‘Point-Counterpoint’ juxtaposes two opposing perspectives on polarizing issues and debates. The following responses were written by members of the Tufts student group The Union, summarizing both sides of their recent debate on the two-party system. Students on either side were asked to respond to the prompt ‘This campus believes that the two-party system facilitates democracy.’
The case for the two-party system
Modern American political parties do two things: They channel interests from the grassroots up to political leaders and organize interest groups into governing coalitions. These two very important functions bridge the divide between state and society, creating channels in which the interests of the electorate may be expressed and their power aggregated. The Democrats and Republicans are the only two parties that have the institutions, the leadership and the voter base to accomplish the task of bridging the gap between state and society.
The process of coalition building is central to understanding how parties govern. Governing requires a majority, not a plurality, so parties must always work to build governing coalitions. In multi-party systems, coalition building occurs undemocratically and after the fact, leading to outcomes not reflective of the electorate. In two-party systems, coalition building occurs during the primary process. Thus, multi-party democracies simply give the illusion of choice; one of two or three main parties will generally form a governing coalition with smaller parties, ultimately looking a lot like one of the current major parties in the United States. The only difference? Voters in multi-party democracies do not have a direct say in how the coalition forms.
Both the 2016 Democratic and Republican primaries demonstrated our system in action. In the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders struck a chord with a portion of the party fed up with unfair economic arrangements. Through the primary process, he made his political power apparent. Thus, at the Democratic Convention, the very moment where the governing coalition was formed, he forced Hillary Clinton and the party to move to the left and adopt a more progressive platform. In the end, the Democrats built a governing coalition by combining the interests of the Clinton majority and Sanders minority.
The story of the Republican party is more complex. History teaches us that every few generations, a political party becomes so divided within itself that it must break apart. This is the process of realignment, in which a section of a major party defects to the other party over the course of successive election cycles. Accordingly, in this year’s primary, the Republican party was severely fractured. How can this be the best way to facilitate democracy? How can a realignment be something other than destabilizing?
Realignments prove the very robustness of the two-party system. Out of power, a major party fractures as it recreates itself to align with the interests of a changing electorate. This is a supremely democratic process, because elites are rearranged by the voters. In a multi-party system, realignments of a sort do occur, but they occur at the expense of stability. During a realignment in a multi-party system, coalitions in power fall apart. Our system is just as fractured and contentious as anywhere else, but unlike multi-party systems, our system has continuous governance. Our two parties contract, expand, lose voters and gain voters. A multi-party system does none of these things. Thus, the two-party system best facilitates democracy.
The case against the two-party system
The two-party system in America is broken and has failed us. Yesterday’s presidential election boiled down to a choice between the lesser of two evils. Gridlock persists in Washington, while our country has become more and more polarized. Yet Americans still put their trust in the two-party system. So, in the words of my debate opponent Ben Kaplan: Is the two-party system broken or merely going through a period of growing pains? While Ben argued for the latter, my intuition points to the former.
The most compelling argument for the two-party system is that with only two groups, each party must appeal to a large portion of the population, therefore adopting a more centrist view. Today, however, that is not the case. Democrats and Republicans are being pushed to the ends of the political spectrum to accommodate more extreme factions of their respective parties (see: Bernie Sanders or the Tea Party Movement). Party polarization has led Americans to fail to see the other side of the argument, even going so far as to call people with opposing views “deplorables.” Clearly, the two-party system has not resulted in a centrist government, nor is it an accurate representation of the beliefs of the people as of late.
Shifting to a multi-party system could be the answer to some of these issues. Multi-party systems inherently offer more choice, providing a more accurate representation of the political spectrum. Additionally, a system with more parties ensures that each party is well-defined. This is contrary to our current system, where it’s difficult to know what voters are actually voting for. One example would be the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where President Obama and Hillary Clinton are split. In a multi-party system, it would be rare to see so much disagreement within a single party.
That being said, opponents of the multi-party system say that too much discretion is given to elected officials, who once in office, must form coalitions to pass legislation. Opponents say that these coalitions may not fully align with the beliefs they ran on. It is true that there is more discretion; however, parties are much more susceptible to shifts in public opinion. Because politicians are much more accurate representatives of the views of the people, the system better facilitates direct democracy.
The overall result of the two-party system is the creation of two “buckets” into which all Americans are placed. This is under the assumption that two buckets can somehow encompass the entire political spectrum of one of the most pluralistic and diverse nations on earth. This system may have worked in the past, but today, its flaws could not be more visible. As such, this election season, we were left with Trump and Clinton, two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in our nation’s history. Instead of pointing the finger across the aisle, it’s time for Americans to reflect and look for alternatives. Although it is a drastic change in the eyes of some, shifting to a multi-party system may be the solution this country needs in a time of high stakes and increasing polarization.
Andrew Brodsky is a senior majoring in quantitative economics. Andrew can be reached at [email protected].