Monday, February 18, 2013

Founder's Follies VI: The Two-Party System

This is the sixth installment of Chredon's analysis of the making of the Constitution, and where the Founders went wrong. For background, see the previous issues:

Issue I: The Founders' World - Historical context of the Constitution
Issue II: The Confederate Period - The failure of the Articles of Confederation
Issue III: Washington and Madison - The Father of our Country and the Father of the Constitution
Issue IV: The Constitutional Convention - The Primary Issues at Philadelphia Convention

Other Topics of Discussion:

Issue V: Bobbing for Senators - Was the Seventeenth Amendment Really a Good Idea?

A Google search of the phrase 'the US two-party system' returns approximate 286 million hits. A search of 'the loch ness monster' returns only 3 million. I mention this because, like Nessie, the US two-party system doesn't really exist.

Except that it does. Sort of.

There is no Constitutional mandate that our government have only two parties. It has merely worked out that way. And oddly, it has worked out that way for over two hundred years. So the question for the Constitutional scholar is this - is the de facto two party system merely the inevitable result of the all-too-human proclivity to choose sides? Or is it inherent in the very fabric of our Constitution and the institutions that surround it?

Historically, we have always divided into two camps here in America. When Thomas Jefferson proposed a smaller Committee of the States, he lamented that the new group  “quarreled very soon, split into two parties, and abandoned their post.” While writing the Constitution, Madison commented that when it came to determining the size and method of electing the two houses of Congress, the states split into two camps, large states and small. But when it came time to discuss the powers that the states would give up to the Federal government, the convention split along north-south lines.

During the period in which the Constitution was being ratified, we had Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

After it was ratified, we had the Federalist Party (led by John Adams) and the Democratic-Republican Party (led by Thomas Jefferson). 

Throughout the history of the United States, though parties have come and gone upon occasion, we have almost always had two, and usually only two, significant political parties. There have been, on very rare occasions, a third-party candidate who received a few Electoral College votes for President. But none of them lasted longer than a single Presidential election cycle. The Populist movement had a brief but unsuccessful heyday between 1880 and 1912, and an anti-Civil Right movement in the South saw a couple of third parties win a handful of electoral college votes in the 1950s and 1960s. The last third party to win any electoral college votes for President was the Libertarian Party in 1972, when John Hospers got a single vote. 

Duverger's Law tells us that the two-party system is inherent in the way our political structures are formed. Two fundamental elements of our voting system are the one-person, one-vote idea, and the idea of majority rule. In that sort of an environment, people must band together to try to get a little more than 50% of any vote in order to win. Thus, weak parties will merge with more powerful ones in order to get the votes needed for victory, or voters will flee smaller parties with no chance of victory and join larger parties capable of achieving the 50% requirement.

Of course, not all elections require a majority. Some are first-past-the-post, meaning that the person with the most votes wins, even if they have less than a majority. Some places would require a run-off in these cases, but some don't - sort of like the way Mitt Romney was winning the GOP primary getting 35% of the vote (to his opponents' 25% or less).

A moment of reflection on this concept will convince you that the two-party system is inevitable. But it is inevitable because of the way we vote.

Imagine that your state is voting for a Senator. You have five candidates from five different parties, the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green, and Constitution Parties. Imagine that the Democratic and Republican candidates have the support of 35% of the voters each, and the other three parties have 10% each. Unsure of the victory, what would the Democrats and Republicans do? Obviously, they would reach out to the other three parties and try to form a coalition to get to 50%. The major party that is able to get two of the minor parties on board would be the winner. Seeing that their own candidate has no chance at victory, would the supporters of the three minor parties vote their preference anyway? Or would they opt not to 'waste' their vote on a lost cause and instead support the major party candidate whose views most closely match their own? After all, to stay with your own party would be to risk splitting the vote such that the viewpoint you most oppose has the greater chance of victory. Few will risk that.

So how could we possibly get viable smaller parties in the United States? We would have to change how elections work - specifically, we would have to change BACK to the ways the Founders designed it.

If you read the Constitution, it says nothing about dividing the states into Congressional districts and having one representative from each. It says, simply "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states." So as long as they were chosen by direct popular election, there was no limit to how that choice could be made. In the early years of the Republic, Representatives were generally chosen by at-large voting (no districts), though each office would have only two candidates. Congress eventually mandated single-member districts by rules passed in 1842. But those rules changed back and forth for over 100 years. A 1967 law required congressional districts and outlawed any sort of at-large voting. (This was done over fear that southern states might revert to at-large voting as a way to suppress minority votes.) 

Since this law was passed, there has never been more than one member of a third party serving in Congress at any time, nor more than one or two Independents.

Today, many groups are advocating new voting systems, like Range Voting or Instant Runoff Voting in an attempt to give voters more choices in their representation, or to at least get around the wasted vote issue, or the problem of a first-past-the-post election being won by someone with only 25% of the vote. But while these methods will make it easier to get a third-party candidate onto the ballot and convince people to make them their top selection, it still doesn't end the process of having to choose only one person for one office. To really get third-party options into the House (and eventually the Senate and higher), you have to get rid of the single-district vote and go back to at-large votes for larger pools of people.

Imagine, if you will, a state with three House members. Instead of having three contests, one for each seat, with most contests having just two contestants and a couple of third-party candidate, all contestants go into one pool. Using Instant Runoff Voting, all the voters rank the 8 candidates in order of preference. Count up how many #1 votes each candidate got and rank them in order.

Now, take the person who came in eighth. Eliminate that candidate and distribute his votes to the voters' #2 choice. Now take the candidate who came in seventh and do the same, then sixth, and so on until there are only three left - these are the three winners.

The results are much more likely to reflect the will of the people. A third-party candidate could potentially take one of the seats (and even more likely in a state with more Representatives). And the distribution along party lines is more likely to be consistent with the party affiliation of the voters (as opposed to the results of voting in gerrymandered districts).

Once that was in place, we would begin to see changes in the makeup of Congress. Changes that might make it necessary to build coalitions inside the House, a wider range of ideologies represented, and potentially a return to bipartisan agreements instead of stubborn party-line votes.

Until then, we're stuck with an entrenched two-party system that does more to entrench itself every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment