In Search of Greener Pastures: A Comparison of Two-Party and Multiparty Political SystemsThursday, October 27, 2016
After a grueling primary season, two nominating conventions, three debates and months of campaigning, the 2016 election season will conclude in less than two weeks. The process has been particularly divisive this cycle, leaving many voters weary and puzzled. While every election tends to ignite fresh probing into the whys and hows of the American electoral process, this year has invited much historic reflection. Chief among the questions voters are pondering: How did we end up with two such flawed candidates? Has America’s two-party system failed the voters? Would the nation be better served by a multiparty system – such as that enjoyed by Israel – which affords greater selection and diversity of thought?
Why have parties in the first place? The Founding Fathers certainly did not envision a party system; it is not a line item in the Constitution. In fact, they went out of their way to guard against it. The term they used was faction – by which they meant dissension, differences of opinion and alternative views. In Federalist 10, James Madison wrote:
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
In other words, faction is a hardwired reality in any political system. The uniquely American solution to faction, of course, was to err on the side of liberty with the creation of an energized national government, a strong executive, separated powers and a democratic republic. Political parties were an inevitable byproduct.
“Party platforms, with principles embedded in particular policy positions, were to be anchors to help republican government from being swept along by the quirks (or worse) of populists or outright demagogues,” wrote Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and the director of the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute. On the heels of what many consider to be a “quirky” election, “anchors away” might be a more apt description of the prevailing mood among much of the American electorate. Compelling arguments in favor of a multiparty model rather than the two-party system traditionally associated with U.S. politics can be made.
For one, democracies that operate within a multiparty framework typically enjoy high voter engagement. In Israel’s multiparty environment, for example, more than 76 percent of the voting age population participated in its last national election in 2015. By comparison, just over half – 53.6 percent – of the voting age population in the U.S. cast ballots in the 2012 general election. In fact, a recent study by Pew Research Center indicated that U.S. voter turnout trails behind most developed democratic states, particularly those operating under multiparty systems.
Then there is the advantage of inclusiveness. In multiparty systems, diverse ideas and opinions can be heard and minority views are less marginalized. Consider the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Currently no fewer than 10 different parties are represented there. In its nearly 70-year history, Israel has seen more than 200 different political parties’ advocating a broad range of ideologies. By contrast, representation in the U.S. government has been limited in large part to either Republican or Democratic for well over 150 years.
“Historically, Israelis have wanted to participate in determining their own future. That is a major motivation and part of civic society in Israel,” noted Dr. Kenneth Stein, professor of Middle East history and politics at Emory University. “The tent that was constructed was a very big one. Because of its multiparty system, the Israeli people can vote for political parties that generally reflect the nuances of their differences.” In other words, individuals can vote for what they want rather than what they don’t want, which is precisely the dilemma for many U.S. voters this November.
More robust voter engagement and greater inclusiveness are attractive features, but there are trade-offs to a system that embraces multiple party players. Continuity and stability of government, for example, can be problematic. Case in point: Since its first election in 1949, no single party has ever won a clear majority in Israel, which means that every single government has been a coalition government. Coalitions have a tendency to break apart, which has happened time and again in Israel. Because it is a parliamentary system, the government can be dissolved and early elections called if consensus cannot be reached. Out of 20 election cycles, early voting has been called nine times.
Another potential hazard of a multiparty system is party fragmentation, which can lead to undue influence granted to sectorial (and sometimes extreme) viewpoints. Whereas the U.S. has a plurality voting system (whoever gets the most votes wins) Israel uses a proportional representation scheme. Instead of voting for individuals, Israelis vote for parties, and the number of representatives seated in the Knesset from those parties depends on the percentage of votes received.“The difficulty of constantly having to create a coalition in government means smaller parties are having a uniquely over-representative role in determining policies,” Stein said. “They can make huge demands on the budget and where their individuals will be placed in the government. It’s one of the reasons why settlements have continued to grow and secular education has been impacted.”
Clearly, a multiparty system has both merit and fault, but on close examination, it is not likely a viable solution for all that ails the American electorate. One reason: It’s messy.
“Americans generally like the simplification of the two-party process,” said Michael Shires, political science professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and senior vice president of One Heart for Israel. “We don’t have a parliamentary system in the U.S. where small interest groups compete and then the government is formed as a negotiation of those issues. In America, we negotiate those issues before the election. Then the electorate picks from that menu.”
To be sure, the U.S. is not locked into a strict, two-party model. The occasional third-party candidate (e.g., Libertarian, Green, Tea Party) breaks out and can be instrumental in moving the two main parties to the right or to the left. But as principal forces, third parties have had a difficult time gaining traction. There are notable exceptions – Ross Perot’s independent run in 1992 and Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose candidacy in 1912 come to mind – but those exceptions are rare.
“The electoral college system pushes in the direction of two parties contending to reach a majority,” said AEI’s Schmitt, adding that while new third parties might eventually gain traction, in the short-term there is not much incentive to run and lose.
“The sentiments of a third party are much more likely absorbed by existing parties,” Schmitt said. “Indeed, if one steps back and looks at what happened during this primary season, you had two outsiders, two candidates who were not really party members – Trump and Sanders – use the two-party system for third-party candidacies.”
For those vexed by this year’s political calisthenics, perhaps the solution is not a transition from a two-party system to a multiparty model. Perhaps the real opportunities for meaningful change can be found in the primary process.
Consider that in 2016, just 9 percent of America actually chose Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominees. That’s a narrow 14 percent of the eligible adults nationwide. By mid-March, selection of the GOP nominee was all but certain, yet nearly half of the state primaries or caucuses remained.
A recalibration of the primary process would go a long way toward improving voter engagement and ensuring diversity of opinions and ideas. A few suggestions: the elimination of early primaries/caucuses to level the playing field; a contracted primary season to force candidates and the media to focus more on policy and less on personalities; and a stricter vetting process to present a more streamlined collection of candidates with distinct positions.
“I personally favor a single national primary day if you are going to have a voter-driven process,” Pepperdine’s Shires said. “This disadvantages candidates who cannot make the big media buys but gets rid of the divide-and-conquer attrition process we have now.” Shires would schedule the primary just two to four weeks before the conventions and recommends a series of debates on a national stage around a specific set of issues.
Yearning for greener pastures may be more than just an exasperated response to a tiresome election season; it may be the stirrings of substantive change. “I do think both parties as we have known them in the past are likely gone after this election,” Shires concluded. “We will see some redefinition of both.”