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Well, at least in Italy:

The big news is that the Communists are gone, for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Really gone. They didn't win a single seat in either chamber. A lot of famous faces will vanish from Parliament, and it is even possible, although unlikely, that some of the comrades will be forced to join the working class. The Greens are also gone. In fact, there are only six parties in the new Parliament, suggesting that Italy's well on the road to a two-party political system instead of the dreadful proportional electoral model that has destroyed virtually every country where it's been applied. If that happens, a lot of the credit goes to Veltroni, who created a real center-left party and refused to admit the old Left.

Not just big news, but great news, worthy of a celebration. I look forward to the day when one will find them only in museums of bad ideas of the last millennium, and college campuses. Unfortunately, they never really disappear. The toxic ideas will just resurface under another name (as has in fact happened in the guise of environmentalism, though the demise of the Italian Green Party is encouraging as well in that regard).


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Karl Hallowell wrote:

Eh, I'm not so enthusiastic about a two party system. It's just not sufficiently competitive.

David A. Young wrote:

I'm with Karl. There has to be some happy medium between the two party system (which is not working all that well in our country at present) and the free-for all that occurs in many parlimentary systems.

Stephen Kohls wrote:

I think the 2 party system is the happy medium - between the "free-for-all" parlimentary system and a one-party absolute rule.

The thought that it's not working all that well is probably due to our incredibly high standard of living and equally high expectations. As bad as our system is, it's a lot better than anyone else's.

Rick C wrote:

I think the biggest problem of the two-party system isn't the two-party system per se, but the machine politics that are tied up with it in this country, that leads to overly-stable political parties. If one or both of the current big two broke up, we'd probably see some major realignments--perhaps a truly conservative party, or a non-rabid liberal party. We haven't had a party break up since, what, before the Civil War?

Brock wrote:

Both the two-party system in the USA and the multi-party system found elsewhere are a direct result of the systems used to elect our representatives. Different rules give rise to different stable equilibria. They also both happen to be sub-optimal relative to certain other systems out there. Anyone who is remotely interested in vote reform (in how we can do better than both the US's system and the Parliamentary system) should really read "Gaming the Vote" by William Poundstone. Great book.

rjschwarz wrote:

The Two party system works best when there is a serious third party chomping at the bit to replace one of the two. This happened when the Democratic-Republicans replaced the Constitution party, and when the Whigs were replaced by the Republicans. We're do for such a realignment now.

Only problem is our third parties have no serious depth. That could change rapidly though if the bit two continue to disappoint.

I can see a massive defection to the Libertarian party if (a) the Libertarians grew up (b) the Republicans continued with massive spending and wide open borders.

I could see massive defection to the Green party if (a) the Obamanation feels Hillary stole the primary (b) Ralph stepped aside or agreed to take a second spot to Obama.

I could see massive defection to the Reform party if (a) Hell froze over.

Speaking as someone who has done petitioning in 100 degree August heat for a state wide candidate and ran for state house himself, you're not going to get either of those scenarios unless you can change state election laws. The two current parties have written themselves into the law so completely that there is almost zero hope of any third party winning anything significant enough to qualify for what you call "serious". IMHO, you going to need enough election chaos that the Supreme Court has to get involved to negate the state level election barriers.

mz wrote:

How much does the US public, Rand or the people commenting here even know of other than two party systems?

I'm also curious of the quote "a two-party political system instead of the dreadful proportional electoral model that has destroyed virtually every country where it's been applied".

I'm not exactly sure what it means. There are many ways to set up proportional voting. Or is it just another code word that means something else than the plain meaning? One way of proportional voting has worked over here pretty well for quite a while, but nothing is perfect of course...

Scott wrote:

OK Mz....

I have lived in Japan, Canada, the UK, Israel, Italy, and German, all of which have parlimentary systems, and all of which eschew what anyone in the US would recognize as a two-party system. Most of those countries incorporate some sort of mechanism other than the 'first past the post' system used in the US electoral politics, and the results aren't pretty.

Most (not all) of these countries suffer from the 'minor party' problem of marginal or very minor parties exercizing excessive influence in a coalition (the various Israeli religious parties are notorious examples of this, though Italy's coalition governments are equally awful to watch), though this isn't as bad as some of the mess you see in France (can anyone here spell 'Le Pen'?) or Germany (the Greens in the 90s were especially bad examples of parties with no real following but entrenched institutional influence) as well as the debacle of NuLabor in Britain. Let's not even get started on the Quebequois, particularly in the 80s, though the 90s are reasonably embarassing for the icebacks to contemplate. As for the Japanese, the LDP's domination of electoral politics through a truly machievellian (sp?) manipulation of 'divide and conquer' tactics isn't much to point to with pride either.

Now I am willing to concede that Australia hasn't done too badly, but I would argue that this is more of the exception that proves the rule...especially since it is so sparsely populated, and fairly homogeneous in terms of ethnicity and general political outlook.

The problem is that multiparty systems tend either twoards extreme instability over time, as minor parties leverage their position in a coalition to gain power, and larger parties splinter as small factions discover the power of this technique, or monolithic coalitions even less responsive than in our system. The two party system, as another poster pointed out already, IS the compromise (read the Federalist Papers, the founders HATED parties/factions of all sorts) gives some competition (and yes...I do agree with Karl's point that competition is a good thing, but too much of a good thing and all that...) without the atomization inherent in multiparty systems.

Now as for PR...utter rubbish. The essense of any successful democracy is transparency, and PR tends to lead to hopelessly complex schemes as the political elites game the system and tweak it to protect their own interests. Anyone going to defend the results of 35 years of the Democratic party's tinkering in delegate selection? Obamalamadigndong loses the TX popular vote and yet ends up with more delegates than Hillary!, something that the Democrats would be suing over if it were happening in an election with a Republican in it. The core problem with any system using PR is that any scheme implemented must have some central bias to it. Even the most benign system discriminates in favor of someone, and against others (a pure PR system, for instance, rewards minor fringer parties and rewards broader centrist parties....whether one likes this result or not, it is impossible to debate that it exists), so over time the temptation to tweak the system to fine tune the discrimination (make it 'fairer', more representative, more competetitive, etc.) becomes overwhelming. Anyone want to bet what the outcome of that is going to be? Much more to the point, can you imagine the mess in a PR system as the loser(s) decide to take the results to court? The US court system is far, far, far more likely to interfere in elections than are most of the European or Asian ones, so if you loved Florida 2000, you will love a PR election in 200?.

To put it bluntly...the American system is flawed, there is no doubt of that...but it is also the best flawed system out there. Anyone who cares to suggest that the various parlimentry or other multiparty systems are better had best come up wtih a real world example that produces consistently better results. Utopian proposals from frustrated minor party candidates or smug minor state citizens with electoral skeletons martching out of their closets really don't cut a whole lot of ice.


mz wrote:

Hmm, I don't see the things that have happened in multi-party parliamentary systems as disasters, and neither do I see the US working perfectly.

Our parliamentary election system works like this:
1) Each party sets a number of candidates for the parliament in each district.
2) Each voter votes just for one person.
3) The votes a party's all candidates together get in that district, determines how many places they get in the parliament. Usually district size is about 7 places.
4) The order of the candidates getting in from the party list is determined by the amount of votes they get.

This is a compromise that takes into account that if a party has a popular person, the votes are not "taken away" from other members of the same party, see part 3. Also, because of part 4, it is not too party-dominated but voters can vote for individuals.

It hasn't lead to disaster.

Usually the big parties get most of the places but along the tail some smaller parties get in some members. But then there is all this complex gaming in the parliament about who to take into the government, and who remains in the opposition. Small parties can end up very powerless in the government. So I don't think it leads to the overpowering of small parties.

Maybe the system is somehow very different somewhere else but this is how it is here and it works decently.

Presidential elections are different (they have been changed to direct elections nowadays). There are about five to ten candidates usually in the first round. If nobody gets over 50% of the votes, a second round with the two most popular candidates is held.

There's often a lot of really good discussion about how the country should be run in panels with all the candidates.

This hasn't been a disaster either yet.

So, yes, I'm completely unconvinced about the "two party system or disaster" argument.

Scott wrote:

I could be difficult and simply point out that the operative word in your commentary is 'yet', but that would be wrong... (grin)

More to the point, where are you? The system you describe could be in any one of a number of places, but without a specific ID, we have only your word that there hasn't been a disaster. I have seen Canadians, for instance, who like to pretend that the Quebec debacle in the 80s and 90s wasn't such a bad thing because it didn't actually lead to civil war. Talk about defining deviance down!

As for the relative power of small and large parties, much of it depends upon how evenly the populace is divided. If there is a splintering of political consensus (most of the states in the Med are examples of this) very unstable governing coalitions tend to form with small parties posessing excessive power (once again, Israel is probably the best example of this, though they are hardly alone), while in states with a less atomized electorate, large parties can gain a dispropotionate influence (some would argue that the UK is moving in this direction, though certainly it is true of most asian democracies). No state is a perfect model, but I would be fascinated to see just what state you are in that has avoided this.

Remember, it isn't two-parties-or-death in the short term, but in the long term the results seem fairly clear cut. This situation gets worse in modern welfare states, where individual client groups can quite easily capture political parties and use them to lock-in their benefits and subsidies. Germany is especially vulnerable this way, though several of the Scandinavian states have run into this problem as well.

Habitat Hermit wrote:

Okay Scott not meaning to pick on you but what you did there is what most non-US persons regard as far too typical US arrogance: assuming inferiority even though they don't know.

Mz is a Finn and Finland is doing pretty good. I'm in Norway and the system is pretty much the same (as across all of Europe including the Eastern parts) and we're doing reasonably well too (a lot of people regard us as the best country in the world but of course that's nonsense as there is no such thing: it's all subjective). We were doing at least slightly better before the last national election but a lefties coalition won despite a narrow loss of the popular vote ... no silly lawsuits, everyone just shrugged and went on with their lives and they'll hopefully/likely lose the next one.

A system is a tool, some tools are better for this and some are better for that and a few are multi-tools which aren't particularly good at anything yet adequate for most tasks. That last category would be democracies and all the above is just comparing one "brand" of multi-tools to another (duopoly vs. parliamentarianism).

"This situation gets worse in modern welfare states, where individual client groups can quite easily capture political parties and use them to lock-in their benefits and subsidies."

Remove the word "welfare" and you've described the US as well as Europe. Yes in parliamentarianism you get a lot of small fringe parties, you've got the same in the states but they drown in the attention given to the two big ones who have gobbled up as many one-issue constituents as they can manage. So under parliamentarianism you get to not vote for them while in your de facto two-party state you get a certain number of them no matter who you vote for. How's that supposed to be systematically better? It's more alike than different and neither is at all what the founding fathers of the US intended. Also it might simply be an effect of aggregate size as we're comparing apples and oranges here since there is no election of a federal government across Europe.

A last thing: none of the systems work without adequate cooperation. If Italy is meant to be an example of anything at all then that is what it should illustrate.

I have lots more to say about this and related matters and in addition another topic of Rand's post: the demise of communism in Europe, but I think I'll skip it at least for now ^_^

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on April 15, 2008 8:14 AM.

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