I know many people hope to see the rise of a third party to rival that of the establishment. Sorry to break it to everyone, but that just isn’t going to happen. The reason? The country wasn’t designed that way. This is not to say that parties can’t change, parties have mutated and evolved over time. But there will always be a left and a right and only such.
Our country is plagued by a “winner-take-all” system, also referred to as a plurality system. This type of election system favors parties who are large and well-organized, and once two have hit that middle ground other parties are left in the dust. The result is that parties such as the Green party don’t receive enough votes to earn any seats in government. After time, they lose any incentive to continue to organize and run a serious campaign.
These parties may still have some sway at the periphery, but their only real purpose in the political system is to try to help set an agenda for the bigger guys. But they will never take the helm. I’m sure you’ve heard of people saying they support a particular candidate but didn’t vote for them “because they will never win.” This is much more prevalent than you may imagine, and leads to even disgruntled voters picking between two parties.
In the United States we vote by a single-member district system, where only one person is elected for each “district” meaning that only the big guys have any chance of being represented. The alternative, which is practiced commonly in Europe and South America, is a proportionally representative system where multiple members are elected to a representative seat. This means, that once you pass a certain threshold, such as 5% of the vote, you are awarded a seat. Under this system a party doesn’t necessarily have to win the entire vote to be represented in the government and affords a place for nearly all the fringes of society.
Some nations use this type of system and then go for a “run-off” election, where the publican can then vote again for those who passed a certain threshold. In a sort of hybrid highly representative voting system, that may still only grant a limited number of seats per district.
This isn’t just me speculating reasons for why we have a two-party system. The fact is cemented in Duverger’s Law that concludes that:
plurality election single-ballot procedures are likely to produce two-party systems whereas proportional representation and runoff designs encourage multipartyism.
In a winner-take-all system such as the one we have in the US, weaker parties are encouraged to form alliances to try to match the power of the other more dominant party (“Tea Party” and Republicans?).
Now, a two-party system will certainly work towards the middle, trying to attract the greatest number of voters at the expense of pleasing any specific voter. If you ask most in this country, they will tell you that they like some policies of both parties but not all the policies. This is because the parties don’t cater to any individual group. Sounds good? Well it’s not all golden.
A two-party system implies that there will always be a majority and a minority party. The majority has an incentive to stay that way as they lose their voice if they lose. This leads to partisan warfare. We have seen this with the gerrymandering of districts to benefit the party of the majority in any given state, gridlock, and the relentless smears between our two parties.
Are we stuck? Well, there is certainly room for reform that can block some of the ills of our voting system. There are definitely pros and cons of using the plurality system and pro-democratic reforms may help us overcome our challenges without scrapping it. Today, two states (Main and Nebraska) give their votes electoral votes for president in proportion – that is an example of a start.