Why only two parties is no fun
The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, by Lisa Jane Disch, New York: Columbia University Press, 194 pages, $45/$19.50 paper
The two-party system once severely strained my relationship with my roommate. It was the summer of 1988, and my roommate—also my best pal—was informally managing the local petition drive to get the Libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, on Florida's ballot. He offered up our very small apartment—I was already sleeping in what normally would be the living room—as a crash pad for the kids who were dedicating their summer to dunning apprehensive and often hostile strangers for signatures in Gainesville's hellish heat and humidity.
I literally couldn't get out of bed without having to step across a well-meaning political neophyte. Since I, too, wanted Ron Paul on the ballot, I mostly swallowed my annoyance, but that sort of pent-up exasperation can wreak havoc on a happy home. And I'm sure the campaign workers were none too thrilled to be sleeping on a stranger's floor while pursuing their ill-paid, frustrating mission.
Under the best of circumstances, getting third-party candidates on the ballot is onerous and expensive. The numerous procedural hoops they and their supporters must jump through exacerbate the tensions inherent in fighting for heterodox political beliefs in America, adding heavily to the psychic costs of everyone involved.
Which means the system is working exactly as intended.
In The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, Lisa Jane Disch, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, examines the reality of two-party hegemony. More than that, she lays bare the mental framework that she believes sanctions such a system. As Disch tells it, the two-party system dominates through more than just the legal barriers that require third parties to expend enormous amounts of money and effort, under restrictive and complicated conditions, just to get to the starting line of political competition. She argues that the system also works as a monolithic ideological construct that makes it difficult even to imagine a vibrant, multi-party political marketplace.
Disch makes an interesting and meaningful distinction between the reality of a system that has two dominant parties and a "two-party system." The first is quite possibly a necessary result of America's single-member-district, first-past-the-post electoral format, which effectively rules out the coalition governments common to parliamentary systems.
Yet Disch argues that the "two-party system" is something else altogether. It's a rhetorical construct that rules the discipline of political science and has become a veritable civic religion. She writes that the two-party system is a "system of meaning" that "associates third party candidates with lost causes, political extremism, and authoritarian populism while promoting established party candidates as the responsible and effective choice." Being third in a two-party system relegates you to the margins.
While the two-party system meets the known and stated political demands of many—probably most—Americans, it impoverishes our political discourse. It creates barriers to the creation of now-unknown political choices, in the same way that restrictions on introducing new consumer products might not violate any known, specifically statable preference but still diminish everyone's well being.
Although Disch spends little time on it, the history of third parties in America is fascinating and colorful, suggestive of possibilities largely missing in contemporary politics. Before the Civil War, a plethora of parties came and went, many achieving the kind of electoral prizes—governorships, congressional seats—almost universally denied anyone but Democrats or Republicans for the past century. In the 1800s third parties often arose to push for specific principles that more successful parties ignored or abandoned.
But these insurgent parties often quickly backslid on their founding principles when it became politic to do so. The Anti-Masonic Party, for example, was founded in the wake of the New York murder of a man planning to divulge Freemason secrets. It was dedicated to curbing the influence of the supposedly sinister secret society in American political life. Yet in 1832 it nominated for president William Wirt—a former attorney general and unrepentant Freemason. Similarly, in 1855 the staunchly anti-Catholic American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothing Party, found itself winning the governorship in Louisiana with a Catholic candidate.
One of America's current two major parties was itself a "third" party. The Republicans were formed from remnants of the Whig, Free-Soil, Liberty, and Know-Nothing parties—basically, all the groups that fought against slavery's extension into new states and territories. The Republicans first won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln in 1860, only six years after its founding, in an election in which four candidates made decent (better than 10 percent) showings. That early Republican success doesn't hold out much hope for third parties nowadays, though: The nascent GOP's victory only came with the complete disappearance of the formerly major Whig Party.
As the 19th century wore on, parties such as the Greenbacks and Populists made strong showings by standing up for constituents and beliefs that the Republicans and Democrats ignored—especially farmers and their demand for cheap money. In 1890, for instance, the People's Party (the Populists' official name) won 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and three in the U.S. Senate. At the state level in the same year, it captured three governorships and majorities in seven state legislatures. From 1896 to 1916, nonmajor parties held six governorships, 1,761 seats in state legislatures, and 116 seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
Our contemporary fixation withfederal (and presidential) politics tends to diminish those achievements, lending support to Disch's thesis about the "system" of two-party dominance. Disch documents how the academic discipline of political science uses "the two-party system [as] more than a term of reference. It is a synonym for the United States political system and an organizing principle for textbook knowledge of electoral democracy…it is one of several 'unresearched hypotheses' that orient action and speculation not because they are established in fact but because they have become 'almost imperceptibly…imbedded in the conventional wisdom.'"
She locates part of the reason for this reliance on two-party dogma in a larger demand of the social sciences: "The two-party system, like the military, the hospital, the education system, and the law, forms bridges between social power and academic knowledge. Like each of these, it orders human behavior so as to render it amenable to such characteristically modern forms of analysis as statistics and quantitative analysis." Disch suggests that concentrating on such institutions helps social scientists reduce the blooming, buzzing confusion of social reality into something simpler, more controlled, and quantifiable.
Of course, two-party power comes from more than just ideology. Around the turn of the century a wave of "good government" reforms began cementing the legal privileges of the two major parties. Through the 19th century, the government didn't control the printing of ballots. Parties themselves printed ballots for their candidates and supplied them for voters to cast. Within fairly wide parameters, all you needed was access to a printing press to be as legitimate a candidate as any other. The creation of state-issued ballots, with state rules for who could appear on them (rules designed by the two major parties for their benefit), helped destroy vital third parties by making it expensive—often prohibitively so—for them even to be on the ballot. The government takeover of the ballot was part of a general movement around the turn of the century to take power away from independent party structures and imbed it in the state, in the name of halting the evils of patronage and corruption. Not surprisingly, in doing so, the dominant Democrats and Republicans arranged it so that the new barriers and controls stymied their competitors more than they harmed the big parties.
Disch is not a disinterested academic studying America's two-party system. She has a cause to defend: ballot fusion. This is the once-prevalent practice in which two different parties nominate the same candidate for an office, giving voters the chance to select a single candidate under two different party affiliations. Now illegal in most states, fusion offers a way around one of the most compelling arguments against casting minor party votes: that such a vote is wasted, since your candidate has no chance of winning. (The "wasting your vote" argument implicitly assumes that if your vote can't actually sway the election, it isn't worth casting. But barring the complete miracle of an election actually being decided by one vote, you are always wasting your vote if actually turning the outcome of the election is all that matters.)
Disch argues that hitching their wagon to more prominent candidates would allow minor parties to build up steam and gain legal ballot access (which is typically tied to votes cast for a party in the previous election). It would also show candidates exactly how much of their support comes from people of certain beliefs that might be a minority view within the larger party coalition. Imagine Greens having a chance to vote for Al Gore as Greens—and its possible effect on that party's future.
Disch's passion for fusion arose from her active involvement in 1994 with a Minnesota-based minor party, the Twin Cities Area New Party (TCANP). TCANP was a local branch of the national New Party, which strove, Disch writes, to be "a political home for progressives who saw no room for themselves in Bill Clinton's Democratic Party." The TCANP wanted to nominate Andy Dawkins as a candidate for the state House of Representatives, even though he was also seeking the Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) nomination. (The DFL is itself a quaint survivor of an older day of more lively third parties, the result of a permanent fusion between an alternative party and the Democrats.) But Minnesota had a 1901 law that made it illegal for a candidate in a primary to also be put on the ballot by petition. The state denied the TCANP's petition to make Dawkins its candidate as well. The party sued. The case, Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In its decision against the TCANP, the Supreme Court openly, tenderly defended two-party dominance, even though it's not a foundational part of the American political system. The Court's majority opinion said that states have the right to conclude that political stability is "best served through a healthy two-party system" and that they can enact regulations that "may, in practice, favor the traditional two-party system." As Disch writes, dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens "noted that the Court's emphasis was peculiar, as 'Minnesota did not argue in its briefs that the preservation of the two-party system supported the fusion ban.'" The two-party system held such sway over the Supreme Court majority that it saw arguments in support of it even where no such arguments had been made.
While Disch wants more space for third parties to arise and grow within the American system, she isn't satisfied with the ones that have arisen lately. She has little good to say about the third-party efforts of recidivist presidential candidate Ross Perot and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Such candidates, she sniffs, "do not so much complement and correct the dominant parties as mimic them," adding that "if Jesse Ventura's success is any indication, the twenty-first century third party is more likely to intensify the libertarian leanings of liberalism than to challenge such fundamental separations as those between public and private, state and market, national order and global order."
That quote exhibits Disch's limited view of what valuable contributions third parties might make to the American political scene. For example, she never mentions, even once, the most consistently successful and longest-lasting third party of our era, the Libertarian Party. She has a highly constrained vision of what minor parties could and should mean: a more active left-leaning politics in America.
Disch does, however, correctly note that in politics we sit still for a restriction of choices that would seem intolerable in commercial markets: just two choices we have any chance of getting! The differences between the electoral market and real markets are perhaps too obvious to be belabored. But it's worth noting that it's an exaggeration even to say that voters get two "real" choices, since only those selecting the winner will actually get what they want. And if getting what you want means a specific set of policy actions as opposed to merely putting a candidate into office, any voter's chance of getting what she really wants shrinks even more. The old saw about those who don't vote having no right to complain gets it backward: Those who do vote are implicitly agreeing to the rules of the system whereby the winner takes all, and thus have no right to complain.
Proliferation of options, whether in the world of goods and services or the world of politics, leads to wonderful things. But the results are always unpredictable. It isn't easy to authoritatively predict what would happen if we eliminated the protectionist measures the major parties have ginned up against potential rivals. But it's undeniable that new ideas and possibilities would arise.
Similarly, it's almost certain that, as Disch argues, fusion would make it easier for ineffectual interest groups within the major parties to make a real show of strength as minor parties. This likely would cause the ideological dominance of the two-party system, which treats minor parties either as irrelevant jokes or as dangerous interlopers, to weaken.
In a system like America's, where a party can swing 49 percent of the vote in every congressional contest and still not win a thing, third parties are unlikely to ever fill many offices. But such parties can provide benefits to the polity unconnected with holding office. The public's imagination about political possibilities is choked off by two-party legal and ideological dominance. One political scientist waggishly—but probably accurately—describes the average American's political ideology as a "mild blend of consensus and apathy." The insistently bland centrism that two-party dominance creates bears a great deal of blame for that. The American system, unlike one based on proportional representation, encourages a what-he-said rush to the middle in an attempt to attract a majority, resulting in the proverbial less-than-a-dime's-worth difference between the two major parties.
Two-party dominance has not been rigid and unchanging, however. Today's Democrats and Republicans are hardly pushing the same ideas they were in 1860, or even 1960. But they do represent a consistent tyranny of centrism, and a generally unimaginative centrism. For example, both Pew and Gallup polls have shown 73 percent of Americans supporting medical marijuana, but it's a rare politician hooked up with a major party who dares suggest such a policy.
Whether Disch's proposed solution—abolishing anti-fusion laws—would really solve third parties' problems is uncertain. Still, all such legal barriers—from anti-fusion laws to absurdly restrictive ballot access requirements to campaign finance laws that hamstring minor parties' fund raising ability even while denying them federal subsidies—are harmful to a vital democracy and ought to be abandoned.
It may be, as political scientists who preach the gospel of the two-party system swear, that it really does meet all of Americans' political needs. (Even those who deign to study third parties usually frame their discussion in terms of what third parties have to offer the two-party system—for example, a harmless outlet for dissent or an incubator for daring new ideas.) If two parties truly are so satisfying, it might be because, as routinely low voter turnout figures show, Americans have few political needs that elections meet. Those who want a world where government is less important might find some cheer in the fact that most Americans don't consider elections an important part of their lives.