Frustration alone won’t change the two-party system

Greg Nash

With considerable fanfare, former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang joined with moderate Republicans, including former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, to announce a new centrist political party, Forward. The goal is laudable — to avoid the increasingly dire choices of two parties, each catering to the demands of their strident base.

But absent serious structural change, Forward’s mission can’t succeed. Commentators note the risk of Forward fracturing the Democratic Party, benefiting Trump’s Republican Party in the upcoming midterms, or worse, the 2024 general election. The concern isn’t idle. In our political system, third parties have historically played a confounding role either as spoilers, benefiting the major party ideologically more distant from the voter supporting them, as Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in 2000, or rendering the outcome between the two major party candidates random, pulling voters from either side, gambling on which will command a plurality. Bill Clinton won his first presidential election with 43 percent of the vote. Although Ross Perot probably didn’t pull more votes from George H.W. Bush, his candidacy posed risks for both major candidates.

This helps explain why Yang announced Forward’s plan to endorse Democratic or Republican primary candidates that support his new party’s platform, rather than running its own presidential candidate. But there’s no reason to believe the Forward endorsement will let moderates who failed in the past suddenly succeed. Forward also endorses Ranked Choice Voting and open primaries. For this to succeed, we’d either need candidates representing multiple parties, which Forward disclaims doing, or we’d have to interfere with the constitutional protections parties have in choosing the processes for selecting their nominees. 

Yang notes that two-thirds of Americans are frustrated with our two-party system. I’m right there with them, which is why I’m writing a book on how to bring about serious change allowing genuine third parties to flourish. The difficulty is that frustration alone won’t change the system producing it.

Consider the familiar game known as the prisoner’s dilemma. The police separate two individuals charged with a crime, telling them that if both remain silent, they’ll each be convicted of a minor offense and sentenced to six months. If one rats out the other and the other remains silent, the rat walks and the silent one is sentenced to five years. If both turn state’s evidence, ratting out the other, each is convicted and sentenced to three years. The best combined strategy is for each to stay silent, but with pencil and paper, it’s easy to see that behaving rationally, each prisoner rats out the other, leading to a worse outcome of three years each.

One of the most profound insights of game theory is that recognizing you’re in a prisoner’s dilemma won’t get you out of it. The fact that two thirds of our electorate are frustrated with our electoral system does not mean that willing a third party into being will make it stick. A better outcome demands creating a better game. The only way to produce actual third (or more) parties is through structural reform, creating a market that rewards rather than punishes those supporting them.

We have a two-party system because of direct elections both for Congress and the presidency. The French political scientist and jurist Maurice Duverger famously observed that direct elections by district, as in the U.S. and the U.K., produce two-party systems. But two-party systems aren’t inevitable. Across the globe, democracies routinely have multiple parties, although not all multi-party systems do it well. Scholars have noted that some multiparty systems are prone to serious governance challenges in assembling governing coalitions, and in cases of extreme fragmentation can invite corruption and graft.

The hardest task in devising a well-run democratic system is achieving the Goldilocks principle — striking a proper balance, with neither too many parties nor too few. There are ways to do this, but the path forward isn’t simply to declare a new party, risking making matters worse in a system not structured to accommodate it.

It’s true that in the U.S., we’ve had more than two parties at various times in our history. The Republican Party irreparably fractured an earlier party once known as the Whigs. But it did so by driving a wedge that split the Whigs willing to accommodate slavery and Whigs who refused to do so. Once that occurred, even as Republicans themselves split on how to end slavery, there was no room for the Whig Party. Our system transformed from one two-party system, Democrats and Whigs, to another, the Democrats and Republicans. Those two parties have dominated our politics ever since.

The difficulty facing Forward is that there’s no obvious means by which that party will displace either the Democratic or the Republican Parties. It’s a hopeful gambit, but a gambit nonetheless. If it fails, Forward’s leaders will not suffer the cost. We all will. The better path forward isn’t to declare a third party. It’s to engage in serious conversations about the necessary structural reforms required to bring about space for genuine third parties to thrive.

Max Stearns, JD, is the Venable, Baetjer & Howard Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. His forthcoming book “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy” will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2024.

Tags Andrew Yang Bill Clinton Christine Todd Whitman forward party Ralph Nader Ross Perot Ross Perot presidential campaign third party candidate third party candidates Whigs

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