Our Two-Party Political System Isn’t Working. The Fix? More Parties.

From a Washington Post column by Lee Drutman headlined “Our two-party political system isn’t working. The fix? More parties.”:

It’s presidential campaign season, so pick your panic: The No Labels organization threatens to run a centrist such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as a third-party candidate, most likely only helping Donald Trump win. Philosopher Cornel West threatens to reenact the hopeless crusade of 2016 third-party candidate Jill Stein. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is threatening to use the open primary process to seize control of the Democratic Party the way the QAnon/MAGA crowd has taken over the GOP.

On their own, each of these efforts is a mix of quixotic and destructive. Collectively, they reflect the clear and present inadequacy of our two-party system to manage mounting frustration and anger with our dysfunctional politics. In our knife’s-edge system, just the slightest disturbance caused by foolhardy but well-funded vanity could make the whole thing fracture into chaos.

There’s a better way to represent the country’s diversity and offer more citizens a hopeful, engaging vision for the future: create more parties.

But real, vibrant, healthy parties. Not top-down one-shot presidential candidacies, built only on the passing winds of celebrity and whims of wealthy donors. Not parties whose completely open primaries leave them vulnerable to populist outsiders. We need parties that do the hard work of candidate-vetting and gatekeeping and organizing and coalition-building that political parties are uniquely able to do; parties that organize from the bottom up, giving disaffected voters a voice, a collective identity and a long-term institution for building real power.

A call for better party democracy might strike some readers as odd: Look at how poorly our parties are performing. And you want more of them? Couldn’t we do better without political parties at all and just think for ourselves? This “rot at the core of the party system” is a familiar trope in American political reform. In every era of reform (the 1830s, the 1900s and the 1960s), leading activists have railed against the evils of the party system and tried to break the parties open.

All those reform eras had the same classic objective: more direct democracy. Yet each time, after an initial burst of engaged participation, the forces of organized power found new ways to overwhelm politics. The parties remained, and each attempt to “democratize” them has moved true authority deeper into the shadows.

Consider the Progressive Era’s introduction of the direct primary for congressional elections. The well-intentioned idea was to allow everyone, not just the party bosses, to participate in candidate selection. The reality is that incumbents almost always win. Uber-wealthy donors wield disproportionate power in candidate selection. Only the most engaged partisans vote in primaries. If anything, more open primaries have made our politics worse — more polarized, more exclusive, and with the parties deprived of their most important role: vetting and selecting candidates for office.

Or take the post-1968 reforms to open up the presidential nominating process. Again, the intention was to take power away from a narrow cabal of party insiders. Instead, the move created a process controlled by different cabals. It opened the door to Trump becoming president and made the parties weaker as institutions. It’s the reason RFK Jr. is being taken more seriously than his crank views deserve.

Like it or not, there is simply no way around organized parties in modern mass democracy. Something needs to organize power and arrange policy choices. And political parties are the most effective, transparent, inclusive vehicles for doing this. Unlike with other political organizations (such as lobbying associations), political parties’ success depends above all on votes, the only democratic metric in which all individuals count alike, regardless of their bank accounts.

Rather than treating political parties as obstacles to healthy democracy, we should see them as facilitators of healthy democracy. Healthy parties aggregate the long-term policy goals of diverse groups. They communicate the consequences of these policies to voters and engage and mobilize them. They vet and support qualified candidates for public office. They assemble governing majorities and broker compromises to solve public problems.

Healthy parties also perform all these roles with honesty and integrity. They do not lie to voters or engage in corruption. Most importantly, they adhere to the basic tenets of democracy — mutual toleration and forbearance. Healthy parties police extremism and authoritarianism in their ranks. They do not dehumanize their political opponents or tolerate violence, let alone endorse it. They accept electoral defeat with grace and electoral victory with humility.

The way to build the health of our political parties and thus of our democracy is by ensuring meaningful competition. We might have a two-party system, but in most parts of the country, we really have only a one-party system. Even where the two parties compete, they each have an effective monopoly on opposition. Only vibrant multiparty democracy can create enough competition. We need reforms that expand the possibilities for more and better parties to form.

As reform proposals begin to proliferate in response to the widespread sense of democratic decline, they tend to fall into two types: candidate-centric and party-centric.

Candidate-centric reforms, focused on elevating moderates and finding better candidates, include open primaries, ranked-choice voting and a combination of the two. This approach is aimed at making politics less partisan and implicitly treats political parties as obstacles to good governance.

Though candidate-centric reforms can sometimes work in targeted circumstances, they are unlikely to have sustainable long-term effects because they fail to address the core questions of the political party system. They rely on candidates self-nominating and often self-funding. It’s a system well-suited to allow more Kennedys — i.e., individuals with name recognition and money — to run for office.

Party-centric reforms, by contrast, focus on creating space for new parties to organize. New parties can empower voters to make new choices and elevate new types of candidates. The most promising and doable pro-party reforms are fusion voting and proportional representation. Fusion voting allows multiple parties to endorse the same candidate, encouraging new party formation. Proportional representation ends the single-member district and makes it possible for multiple parties to win a proportional share of representation in larger, multi-member districts.

Because it gives moderates an opportunity to form a party, fusion is also an immediate pro-parties solution to extremism. A party of moderates can offer an off-ramp for those who are disgusted with the extremism in their own party but are not fully ready to vote for the other one. Voting for a “Moderate Party” or “Common Sense Party” offers a way to signal this view and to form a new identity. A powerful example comes from the 1850s. Back then, fusion voting gave anti-slavery advocates a party foothold when the two-party system tried to shut them out. Eventually, the anti-slavery parties formed a new major party — the Republicans.

Today, more parties across the political spectrum could offer a way out of the zero-sum partisan deadlock. It is America’s best hope for a more fluid and responsive political system capable of realigning instead of breaking down. The goal should be modest multipartyism, aiming for five or six parties. Enough to provide diverse representation but not so much as to make governing fractious and voting confusing. A sweet spot does exist.

I believe that U.S. democracy is now entering a fourth significant period of reform. Though this era is still nascent, there is increasing interest in structural change. So let’s get started.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America and the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.” This column is adapted from his new report, “More Parties, Better Parties: The Case for Pro-Parties Democracy Reform.”

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