In Defense of the Two-Party System

Just about everyone who is moderately up to speed with regards to American politics likes to trash both the Republicans and Democrats, and who can blame them? Democrats (and John Maynard Keynes) may have brought us such absurdities as ‘countercyclical demand management’ programs so that my family is paid to not grow corn, but how can Republicans blame them when they are the ones responsible for such notorious boondoggles as the “bridge to nowhere?”

Many people have called for (or been involved with promoting) a third party to cut through the great heaping filthy mass of political corruption. Politicians, in order to differentiate themselves from the mess, are fond of casting themselves as “above” politics with claims to be bipartisan.

Some, including my recent acquaintance Korky Day, have called for a change in our political system from the plurality-vote winner-take-all system, which tends to produce a two-party dynamic like ours, to a system of proportional representation, which tends to produce a multi-party dynamic like much of Europe and Latin America.

But would an election process based on proportional representation actually improve things?

Now, I’m no political science major, so there are certainly those with more authority to speak on this than myself. Still, as an avid student of politics and political thought, it seems to me that there are several serious flaws with the proportional representation system.

First, it would not solve the problem of earmarks and culture of backroom deals (e.g. the “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Cornhusker Kickback”), one of the reasons that Mitt Romney was so fond of saying “Washington is broken” back in 2008.

Human ambition, the cause of said brokenness, can’t realistically be eliminated, especially among cynical politicians; however, rules can be changed without altering the whole electoral system. People act on incentives, and I don’t see any way a pro-rep system would alter politicians’ incentives to be less corrupt.

Second, proportional representation would promote political extremism. There is an American Communist Party, but it is relegated to the fringes of polite society. In Europe, with its system of proportional representation where each party is allocated representation based on the percentage of the total vote they receive, fringe parties can become a significant part of the ruling class.

I’m not saying we should try to silence dissent. Quite the contrary. But there is certainly something to be said for the moderating influence of the winner-take-all system that forces politicians to tack to the center in order to get votes. There’s no nationally significant Communist party in the U.S. and there’s no nationally significant openly racist party (in contrast to Europe) and I think we should all be grateful for that.

Third, the winner-take-all system in this country in which representation is allocated among the states based on geography and population ensures “no taxation without representation,” in terms of geography.

Maybe Korky can correct me on this, but in a proportional representation system in which the party selects the list and order of candidates to represent the party, is there any means of making sure that Oklahoma receives the same representation as Rhode Island? If several states vote largely Communist but the Communist party leadership decides the representatives should all come one or two states, is there any recourse?

Last, it seems to me that proportional representation gives way too much power to political parties. Would you rather the life-long political hacks at the Democratic National Committee (or horrors! the RNC) or the local district’s working men and women decide who represents us?

People are wont to criticize political parties, and not without good reason. Promotion within the party is based not on service to the country but on service to the party, and, of course, the interests of the respective groups don’t always coincide. If this system were given greater importance through pro-rep, the country would suffer.

Extreme polarization would be institutionalized. Claims by politicians to favor “bipartisanship” would be even more fatuous than they are today.

Anyway, it seems to me that the current system has worked well for the United States throughout our history, but maybe we could improve. Let me know what you think.

8 comments

  1. Anything is better than the current system, ruled as it is by the Democratic-Republican criminal class. Further, this is not a defense of the two-party system, but an attack on proportional representation. The reason is clear: the two-party system is indefensible.

  2. Proportional representation would be nice because it would give minor parties a chance to prove themselves. Granted, the same effect can be brought about by a two-party system, but it is arguably harder. I would like proportional representation just because it would mix things up a bit, but it will never happen because Republicans and Democrats will never vote themselves out of power, because they care more about maintaining power than they do about helping the country.

  3. Hi, Duke and others!
    I'm the Korky Day who recently met the author, and to whose Web publication he refers: http://www.korky.ca/about.html . (Thanks for the link, Duke!)
    The 2-party system is a huge topic, as is pro-rep (proportional representation).
    Duke writes some wise and unwise comments, but he has barely scratched the surface in discussing the pros and cons of each electoral system.
    However, he does give it a good start and he has the good sense to realize that this is an important debate.
    How about if I give you very brief comments, including on each point of disageement? Then I'll mention further sources, etc.
    1. Our 2-party system is created by the Constitution, laws, etc. They result in our rule by the Duopoly. That is the criminal, ruling clique comprising the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
    2. I consider the innumerate term "third party" to be derogatory. You don't hear it in other countries. Please name the party (or parties) or refer to the category of anti-duopoly parties.
    3. To know if pro-rep would actually improve things, he makes many speculations, but says little about the actual results where it is used.
    To see if it would affect, for instance, "earmarks" and "backroom deals", one should both look at other countries and theorize if the effect would be the same here. However, even if those particular devices were unchanged, pro-rep has tremendous other successes which Duke ignores. Look at almost any international ranking (peace, health, wealth, etc.) and the USA is no where near the top of the list. Other countries are passing us by because they have better governments overall. Theirs are democratic, ours is not.
    4. Then Duke blames politicians' "ambition", but says it can be tamed without changing the whole electoral system. Well, USAmericans have been trying to tame greedy politicians for over 200 years, and things just get worse. So maybe it's time to try what works relatively well in other countries: pro-rep and other electoral reforms. Not that pro-rep is a cure-all, no, but government is "broken" a lot more here than in other countries.
    5. Typically, then Duke argues that "proportional representation would promote political extremism." Yes, communists and fascists elect a few people under some forms of pro-rep, but those elected wield only the proportionate amount of political power based on the number of people who vote for them. The countries which have that situation do not as a result become communistic, and they are less fascistic than the USA. In his mania to avoid extremes, Duke defends the USA for discriminating also against the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, and various labour and socialist parties. He more or less admits that the system is rigged against some of us voters, but defends that as anti-extremist. In other words, he doesn't trust the voters to forgo extremism, he wants the system to do it for us. The system controlled by whom? We're just supposed to trust those in power. In spite of his denial, yes, he does say that we should "silence dissent". That's what a 2-party system does! If you're not in the Duopoly, you're shut out of power, and even your voice is very nearly silenced! Even independent candidates, many of whom are centrist, are shut out of power compared to their numbers of the population.
    6. Duke claims that our system geographically prevents "taxation without representation". If that were true in this state, only Democrats and Republicans would be taxed, because the rest of us (partisans and independents) have no representation in the federal government. Not one single official of my party (Green) is in Washington, yet we would get 5 to 15% of the vote in any fair election.
    7. Then Duke talks about the role of parties and the power of party officials in pro-rep systems. However, since there are so many different pro-rep systems, the roles of the parties in them differ markedly. When the USA is ready to become a democracy, we can take our pick of the systems. I'm sure that when he looks into it, he can find one that he likes. However, even in the least geographically-based systems, the representatives are widely spread because if they weren't, a party would lose votes. Would a big restaurant chain voluntarily put all their eateries in Oklahoma? No, and neither would a party, because that's self-defeating. A little more study will show him that political parties are controlled much more by the grassroots in pro-rep countries than they are here, where the corporations rule the Duopoly.
    For more of my political writing, please see http://www.korky.ca/philocracy.html andhttp://www.korky.ca/philocracy2.html .
    For other writing of mine, see http://www.korky.ca , etc. Or write me at
    korkyday (at sign) yahoo (dot) com .
    The book I'd most recommend on electoral reform is Steven Hill's 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy. (I can show you my copy.) http://www.amazon.com/10-Steps-Repair-American-Democracy...
    –Korky

  4. There's a couple ways around your objections.

    One is the open list, where in addition to voting for a party, you can also check off a name on the list to push that candidate up to the front. That takes some control away from the party.

    Also, there's no reason PR has to be done on a nationwide basis. It can be done on a statewide basis (like in Iraq) or in multi-member districts (like in Ireland). That solves the taxation without representation problem.

    There's also mixed-member PR. Where say 60% of seats are filled by regular district elections and 40% are compensatory seats filled from lists. So if you have a 100 member legislature, and the Republicans and Democrats each win half the district seats with 40% of the vote each, while the Tea Party wins 10%, the Greens 5% and the Libertarians 5%…The Republicans and Dems get 10 of the compensatory seats each, the Tea Party 10, the Greens 5 and the Libs 5. So you have your own district representative but there's still proportionality.

    As for extremists…well, you can partly solve that by having a threshold. You need 3% or 5% to get any seats. But anyway, Maxine Waters is in our Congress, so the two party system isn't exactly foolproof that way either.

    1. Lol good point about Maxine Waters. Korky mentioned the open list before– I had forgotten. And I hadn't heard of the statewide basis for PR before.

      Nevertheless, I still don't see what problems a PR system would solve. And in any case, all things being equal, I would prefer the devil I know to the devil I don't.

  5. Good points, Jumblatt.
    To Duke (rdchesto), I answer that pro-rep solves:
    1. Disproportional results. This obvious unfairness could be tolerated only if you proved to the people why we should. Has our electoral system ever been ratified by a national referendum, as happens in all reasonably democratic countries? No. So the burden of proof is entirely on those who defend the present rigged, unbalanced system.
    2. The mathematical tendency for 2 ruling parties to alternate their ruling periods, with only slightly differing policies. They both rule based on the supposed "center" of opinion, which itself is easily manipulated when the public hears little from any other parties–mainly because they are not elected. That is suppression of dissent.
    3. Disgust, disillusionment, and anger of the public which leads to our shamefully low turn-out compared to pro-rep countries.
    4. Unending struggles within each of the 2 Duopoly parties between their concessional wing and their ideological wing. With pro-rep, those parties could break apart and then each resulting party could have ideological consistency and still get elected. Then the voters would know what they were voting for and the elected reps could work it out in Congress in full view of the public. As it is now, the system rewards candidates who say only what the voters want to hear–and then do otherwise in office. For example, Ronald Reagan and his supporters in Congress won by promising smaller government, but did the opposite.

    As you study pro-rep, you'll learn of many other problems it solves.
    Can I be e-notified automatically when others reply further????

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