.

  4. The system as we have it requires VOTER compromise. You and me, THE VOTERS, have to compromise.

    It does not require much compromise by the parties themselves, which is one of its problems. Although the parties themselves do have to compromise somewhat just to stay elected, they can also find themselves in situations where pure obstructionism or complete armstronging also works for them.

    But what this system requires is that YOU AND I compromise.

  5. point taken, but even in a system with 10 parties, people wont find a perfect match. take for instance here in Germany. I cant vote, but if I had to… I have NO idea who I would vote for because none of the parties really match my belief system.

    I would probably be torn between the Green party and the CDU, which are on different ends of the political spectrum…the Greens being borderline extremists.

  6. Without question if you are voting for representatives you will always have to compromise somewhat simply because the only candidate you could ever possibly agree with 100% of the time would be you–and if you ever change your mind and regret something you wind up disagreeing with yourself!

    However, I think Grey gets it right that greater choice in representation is better, and giving people the power to vote for who they really want without fear of helping someone they really hate is desirable. Grey lays out two ideas on that which I think are very good, and have worked in other countries.

    Alternative Vote (which is successfully used in Germany):

    Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (which is now in use in New Zealand):

    I think Alternative Vote would be easiest and fastest to implement in the United States, although you would still have the problem of Democrats and Republicans both fighting it (which I guarantee you they would, don’t kid yourself if you think EITHER party wouldn’t fight it). Plus it would have to be done state-by-state, it would be almost impossible to accomplish nationally all at once because that would require a big Constitutional amendment which, again, you would never get enough support for.

    So you have to start doing this in local elections. But we can start asking for things like this at the local level and hope to see it expanded.

    Even though I have my own opinions, I would like to see government that involved socialists, libertarians, conservatives, liberals, greens, blue collar unionists, and so on all able to have a voice in the process rather than everybody having to be either crammed in to one of those two parties or left out in the cold. It would be less corrupt and more representative.

    Now how do we get enough people interested in this kind of reform to get it done?

  7. The alternative vote can’t do anything to help escape the two party system, because when it matters, it still encourages voters to betray their favorite in order to support the lesser of two evils, just like first past the post.

    It also does nothing to help moderates. Actually, the alternative vote is the ONLY “alternative” voting method that fails to be better for moderates.

    An example:

    Gorilla leads Leopard 55% to 45% in the polls. But then, wise Owl enters the race. This pleases most former Gorilla supporters, who now throw in with Owl. The next-largest group still prefer Gorilla, but find Owl to be a good second choice. There are a few though who hate Owl, to the point that they would sooner see Leopard win. The polls now look like this:

    30%: Owl > Gorilla > Leopard
    15%: Gorilla > Owl > Leopard
    10%: Gorilla > Leopard > Owl
    45%: Leopard > Gorilla > Owl

    Who would win the election? We know Gorilla beats Leopard, so if Owl doesn’t win, then Gorilla should. Right?

    Except the winner is Leopard. Gorilla, with most of his first-place support having moved to Owl, would find himself trailing in the first round, and be eliminated. That would leave the final round as a showdown between Owl and Leopard, which Leopard would win because of a small number of Gorilla-loving, Owl-hating transfers.

    That’s bad. At least, the huge number of Leopard-hating Owl-voters think it is. So what’s the wise move for them to make? It’s the same move as in first past the post: betray your true favorite (Owl) and vote for the lesser of two evils (Gorilla). If just a tiny number of Owl-favoring voters do this, than Owl will be eliminated in the first round, leaving Gorilla, who is in a much stronger position against Leopard, and able to win.

    And I want to emphasize this for you: Gorilla is the MODERATE choice in this election. Owl is a bird-wing extremist by comparison, but while Gorilla is acceptable to them, if they vote their conscience, not only will their favorite candidate lose, they will throw the election to the candidate they hate the most.

    Furthermore, the threat of this happening occurs precisely at the moment that a third party grows large enough to have a reasonable chance of winning: When they exceed the first-place-votes for one (but not both) of the established parties.

    The alternative vote does not help moderates. The alternative vote does not help third parties. What it does is, as long as you keep your third parties small enough that they don’t threaten to actually win, it lets the two major parties reclaim what’s “rightfully” theirs: the vote you would have cast if you really only had two choices.

    There are many other “alternative” voting methods. Every single one of them (all variations of the Condorcet method, all variations of the Borda method, all variations of score voting and approval voting) does a better job of choosing moderate candidates than the alternative vote. Score and approval have the added benefit of encouraging the creation of more than two parties.

    So YES, there’s something we can do about it, and YES, it involves changing the voting system. But NO, it is not the alternative vote.

    [I write about these issues frequently at The Least of All Evils]

  8. I think experience with the Alternate Vote has shown that it does indeed SOMETIMES result in the negative result you mentioned but not usually. Furthermore, it is admitted up front that it does NOT ESCAPE the two-party system but it gives third parties a better shot at staging an upset, AND, gives the third parties more attention, so that the bigger parties have to work harder to attract people to them by arguing not just why the other guy sucks but why they are desirable to those third party voters. “Here’s why we should be your second choice” becomes part of their argument, and they have to make that argument more often.

    We are still left with the problem you mention, that occasionally a really crazy bad choice gets up against an also-unpopular choice; that isn’t the norm but it can happen. I would argue that this is still better than what we have, and at least makes the big parties have to work HARDER to convinced people to make them their second choice.

    In an American context, Alternate Vote would pretty much automatically make a voice like Ralph Nader, or a Libertarian Party candidate, more relevant to an election, and even though in any such system you will STILL have people unhappy, you WILL have people more readily able to vote their consciences and to feel they have a true voice.

    This does not mean however that Alternate Vote is an ideal system, just one better than what we have.

    I am very open to learning more. Do you have any STRAIGHTFORWARD and EASY TO UNDERSTAND explanation of any of the Condorcet or Borda methods? One of the biggest hurdles with something like this is that you have to make people understand it–if it’s too complex then no matter how elegant the solution, people won’t understand the formula and thus won’t go for it. So please understand when I am asking this I am NOT trying to be difficult, I am wanting to LEARN, and merely pointing out that to be implemented it must be easily understood.

  9. @Dean Esmay:

    Germany does not use the alternative vote. They use mixed member proportional, like New Zealand.

    The alternative vote is most extensively (and for the longest time) used in Australia. And they have the same degree of two-party-dominated politics as the US in their alternative-vote-elected seats (via the Labour party and the Liberal/National coalition, which some will argue is still technically two parties, although that’s not how they are reported in the press at election time.)

  10. @Dean

    Sure, always willing to help (although I should admit up front that my personal favorites are approval and score, which I will also explain).

    Condorcet: Voters rank choices, just as in the alternative vote. Candidates are compared pairwise, in other words, in a race of A vs B vs C, you compare just the parts of the ballot listing A and B and determine who would win that contest, then compare just A and B, and then just A and C. If one candidate defeats all others in each of their pairwise comparison, they are the Condorcet winner.

    This is an incredibly powerful idea: if we presume candidates have some degree of “goodness” for the voting population, then the one who has more than any other should be able to beat all others in all such one-on-one contests. The Condorcet winner also tends to be the candidate closest to the center, since moderates will rate them highly, while extremists will rank them above all other extremists. (And unlike the alternative vote, they won’t get eliminated early for lack of first-place rankings.)

    The tricky part is that a Condorcet winner does not always exist; it’s possible that A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A. The variations on the Condorcet method have to do with how these “circular ambiguities” are resolved.

    (The Wikimedia foundation uses the Schulze method, which ranks the strength of each pairwise victory by the margin of victory, and locks in the strongest wins first; if adding a weaker win would create an ambiguity, it is instead discarded.)

    Borda: Voters rank choices, just as in the alternative vote. Each rank on the ballot is worth a certain number of points; the closer to the top, the more pore points it’s worth. Typically, if there are n candidates, the top rank is worth n points, and each subsequent one is worth one less. The most points wins.

    (The Heisman trophy, for instance, uses a variation where, even though there are dozens of candidates, only the top 10 ranks are worth any points, and the top rank is worth 12 instead of 10; then 9, 8, 7 and so on until the 10th is worth just 1.)

    All ranking-based methods have the shortcoming that, at some point, it becomes advantageous for a voter to disingenuously rank a lesser-evil above their true favorite. It is my belief that this “favorite betrayal” is the number-one driver toward two-party domination, and while better ranking-based methods can mitigate it, they can never eliminate it.

    Score voting: Unlike the alternative vote, and these other methods, there is no ranking. You give each candidate a score within some predetermined range (such as 0-9). The most points wins.

    In this way, it is something like a Borda count, only you can assign multiple candidates to the same rank, or skip ranks entirely. This has the property that, unlike an actual Borda method, it is never to your advantage to give less than the maximum number of points to your true favorite (or to give less than the minimum to your least favorite).

    Approval voting is just a minimalist version of score voting, with only two possible scores; 0 and 1. This achieves the never-betray-your-favorite advantage of score voting, but also makes for an amazingly simple change to voting rules. You just remove the sentence that says “only fill in ONE oval” from the ballots.

    Computer simulations have shown that score and approval are, in the face of strategically-minded voters, more likely to elect the honest Condorcet winner than any ranking-based method (including all “actual” Condorcet methods!) Simulations of voter satisfaction (referred to as “Bayesian regret”) have also shown that score and approval lead to significantly higher total satisfaction. That, combined with the simplicity of approval, is why I support approval voting.

    [Bayesian Regret Graphic]

  11. If I understand mudlock correctly, then I would like the approval method most, with the score one a close second.

    Meanwhile, although this would not affect a Presidential candidate, having parties represented by proportional votes might be a nice way to obtain a third party (or more). Instead of each congressional district voting for their representative, how about the Canadian system? Or, at least, a system that combines regional and party representation?

    It would work as follows: Areas would have local representatives based on population (similar to what we have today). In ADDITION, there would be candidates for ‘at large’ seats (I would hope that this would be at least half the seats). The proportion of votes given for parties (incorporated the party system into the voting rules) would determine how many ‘at large’ seats would be given to each party. The parties could have primary elections for which of their proposed candidates would be placed. Thus, Person A gets the most primary ‘at large’ votes for Party X, so if Party X gets only one ‘at large’ candidate, it will be Person A.

    This would GREATLY facilitate the creation of new parties. It would also have the (happy) possibility of breaking gridlock, since Tea Party members would be unlikely to hijack the system from the Conservative Moderate party.

    Just sayin’

    P.S. As currently written, our Constitution would suggest to an alien from outer space that Congress, not the president, holds the real power in the country. The above system might actually help that to happen.

  12. Lol, I only just began watching the third film. What I had suggested.

    MMP all the way!!

  13. It’s true, thus far I’ve only spoken about single-winner voting systems. Proportional representation though is also a great idea, and the mixed member proportional (MMP) method that you just re-invented has apparently been quite effective for Germany.

    There are other proportional methods, too. Grey, I believe, has a video on single transferable vote (STV), which is proportional without having any explicit references to party membership, but has the downside (which some people don’t see as one) where each district is served by multiple representatives. The more members per district, the more proportional the whole congress is (all the way down to one member per district, which gives a system identical to the alternative vote (which is how that method was developed) and is completely non-proportional.) 3 to 5 is typical, and it’s used in Ireland, Australia, and elsewhere.

    I’m confused by your comment about Canada though, since they use the same system as the US: single member plurality districts. The reason they have some significant minor parties has to do with language/culture divisions (Quebec has a very strong regional party) and the fact that two-party tendencies are slightly weaker in parliamentary democracies than in presidential ones. For an extreme example, take a look at India!

    While we’re on the subject of PR, and of how much I love approval and score, let me mention that there are proportional score-based voting systems. One of these is one called re-weighted range voting, and by way of analogy, it is to score voting as STV is to the alternative vote (if that makes sense.)

  14. Americans Elect is not attempting to be a party, it is offering a revolutionary process that makes parties irrelevant. By matching our political views against a cast of candidates we can effectively bypass the hierarchical and corrupt aspects of political parties. The more who actively participate in this grand experiment, the more valid will be the result. Stop passively following the party theatrics and direct your energy toward making the AE model work. This is an historic opportunity for us to shake up the existing order.

  15. “Now how do we get enough people interested in this kind of reform to get it done?”

    The country would have to burn to the ground.

    I like the German system a lot..although I am still not sure why they have a President…who is about to get kicked out of office btw.

  16. If you want something better than the two party system:
    — Don’t say it is inevitable, instead advocate for reforms.
    — Call it what it is: an entrenched, self-serving political duopoly that too often does not represent the will of the people and suppresses competition and innovation.
    — Get involved with organizations that are promoting political reform. Don’t work alone.

    Public opinion is still the bottom line:
    — Increase voter awareness of the problems with our current system. Americans are woefully uninformed about the tools of democracy and the problems of our current system. Most people are unaware that there are alternatives and think the problems are unavoidable. Grade schoolers can understand the basics that would put them in the top 10% of adults.
    — Start locally. The problems may be most visible at a state or national level, but change is happening first locally. Support change where it is happening.

    Important change takes time, but it does and will happen.

  17. Of course I agree that there are drawbacks to our system, but I’m not convinced that instant run-off would be better. In fact, I’d argue, Dean, that it just as likely might have the opposite effect than the one you suggest. That is, it might cause the political parties to become less responsive to the voters.

    Consider the example where Gorilla and Leopard dominate. Now, if Leopard becomes too moderate, in comparison to the voters that normally support him, this might give rise to a third party–Tiger. Leopard is of course aware of the spoiler effect and therefore will do whatever it takes to prevent Tiger from gaining any significant amount of support. It’s true that he is aided by the FPTP system which will discourage voters from supporting Tiger, but still, even a small amount of support for Tiger could make the difference. So, what will Leopard do? The best option for him is to try to appease the Tiger voters by adopting at least some of their positions and causes, while not going so far as to alienate his base. So, Leopard has been forced to be more responsive to the voters. In fact, I think this is the main function of third parties. They don’t have to win to be effective. They just have to influence the debate and force the other parties to appease them.

    We see this with the tea party. A group of politically vocal, conservatives voiced their discontent with the status quo. This would have been a threat to Republicans, but it has been mostly tempered since Republicans have adopted them, for the most part. This helps explain why Romney was seen as the conservative alternative to McCain in 2008 but is now viewed as the moderate, despite his attempts to further conservatize his record. Now, regardless of your views on the tea party, there is no doubt that this shift is an attempt to respond to the will of the voters–or at least the politically vocal ones.

    Would this have happened with instant run-off? In that system, Tiger would not be much threat at all to Leopard. I don’t think it is obvious that Leopard would campaign to be the Tiger voters second-choice, as you say. Leopard would feel pretty confident that he can maintain his current positions and still win the election since Tiger voters are almost certainly going to list him as the second choice over Gorilla. So, the system could further encourage the idea that campaigns just need to be the “least of the two evils”, which I think is already a big problem in our current system.

    Secondly, we do have an approximation of a run-off system, which is the primary system. I know it’s often criticized, but I think it does approximately mimic a run-off. Essentially you have multiple parties within parties. The field is slowly narrowed until a winner is chosen, similar to what happens in instant run-off, just not as instant and messier.

    Thirdly, I’m not convinced that it is practical. It seems we often have enough problems with the simple “pick one” system that we have now. I think there would be a non-trivial percentage of voters that might have trouble grasping the ranking system (ie. is a bigger number better, or a smaller number?). And it is impractical without computerized voting systems which have been controversial.

    So, what I’d say is this: our system has flaws, but I don’t think it’s as bad as is sometime portrayed, nor do I think instant run-off would necessarily fix things. So what would fix it? I don’t know for sure, but I’m a supporter of adding a “None of the Above” option to ballots. It wouldn’t directly change things, but I think it would, indirectly. If enough voters choose “None of the Above”, that is a signal to the parties that the voters are not content, and to potential third-parties that there might be latent support for them. Of course this option is not mutually exclusive with the instant run-off idea either. I also think proportional representation is a promising idea.

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