Two Parties, Like it or Not

TCS Daily

August 10, 2006

Every so often I read that the Democrats are about to implode, how various rifts will tear the Republicans asunder, that the Libertarians will emerge as a competitive party, or about the emerging Independent majority. These are all fascinating as ways of examining current events but they fly in the face of historical reality.

It is no accident that our Republic has had a two party system in place in virtually every election cycle since the founding and that the Democrats and Republicans have taken turns governing since 1860. The Constitution all but assures that our politics will be dominated by exactly two parties and politics helps ensure that the current two parties will be the two parties of the future.Presidential races are, as all Americans are by now surely aware, decided by the Electoral College. Every four years, we have fifty-one separate elections, one in each state plus the District of Columbia. Forty-eight states and DC award a slate of delegates pledged to vote for their plurality winner. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, who award two at-large electors to the statewide plurality winner and one elector to the plurality winner in each of their congressional districts. To be elected president, one must amass 270 electoral votes (50 percent plus one of the 538 electors). If no candidate gets a majority, as would happen in a race where three or more candidates got a very large number of votes, the House of Representatives would decide the election by a somewhat arcane method I’ll refrain from boring you with here.

The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs ever two years in first-past-the-post races in 435 single member districts. That is, the races go to whoever gets the most votes, even if no one gets a majority.

One third of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are up for election every two years. They are all contested at-large (voters from the whole state in one big pot, rather than in smaller regions) with the plurality winner taking the seat.

Because there is no prize for second place, as in the proportional representation system common in many parliamentary systems, our system encourages — indeed, essentially forces — candidates and parties to the political center in an attempt to get as close to a majority as possible or, in the case of multi-candidate elections, more than anyone else. For all practical purposes, ideological parties such as the Libertarians have no prayer in such a system, as they will seldom emerge with a plurality in even a congressional district, let alone a state-wide Senate or presidential contest.

Political scientists term the boring, unprincipled, ever-shifting political groupings that tend to coalesce in systems such as ours “Catch-all parties.” While formed by people with similar political allegiances, the successful ones expand the size of their “tent” as much as necessary to be competitive. And, again, “competitive” in elections for American federal offices means enough to appeal to a majority, or at least a plurality, of the voters in a given district, state, or collection of states.

The Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and dozens of other parties that most have never heard of are far more interesting than the Republicans or Democrats. They are also more intellectually coherent and ideologically principled. Their adherents tend to give better speeches and write more interesting public policy essays. Alas, none appeal to more than a sliver of voters. So, while one of their standard bearers may win the occasional city council or state legislative seat — or even, once every few blue moons, a U.S. House seat — none will ever be elected president, much less elect a majority in either house of Congress.

The idea that either the Democrats or Republicans are likely to either fall apart because of bickering among the numerous factions that make up the alliance or by pushing their ideological preferences so far as to alienate the country is also incredibly far-fetched. To be sure, there is frequently an argument to be made that, if present trends continue, one or both parties will do precisely that. Unfortunately for the hopeful, however, those trends don’t continue very long.

There was talk during the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Democrats had simply gone too far to the left, at least on the national level. They were nominating guys like Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern and seemed to be in league with the Flower Children, runnin’ down the country and walkin’ on the fightin’ side of Merle Haggard.

By the mid-1970s, it looked like the Republicans were doomed. There was Watergate, runaway inflation, out-of-control intelligence operations, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon. It got so bad, the country elected Jimmy Carter. Which pretty much ended the Republicans’ problems.

Indeed, during the Reagan and Bush (41) years, political scientists and pundits alike talked about a GOP “lock” on the Electoral College. With runaway victories in 1972, 1984 and 1988, combined with wins in 1968 and 1980 (and coming oh-so-close even in 1976) it seemed inconceivable that the Republicans could lose the presidency.

Bill Clinton picked that lock in 1992. It wasn’t just that he was a uniquely gifted orator and campaigner and his opponent was neither. Or that the country was tired of the Republicans. The landscape had simply changed in the blink of an eye.

The Cold War was over, obviating the Republicans’ natural advantage in national security policy. The growing Hispanic population and other changes suddenly put California — long a Republican stronghold — into play and, soon, a gimme for the Democrats. And the Democratic Party of McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis was suddenly gone, replaced by New Democrats like Clinton who could talk about Jesus, values, and family with the best of them.

Indeed, it looked like national security would never be an issue again. Then came the 9/11 attacks.

Is it possible that the Democrats will be overtaken by the excitable “netroots” and veer so far to the left that they miss their golden opportunity to take back the Congress in November? Absolutely.

Conversely, could the Republicans interpret narrowly holding onto both Houses of Congress as a mandate to continue spending money like drunken sailors and grandstanding on issues like flag burning, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo? You bet.

Neither trend, should it materialize, however, will continue for long. Catch-all parties exist for one thing only: To win elections. Historically, it hasn’t taken take too many lost elections to cause a major course correction. In the modern information age, it doesn’t take too many consecutive polls to cause strategy changes.

Modern political parties change identities as fast as Al Gore changes personalities. That fact simultaneously frustrates hard core partisans and yet ensures their long-term survival.

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