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In Defense of the Two-Party System
The socio-political problems observed in American society are more the result of political dysfunction and cultural decay than a reflection of its two-party system.
Political parties are organizations and institutions, not inherently monolithic factions. Until only recently, political parties were constituted of many different internal factions. To the extent that our current party system is dysfunctional and monolithic, it’s because people have fled them and allowed small and extreme factions to control them.
If everyone engaged in one or the other party, it would be far more difficult for these extreme internal factions to wholly control the parties. And, politicians would feel more emboldened and protected to do more than just pander to the only factions that actually engage in the parties.
I think there are still many different factions and interests in America, both on the local and national level, as James Madison foresaw. But these factions and interests aren’t engaging in a way that reflects a decentralized federalist scheme. They’re clamoring for victory in what they view as a centralized national government. We’ve made our politics zero-sum.
So, we have an atmosphere of heightened fear and anxiety but one where people are also not engaging in political institutions, which allows extreme factions and interests to gain control. This is why I worry less about the two-party system and less about the existence of factions and more about renewing our constitutional culture and shoring up the processes of government that can channel the realities of faction in a healthier way.
In fact, I remain a steadfast proponent of two-party systems and see them as much more preferable and better able to weather the winds of populism and factionalism than multi-party systems. In this newsletter, I’ll offer three main thrusts for why.
First, specific to America, our system is designed to require consensus in a winner-take-all electoral process. With the necessity of having to gain a true majority to win elections, there is simply no room for more than two viable parties because a party that does not reflect the general interests of at least half of the electorate can’t get enough support to win elections in the American system.
This is why, while the two-party system is not a codified aspect of our constitutional order, there have never been more than two major parties in competition with each other from the beginning of the republic to the present day. The early “parties” were the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. Those who considered themselves Jeffersonian Republicans would eventually coalesce into the Jacksonian Democrats, and Federalists, generally, would eventually become the Whigs. When the Whigs were split by the slave issue, the Lincoln Republican Party was established. And then, those have been our parties even through serious legitimacy crises for one party or the other such as the Civil War, Jim Crow, McCarthyism, the Nixon resignation, and now the Trump Era.
So, the reality is that the electoral system itself and many of the mechanics of our government would have to be changed to allow for a multi-party system. The conundrum is, even if a reasonable argument for such a dramatic adjustment of the constitutional order can be made, such a complicated reframing of the electoral system is unlikely to occur in such a dysfunctional and hyper-partisan atmosphere. Neither party in its present state would ever view the other party as a good-faith operator in establishing a new electoral system. And, as both sides have demonstrated, there is good reason for this bipartisan lack of trust.
Second, one aspect of our current dysfunction that’s often missed, and one that Jonah Goldberg has reiterated time and time again, is that the political decay largely results from weak political parties and not powerful ones. The primary system has turned the selection of party candidates into demagogic popularity contests where populist usurpers reflecting their often extreme interests can usurp the stated platforms of the parties and distort the process of compromise and coalition within functional and healthy parties.
The creation and advocacy of third parties within a winner-take-all system, such as we have, ultimately leads citizens to abandon the political parties, which, like it or not, remain the two pipelines through which candidates are selected for office. Third-party efforts within a political system that only affords two credible parties (as discussed in my first point) lead to a further weakening of the major parties and only compounds the problem.
For a two-party system to operate effectively, broad participation is necessary from the people who must coalesce into multiple factions within those parties. Third-party efforts and “non-partisan” independent movements punctuate rather than correct dysfunction as they rob the two major parties of the pluralism necessary for them to be healthy institutions. And, crucially, they do this without effectively undermining the authority of the two major parties, who continue to be the two pipelines through which candidates are selected for office. Third parties and independent movements do little more than ensure single-faction dominance of major parties.
Finally, in comparing two-party systems and multi-party systems across the world, there are several observable realities that don’t quite fit the expectations of those who desire a multi-party system but live in a two-party system.
One of the most consistent arguments for multi-party systems is that they better afford the necessity for compromise, coalition-building, and deliberation. But this ends up not always being the case. In fact, in the right circumstances, it is the two-party systems that end up better able to provide these things.
In a healthy society with a functioning political culture, there are generally too many interests and factions for any single interest or faction to have enough support on its own to gain the true majority necessary to achieve political victory in a winner-takes-all system. This reality necessitates engagement in a major party that functions as a political institution where factions engage in coalition building and/or allyship. Thus, in a functioning two-party system, the major parties operate as organizing platforms comprising many factions and interests and not as monolithic factions themselves. This also engenders humility in office rather than misguided belief in electoral mandates since officeholders must maintain the support of the several interests and factions that combined to give them a coalition for victory.
Multi-party systems, on the other hand, have been observed to afford the creation of many, many political parties that end up only reflecting single issues or small, narrow-minded factions. Coalitional building tends to only occur when a single party fails to gain requisite representation to form a unipolar government. And, out-of-power parties in multi-party systems tend to have little to no say in the functioning of government and instead act as purely symbolic opposition that must build towards future elections before they have any meaningful say in the government.
Because the threshold of legitimacy is low for a political party in a multi-party system, it becomes much easier for truly extremist parties to gain seats in government. Most multi-party systems, for example, generally have actual fascists and Marxists gaining seats in government (figures far worse and more radical than the AOCs and MTGs of America). And, when the circumstances are right, such extreme elements can suddenly surge to control of the government through only marginally strong pluralities that rise to the top because of severely divided electorates or, even if only still representing minuscule segments of society, end up being invited into a coalition to form a government. The worst-case scenario, of course, is the Weimar Republic in pre-Nazi Germany, where the Nazi Party was able to rise to power and fully thwart democracy though they never truly had much more than 30% support from the electorate while the democratic processes were still functioning.
Ultimately, however, the debate between multi-party and two-party systems falls into a case of the grass looking greener on the other side. Neither system can fully absorb the consequences of a dysfunctional political culture. There are plenty of examples of functioning republics with either system and plenty of examples of politically decaying societies with either system.
My observations have led me to conclude that two-party systems are superior, especially for large and diverse republics such as the United States, and that the provisions of the US Constitution necessitate a two-party system. And I’ve laid out part of my case for this observation in this newsletter. But really, the crux of the matter is the health of a country’s political culture, the efficacy of its unwritten constitution. Whether two-party or multi-party systems are functional largely depends on whether the values and ideals that make them work exist in the hearts and minds of a nation’s citizens.
Here’s What’s Happening
To Get You Thinking
Earthquake Undermines Erdogan’s Reelection Strategy - Sinan Ciddi: “His politics-first approach ahead of national elections in May has backfired. Now voters are demanding accountability for haphazard rescue and relief operations—as well as the corruption that gave rise to substandard buildings that collapsed in seconds.”
The War on Merit turns into Systemic Injustice - Asra Q. Nomani: “2,000 pages of emails obtained in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests…reveal that TJ staffers and administrators…willfully engaged in a deliberate pattern and practice of withholding awards, devaluing their worth, and deceiving parents in the process.”
The 1619 Project Gets Its Facts Wrong Yet Again - Dan McLaughlin: “While the project contains some useful perspective on the history of slavery, segregation, and racism in America, it is wrapped in a highly tendentious ideological framework that ranges from rank Democratic partisanship to Marxist economic and political theory.”
What ‘pragmatic conservatives’ in the House say about Biden and the debt ceiling - Brigham Tomco: “Self-described ‘pragmatic’ Republicans expressed frustration with President Joe Biden’s refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling, even as they try to broker a compromise in order to stave off a possible crisis.”
Bernie Sanders Twists the Truth about American Health Care - Sally C. Pipes: “Health insurance doesn’t impose nearly as great a financial burden as Senator Sanders and his ideological fellow travelers at the Commonwealth Fund would have you believe.”
Princeton Fetes an Anti-Semite - WFB Editors: “On stage at Princeton—after university professor Zahid Chaudhary heralded him as a "truth teller,"…El-Kurd told the crowd that Palestinians have no choice but to resort to violence against Israelis.”
Putin can win only if Josh Hawley-esque isolationists multiply - George F. Will: “Putin can win only by Ukraine’s allies choosing to lose by not maximizing their moral and material advantages. He is counting on Western publics’ support for Ukraine being brittle, and especially on the multiplication of Josh Hawleys.”
Meet the Woke Activists behind the Roald Dahl Book Purge - Caroline Downey: “The bowdlerization was done with the blessing of Dahl’s estate by the U.K.-based consultancy Inclusive Minds, which is dedicated to ‘inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.’”
US secession is a great idea — for Russia - Rachel Kleinfeld: “Russia has been the biggest supporter of secession talk in the United States.”
Ukraine War Is Ron Desantis’s Security Test - Kimberly A. Strassel: “It would be a mistake for Mr. DeSantis to cast his lot with Mr. Trump. Politically, he would lose a defining issue to the former president. The governor has an opportunity to contrast a bold, well-thought-out foreign policy with Mr. Trump’s opaque retreatism.”
And Now for the Local Stuff
Local UT businessman donates 150-foot flagpole to Hurricane - St. George News: “The flagpole – worth an estimated $225,000 – will be installed at a new veterans memorial park planned to be built in Hurricane.”
ID Senate committee passes bill to ban sex, gender identity instruction before fifth grade - Post Register: “SB 1071 would prohibit instruction related to human sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity to students under fifth grade.”
WY Legislature passes bill to promote student apprenticeships and job training - Casper Star Tribune: “The Wyoming Legislature unanimously supported a bill seen as a way to invest in students while promoting economic development and diversification.”
A bill addressing the over-service of alcohol goes to the Utah Senate - KSL: “Last April, Eli Mitchell was walking his bike across the street to use his new debit card for the first time when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver who had been drinking for six hours straight.”
Bill allowing religious, modest clothing with sports uniforms clears Utah Legislature - Deseret News: “Students shouldn’t be prohibited from wearing clothing consistent with their religious or moral beliefs during school sports, bill says.”
Idaho teenager jumps into action, saves man having heart attack - KSL: “The Idaho Falls High School senior became CPR certified just five months ago and never thought she would use her training so soon.”
We urge Littleton voters to say “no” on Question 300 - Denver Post Editorial Board: “We fully support the ability of residents to circulate petitions to put questions to voters directly on the ballot. Taking matters directly to voters is an essential check on government. However, we have also seen, especially in Denver, how the initiative petition process can be abused by special interest groups.”