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Too Entrenched

This is interesting:

The fact that our state's code is thoroughly woven with references to two specific political parties is evidence that the parties themselves act like a single, two-pronged special interest group, one that is more powerful than any labor union or trade association could hope to be. And furthermore, when one party is able to establish dominance for a period quite a bit longer than a lifespan, the probability factor for un-democratic malfeasance nears 1 (as in 100%).

I'd like to see some sort of constitutional amendment that would open things up to more parties. Of course, the chance of such a thing passing is epsilon squared, given the current power structure.

On the other hand, I wonder if we need one? It might be worthwhile to set up a foundation to look for laws like this, and challenge them in the courts on the grounds that the Constitution is silent on the very notion of political parties? It seems like, at a minimum, that you could strike down laws describing "two" or any specific number.

[Via Instapundit]

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2007 01:10 PM
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I'm going to disagree. The two-party (or at least few-party) system is good, and here's why:

(1) It greatly reduces factionalism, which is a huge danger for polycultural entities like the United States. Having a party to join suggests to the individual that his cause might someday rule, and that leads to intransigence. Why cooperate with the devil (the opposition) now, when holding out a little longer might lead to Total Victory? That way lies endless civil war. The US is inherently at least as susceptible to factionalism as Iraq or the former USSR, and the breakdown of general agreement is a real danger (cf. 1861-65). This is one reason why comparison to fairly monocultural European entities is pointless. Different society, different problems, different optimal solutions.

(2) It reduces intellectual segregation and exercises our ability to tolerate differences and negotiate with others. Having one party for each splinter of shade of opinion is like having a totally segregated city, where everyone lives in their own gated intellectual community, associating with people so similar in mental outlook that their ability to understand and work with people with significantly different opinions atrophies. Not good. If it's not a good idea for schools to be race-segregated, or the staff of the New York Times to be 100% Democrat, then it's not a good idea for citizens as political animals to be segregated into small thinkalike groups.

(3) The parties take turns in power sufficiently often, since they're evenly matched and there are only two of them, that they tend to be more moderate when in and out of power. You saw this in the Republican reluctance to use the "nuclear option" over the confirmation of judges. They well knew it would not be too many years before they were back in the minority and would appreciate the filibuster.

(4) Since people generally have to hold their nose to support even the more attractive of the two parties, they are inclined to be cynical and distrustful of government no matter which is in power. A good check on the average Joe's tendency to Caesar addiction. Government is all about using force to get stuff done because persuasion won't work. It's always a bad thing when people find the route of (public) force more attractive than the route of (private) persuasion.

(5) It keeps people active in persuasive politics. If people could join a splinter party that revolves around their policy preference of choice (the party, the legalizing marijuana party, the beat the crap out of Iran party, et cetera), they'd do that and quit trying to influence the mainstream parties. That would reduce citizen involvement generally, and lead to the kind of disconnect between citizen and leader you see in Europe with respect to the evolving EU.

The daily exhausting struggle between the two sides you see in this country is impressive in the energy apparently wasted, but it's worth keeping in mind that it makes the US political system one of the most robust and flexible ever seen. It may not be pretty, and it may be frustrating as heck to be involved in, but it works in the only important sense: the country flourishes as none other. The healthiest course of action is not always the most pleasant. If it were, broccoli would taste better than ice cream, and running 10Ks would feel more pleasant than lounging on the couch watching the tube.

Posted by Carl Pham at July 24, 2007 03:26 PM

Permit me to take a contrarian view...

How about banning ALL political parties? With no parties, wouldn't each candidate be forced to be defined by their actual positions and not by their party's positions?

As a bonus, we could make the House of Representatives be a single two-year term selected as we currently select jurors.

Just some food for thought.

- Eric.

Posted by Eric S. at July 24, 2007 06:59 PM

Carl, I don't buy it. Half of your points aren't even advantages. The US system is already set up to encourage compromise. There's no advantage to adding the two party scheme to this. Nor does it encourage tolerance. Every belief either has to fit in one of the two slots or it is marginalized.

In a mulitple party scheme, there would be even more groups that would oppose any power grab, say like when the Republicans tried to take over K Street (lobbying).

In a two party scheme, there's more to hold your nose about. Lack of choice translates directly into greater opportunity for corruption.

It reduces not increases citizen participation. If your belief is not or never will be represented in mainstream politics, then what is the point of participation.

Remember the US system could be even more robust and flexible once we rid ourselves of the oligopoly that is strangling the US.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 24, 2007 08:16 PM

Lani Guinier wrote about at-large voting for Senators with two winners. That would elicit a 3-party equilibrium. Nothing in the Constitution against it. Don't expect it to occur. There is a reason that the Senate has the same representation as the Constitutional Convention had. Why would any state or party give up power voluntarily? As Machiavelli said, you ironically need a coup d'etat with a dictator in order to institute democratic constitutional reform.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 24, 2007 10:07 PM

The problem isn't our two party system, it's what they've become.

Look at the candidates for President in 2008. The Democrats and their stands on topics would have been considered Communists or Socialists 25 or 30 years ago. The Republicans would have been considered Democrats given their ideas and ideals. Rudy says he won't follow his beliefs about guns and abortion if elected. Hillary wants to take away corporate profits for her own projects. Some choice that.

GWB was supposed to be a conservative and has not been close. Clinton was more interested in catching his intern than in catching Bin Laden.

The bad part is that the majority of Americans live in the middle of the beliefs of the "leaders" and policy setters of the parties and we get stuck voting against the other guy, not for someone who has our beliefs.

It may have always been like that, but I'm getting old and whiny.

Fred T for Prez '08

Posted by Steve at July 25, 2007 02:31 PM

Well, Karl, instead of arguing theoretically, we could just make a few measurements, compare and contrast citizen involvement, disconnect between politicans and citizenry, and the extent of factionalization in the US and England (largely two-party systems) versus France and Germany (mostly multi-party). Personally I think it's clear there's a lot more factionalization, and a much lower tendency to hammer out difficult but workable political compromises, and a reduced connection between citizen and legislator in the latter two countries.

Nor does it encourage tolerance. Every belief either has to fit in one of the two slots or it is marginalized.

Nonsense. You're contradicting yourself. What does it mean to feel "marginalized"? You're saying you have to compromise your beliefs in order to "fit into" the system -- in order to have some small influence. But that, my friend, is the operating definition of exercising tolerance and practising negotiation. Except in multiculti fairy tales, "tolerance" doesn't mean happily agreeing to stuff you like, it means holding your nose and putting up with stuff that grates on your nerves and offends your sensibilities. "Negotiation" doesn't mean a win-win deal followed by a group hug. It means giving up stuff you really want and putting up with stuff you really hate in order to get less than you think you deserve, because you have no other choice. If that last sentence describes how you view your participation in the political system -- why, the system is working exactly as designed.

It's not happy, it's not fun -- but politics isn't designed to make you happy. That's what marriage, friendship, and other private arrangements are for. Politics is about forming governments, and governments are for using force where persuasion won't work. Governments are for letting you live in peace with people who, were there no government, would want to use force on you. So you are never going to be happy with what politics gives you, because it's all about negotiating with people who would like to see you locked in a cage or killed. (You don't need a government to negotiate with people who generally like you and share your goals.) Politics is just supposed to keep you from being so unhappy that you abandon the ballot box and pick up a rifle.

When you say you have an opinion that doesn't fit well into either major party, you're saying by definition that you have an opinion that is not shared by most Americans. In a multi-party system, you could add your tiny voice to a tiny political party, be smugly satisfied with your intellectual consistency -- and have zero effect on national policy, because the ruling party or coalition would owe you zilch. Just compare how much influence Le Pen adherents have had on French immigration policy in the last 20 years (zip).

In the present system you pick the party least hostile to your oddball opinion, and give them your support. They owe you some small consideration for your small vote, and you have some very small effect on their candidates and policies. It doesn't feel as good, because you've inevitably compromised your principles. But, on the other hand, you actually do have an effect. A small one, of course. But then, you have a minority opinion -- what more do you deserve?

In a mulitple party scheme, there would be even more groups that would oppose any power grab

More groups doesn't give you more power -- quite the contrary. More groups means more infighting, less coordination of policy, more circular firing squads. Fewer groups (each with greater membership) gives you more ability to oppose power grabs, if that's your goal.

If your belief is not or never will be represented in mainstream politics, then what is the point of participation?

To have influence, however small. And that's all you have a right to expect, if your opinion is really that unpopular.

Posted by Carl Pham at July 25, 2007 06:24 PM

Carl, I'll make it simple. Oligopolies backed by government are a bad thing. We wouldn't tolerate two gasoline companies, two media companies, or two phone companies in the US. We know now what happens when too much economic power is concentrated in the hands of too few. Sometimes we tolerate this, but we know that it is inefficient and robs strength from the economy and our society.

I see the two party system as that illness. It's not healthy to have two fossilized parties dominating US politics. And frankly, I think it shows. I see a lot of groups that have influence far weaker than their voting numbers would suggest. For example, african americans and the religious right. They both to a sizeable degree reflect beliefs of a large portion of the US electorate. But they can be treated superficially because there's little chance that they'll switch sides.

OTOH, there are groups which have political power far in excess of their numbers. For example, the ideological group commonly identified as "neo-conservatives" and some of the academic ideologies like multiculturalism. I think these groups wield inordinate power because they infest the parties' bureaucracies.

Keep in mind that the Constitution was designed with multiple parties in mind. The two party rationalizations came later. My take is that it'll take a lot more than legitimate third parties to turn the US into a France or an Italy.

I see numerous examples where problems have been left to fester because those concerned cannot get traction in either party. For example, gambling legalization.

Or problems have long gone without compromise. For example, the abortion debate. Each party gets a sizeable number of votes merely because that abortion remains steadfastly unresolved.

Even if somehow the two party system was optimal, it's still reasonable to lower the barriers to entry so that other parties can become the second party. There's nothing special about the Democrats or Republicans that they need to stay. And there's certainly nothing special about the way the parties are organized.

For example, what party will do something about front loading in primaries? Not the Republican or Democrat parties. Every year a significant fraction of Republicans and Democrats get to have their vote ignored for the presidential nominee because they vote after a candidate has been selected.

Also, it doesn't justify why the two party should go all the way down to the county/parish/township level. Even if a two party system is ideal at the national level, it doesn't mean that those same two parties are ideal in local elections. However, power at the national or state level can be leveraged down to boost favorites at the state or local level.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 25, 2007 10:28 PM

Winner-take-all voting for individual offices produces a 2-party system; the game theory is very clear on that. Yes, there are arguments for other systems, but arguments against them, too; it's mathematically demonstrable that any voting system produces perverse results in some sets of circumstances (Arrow's Theorum).

On the other hand, refernences in the code to specific parties is egregious and should be weeded out; if one of the existing parties goes the way of the Whigs that's probably all to the good; someone else will be along momentarily to replace them.

Posted by Mike Earl at July 26, 2007 08:27 AM

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