The virtues of the two-party system

The virtues of the two-party system

: The accepted wisdom of blog comments and forums these days is that the two-party system is unnatural and even evil and that’s why it’s OK — nay, somehow nobly virtuous — for Ralph Nader (or Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot or John Anderson, in their times) to run, albeit futiley — even destructively — from a third party. And anybody (e.g., me) who complains about that and the impact it has on the real race is accused of trying to stifle free speech and democracy and — gasp! — defend the two-party system.

Well, let me stand up bravely in defense of that two-party system.

First, let’s recognize that this is not Europe or much of the rest of the parliamentary world, where the people elect parties over individuals and where coalitions put together governments (which can easily fall apart) and the winning party, instead of the voters, often selects the nation’s executive. In Germany or Italy or Israel, you can vote from among a few liberal or conservative parties but once you do, the leadership of the government is out of your hands. Still, this does mean that, in Germany, for example, you can vote for the Greens with some confidence and good conscience that, if they’re big enough, they can join with the liberals and in the end, you’re still supporting a left-leaning government and your party leaders are at least part of the government’s cabinet. A vote for the Greens is a vote for the left, not a vote discarded.

That’s not the way it works here, of course. We elect one person for President and that has nothing to do with which parties win elsewhere.

This means that our system forces voters to make a choice — but at least it’s our choice.

When it comes to the presidency, only one person can win. When it comes to Congress, for that matter, only two parties can efficiently win, given our system of majorities and supermajorities needed to get the work of the people done and given the fact that governments won’t fall because of any legislature’s failures or whims and given the size of the country and the cost of running for office and marketing a message here. The same system operates down to the state and local levels.

And that system works. It is more stable and effective than any other you can name.

But, again, the system forces us to make a choice. We get a long time to make that choice. We get a long (albeit too long and too expensive) campaign season to push and support (and defeat) candidates. We get to push special-interest candidates to push the agendas they represent. That is how we build coalitions; that is how diverse interests get represented; that is how change erupts. That is why, for example, Al Sharpton and Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman, losers all, are telling people voters that the best way to change the system and get represented is to do it from within the party, not without. They all tried to win the top spot. But they lost. Yet they all believe they influenced the debate and the election and the winners. So votes for them were still votes for the left and not votes discarded.

But once it gets toward the end, things change. I’ll say it once more: You are given a choice: Do you want George Bush? Or do you want a Democrat. It’s a simple, if sometimes tough, choice. But it’s our choice. To avoid that choice is wasteful and sometimes petulant and immature and occasionally even destructive.

If you truly can’t stand George Bush yet you vote for Ralph Nader and allow Bush to get elected — the first or second time — then you have done worse than thrown out your vote, you have given your vote to your opposition and proven and changed nothing in the process.

If you are Ralph Nader and you say you want to defeat George Bush yet you’re the reason George Bush got elected the first time and you could be the reason he gets elected the second time, well, then you are nothing but an egotistical, petulant, selfish, short-sighted, destructive, pathetic, hanging-on has-been and hypocrite.

Ralph Nader is absolutely free to make his choice to reveal himself to be such a twit. And I am just as free to call him a twit. He can campaign. I can complain. But if he continues to run and if too many vote for him and if those votes could have swung the election, well, there’s no running away from the choice — the moral choice — and and those who voted for him made to avoid the real choice, the mature and necessary choice they were given this election.

But I have faith in the voters that they saw Nader for what he was the last time around. I believe he’ll be humiliated as he deserves to be with a pathetic and embarrassingly small vote this time (and Howard Dean helped assure that outcome today). I don’t think this election will be the mess the last one was.

For the system works. The two-party system works.

  • billg

    With exceptions (today’s Greens and yesterday’s Progressives come to mind) third parties in the U.S. are almost always purpose-built contraptions intended to shore up the Presidential egos and aspirations of the individuals they’re built around. When that individual stops running, the party goes away, too.
    American voters know that a party out of power can not deliver, They know that a third party almost certainly will never be in power. So, they put two and two together, and they’re smart enough not to vote for third party candidates.

  • We would have a viable third party if elections were won with a majority and not a plurality.

  • I find it very paradoxical that you think the system works when we do not even really elect the president. The majority super-power parties have shored up their bases, laid down laws that restrict party formations, set candidate requirements that exclude all but Dems. and Rep. etc. Our system is efficient and fair, to the two parties, and I would say Republicans more than Democrats have the advantage, which is why people like Nader seek change, not domination.

  • the greens get more publicity than the progressive dems. they have more impact on public conciousness than the progressive dems, because they are educational in nature. in the democratic party they are swallowed up and swept to the side. its not like they want to be a little excluded minority howling in the wind. but the big boys only want to talk about money and guns, so the greens get bored and gather amongst themselves and start educating the public as best they can about how things work and why things are the way they are.
    and then one day the big boys come by and ask the greens (ironic, that, eh?) to come and vote for them in their big fight against the mean school bully and his gang of ruffians. and when the greens say that sounds pretty stupid ‘cos none of you are really friends of ours then the big boys get all upset and start calling the greens spoilsports for not helping them beat the bad rich boys who are fucking everything up.
    where were you when we needed you? asked the greens. two weeks ago you weren’t interested in talking to us at all. and two minutes after the election you won’t be talking to us at all. we aren’t whores.
    but the sad thing is…when the day of the election came…quite a few of the greens, and even more of the people that they registered to vote…couldn’t bear the thought of the bad bully guy and his cadre of cruel bastards being in power for 4 more years…and so at the door to the polling house they muttered to themselves, goddammit, when am i going to get to vote for someone i really want to win?

  • Mike G

    I dunno, the two-party system seems neither sacrosanct nor evil. It has worked pretty well as a way to absorb new ideas into stable existing parties rather than allow semi-flaky new parties to take over, and, in the last century or so, it has prevented parties from becoming purely regional, since that’s a ticket to loserville. It is probably also good that it has prevented extremists from getting more attention than they deserve, just because they have a few crucial votes and know how to bargain with them. That is, on the whole, a bigger argument against the multiparty parliametary system than the fact that two parties on one side can split the vote delivering the election to a party on the other side which is actually opposed by the majority.
    On the other hand, there are times when it allows both parties to avoid dealing with important things without paying a penalty. In that sense Perot was a godsend, even though I wouldn’t have wanted him to win, but he was able to raise an issue the parties were afraid of and force them to show some backbone. Considering the size of the deficit now, we could use another one like him, but Ralph won’t be it. Frankly, I expect Ralph to do as well as Pat Buchanan last time, which means this should be the last time we care any more that Ralph is in the race than we do that Lenora Fulani is.

  • “We would have a viable third party if elections were won with a majority and not a plurality.”
    Perhaps. We would also have New York, California and Texas deciding who’s president every time.
    Which would suck if you lived in Delaware, and you saw your president pumping trillions of extra Federal dollars into election winning, high population states in order to sweeten them up in time for re-election.
    Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution for a reason.

  • Jeremy

    Plus, it is possible, thanks to the way congress works, to change the demographics of a state, and thus maybe earn a house or senate seat. I mean, all the Greens could move to Vermont. The Libertarians are trying it, though I can’t remember which state they picked, other than it was a sucky one.
    At least in theory it would work, but thanks to gerrymandering by both parties, it likely won’t. Not to mention, how the dead often vote for the democratic party. But most people aren’t willing to move to make a change. Will the hippies of the Green party every leave California and live in the real world? Doubtful.
    I also think a Ventura ticket in 2008 might win. A third party does have a chance if it’s got a sufficiently charismatic candidate.
    I mean, the Libertarians drag out Harry Browne every year. Like anyone would vote for him. The chimp from the Dennis Miller show could get more votes. The same could probably be said for most Green Party candidates.
    Perot mostly took people from the Republican party. Someone like Ventura, who really is a social liberal and fiscal conservative and very tough on terror, would draw a lot of people from both parties.

  • Jeremy, I agree that charisma could help a third party candidate get a LOT of air time. That’s why I supported Russell Means (American Indian) for Libertarian President in 1988, instead of Ron Paul (former and now again Rep. pro-life Congressman; against the Bush deficit). Harry Browne in 96, 2000, 2004; 92? It’s not every year. If he was “good”, he could be developing a better platform, or better educating the folks — like the Greens say they want to do.
    Jeff, anybody who feels they are voting for “the lesser of two evils” is right to vote for Nader, or Perot, or Ed Clark (in 1980), or somebody they support. The big lie is “voting against” somebody — you can only vote in favor of who you vote FOR.
    You might be FOR the Dem ’cause you hate the Rep(or vice versa), but the morality of your vote is the whole package, his good and bad points. And one who votes for the winner IS responsible, some, for the bad that the winner does. Gore supporters are not responsible for Iraq in the same way that Bush supporters ARE responsible for the huge (though arguably justified) deficit.
    Also remember:

  • billg

    Charles, I don’t know where you live, but where I live — high-tech, prosperous and overrun with colleges — the Greens are invisible. They exist, but they haven’t managed to convince anyone to care. It’s important to remember that when your favorite party or issue isn’t getting traction, it’s rather more likely because they’re selling something few people want to buy, not because they’ve run afoul of some Vast Evil Conspiracy.
    And, are third-party advocates really considering the likely impact of three-party Presidential elections, or are they really hoping to displace one of the two mahor parties? A viable third party seems a good way to prevent any Presidential candidate from getting an Electoral College majority. I don’t relish that notion of repeated elections being decided by the House.

  • KMK

    The ballot access laws are designed to kill third parties and restrict democratic activity. Many people I know voted for Nader last time around solely in the hopes of getting the required 5% (in some states) needed to put a new party on the ballot. I understand the frustration this time around as a vote for Nader will be considered a vote for Bush.
    I read an excellent article by Richard Winger, The Importance of Ballot Access and I’ll be darned it’s on the web Keep in mind it was written in 1994 so the voter percentage numbers will be different today but it is an excellent read.

  • US

    If you characterize the choice between the current US system and say the Israeli system – yes, the US system is better. But does it “work” – that’s not a binary question, it can always be improved to more accurately reflect the will of the people.
    Take 2000, for example. Certainly more Americans would have preferred Gore to Bush (I’m assuming that every Naderite, given the choice of only Gore v Bush, would have voted for Gore) – but that’s not how it turned out. Several variations on how the election operates could have provided a more accurate reflection of the will of the people. For example, require a majority to win, and have voters rank their choices, 1, 2, 3. Count the #1s. If no candidate has a majority of #1 votes – toss out the last place candidate, and count the #2s of all the voters who voted for that last place candidate #1. In 2000, that would have produced a Gore victory.
    I’m not proposing that is the solution – point is there are a dozen options for changing the system to make it more accurately reflect the will of the people, and work better.
    [But if you want to talk broken – look at the Senate, thanks to 2 senators per state, 13% of the population has a majority of senate control.]

  • Jaybird

    That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  • Jeff,
    Your opening seems to set up a bit of a straw man. I disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean I think you’re trying to stifle free speech.
    You said:
    “But once it gets toward the end, things change. I’ll say it once more: You are given a choice: Do you want George Bush? Or do you want a Democrat. It’s a simple, if sometimes tough, choice. But it’s our choice. To avoid that choice is wasteful and sometimes petulant and immature and occasionally even destructive.”
    A fairly strong condemnation. I still think you’re missing a point; the vote may not be for a candidate that can win this time around, but it is not necessarily wasted. If that segment of votes helps determine whether the Republican or Democrat wins, the parties will have an incentive to co-opt those voters through addressing their issues in the future.
    Plus, being immature, I hate being told what to do. I abhor Nader but you make me want to vote for him out of spite. Petulant, no?

  • br

    As a counterpoint I’d offer this oft quoted chapter from James Bryce’s American Commonwealth on “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents”.
    Also, I want you to consider how well your argument in favor of the two-party system holds up when applied to local elections. Take a moment to reflect the next time you’re in the voting booth and vote down the party line whether you’re voting based on the merits and quality of character of the particular candidate or those espoused by the party? I am not referring to those at the top of the party’s ticket, but those below the fold (i.e. city councilman, judicial candidates, state assemblymen, and even congressional representatives). When viewed at this level, with some exceptions, it is closer to the Eurpoean mold of selecting party over candidate. We expect the nominee put forth to toe the party line and that is why they garner our vote. In Manhattan, where there are roughly five registered Democrats for every Republican, the Republicans didn’t even bother to field candidates in the last State Supreme Court elections. Where is the choice there? It obviously wasn’t by voters.
    I would also refer you to an excellent article by Jeffrey Toobin that was in Tne New Yorker a few month back regarding gerrymandering and its effect on voter choice. (See:

  • Ebb Tide

    People voted for Clinton because they thought he was a Democrat, but he was really a moderate Republican, what Democrat wanted to reform welfare? Clinton did, and balanced the budget to take 2 big things away from the Republican menu, and got Independents and moderates from each Party to vote for him. Twice.
    Now that the Republicans, who originally ran as compassionate conservatives, run the House and Senate and White House… there is absolutely nothing compelling them to “moderate” in anything. They can go for a more aggressive right wing agenda and let the moderates wait until 2008.
    The “swing” voters keep changing demographics, but they still matter… each party tries to appeal to them in the “big tent” metaphor we keep hearing so much about. Zell Miller said that he felt the Democrats “big tent” has shrunk to the size of a sno-cone.
    That’s why I want a third party, The Moderates. Let the Democrats run on their tried and true issues, let the Republicans run on theirs and each can stop pandering to the folks in the Middle (who really control the election in the first place) and let’s put the Moderates in office.

  • Ebb Tide

    Jeff Jarvis writes: “I don’t think this election will be the mess the last one was.”
    Here’s a way where it can be TIED!
    Go to this interactive map, click on Nevada and Utah to make them Blue, it makes it come out EVEN AT 269 to 269.

  • Ebb Tide

    ^^^^^^I mean Nevada and Idaho, sorry. :^)

  • Ebb Tide

    Here is the link, I am trying to make it clickable, go click on each election result, it is really fun:
    Interactive Electoral Map

  • As I point out here, John Kerry has mentioned stopping “Enron-style abuses” a few times. One of his minions mentions how much money Ken Lay and Enron have given to Bush over the years.
    At the same time, Tuh-RAY-Zuh not only had Ken Lay on her foundation’s board, not only did she keep him there after the scandal broke, but they apologized away his presence.
    Huzzah for the two-party system!

  • cardeblu

    Ebb Tide: “People voted for Clinton because they thought he was a Democrat, but he was really a moderate Republican…”
    Just a quibble: I normally vote R but voted for Clinton in Nov ’92 because I thought he was a “moderate” Dem, plus I was pissed at Bush-41. By Feb or March of ’93, I realized I was wrong(ed) and that he was quite a bit more to the left than he had campaigned. I blame it on the minute of my birth and learned from that experience.

  • John Anderson

    I’m with Mike G: “the two-party system seems neither sacrosanct nor evil.”
    Third parties have never won a presidency or a large part of either part of Congress, but they have had impact – here in RI we still have some Grange Halls, I think a remnant of the Populist Party of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth farmers being upset with the government, and which did affect policy even if never a majority.
    And TR’s Bull Moose never really got off the ground, but it did get pols to take note of other discontent.
    Perot and Nader, now, are just spoilers and egoists. My namesake was just clueless.

  • billg

    Ebb Tide: Why do you think the existence of a “Moderate Party” occupying the middle ground of American politics would keep other parties from “pandering” to its members? Or, for that matter, the “Moderate Party” from trying to attract votes from those other parties?

  • Dan

    “If you truly can’t stand George Bush yet you vote for Ralph Nader and allow Bush to get elected — the first or second time — then you have done worse than thrown out your vote, you have given your vote to your opposition and proven and changed nothing in the process”
    I’m sorry, but that’s completely wrong. If you throw away your vote, Bush gets X votes, Kerry gets Y votes, and Nader gets Z votes. If you vote for Nader — Bush gets X, Kerry gets Y, and Nader gets Z+1. Since all that matters is “which is bigger — X, Y, or Z?”, it’s unfair to say that voting for Nader is worse than throwing your vote away. It’s EXACTLY THE SAME as throwing your vote away.
    The phrase “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush” carries with it the assumption that Kerry (or, before him, Gore) had a God-given RIGHT to those votes, before they were cruelly taken away. That’s not the case; votes need to be earned by the candidates.
    By the way, why the hell do people blame Nader for Gore’s defeat? Sure, if they’d all voted for Gore, he would have won. And if the moderates that Gore alienated by running as a left-wing extremist had voted for him anyway, he’d have won, too. Why don’t moderates (like me, who hated both candidates and voted for neither) get “blamed” for Gore’s loss?

  • Jeff wrote: “If you are Ralph Nader and you say you want to defeat George Bush yet you’re the reason George Bush got elected the first time and you could be the reason he gets elected the second time, well, then you are nothing but an egotistical, petulant, selfish, short-sighted, destructive, pathetic, hanging-on has-been and hypocrite.”
    You assume that the reason he is running is to defeat GWB personally. I think that he just wants to beat GWB. It think that he truly believes the the Green philosophy/delusion is the way to to do that. To make it viable, though, it has to be carried by a Democrat. At this point, the front-runner doesn’t seem to be willing to do that. By joining the race and threatening 2000v2, he can pressure Kerry to BECOME the Green candidate, allowing him to drop out of the race. He is also looking at 2008; “if you don’t play ball now and for the next four years, it is going to happen again in 2008.”
    By having his finger on the self-destruct button, he can direct the left side of the aisle. For that threat to be credible, he has to show that he is indeed willing to push that button.

  • JorgXMcKie

    I would be a little more willing to agree with Jeff if the system actually let us “make a choice” during the runup and primary seasons. Exactly _how_ many people will have voted for John F’n Kerry or John Edwards by the time it is decided that one of those twits is my choice if I don’t want Bush?
    If the Dems (or Repubs) were serious about choosing the person their supporters wanted, we would have some sort of nation-wide runoff primaries. Maybe tournament style, like some softball tournaments where you have to lose head-to-head twice to be eliminated. Or maybe a succession of nationwide primaries with EVERYBODY listed that the party members (have to declare a choice that lasts the whole season) might wish to vote for and successively eliminate the lowest vote getters. Either one of these would tend to get the candidates actually favored by the party IDers AND we could put it on TV and make a series of it.

  • Ebb Tide

    Billg, You are right, of course, pandering will ever more go on. I still want a third party that is centrist… then the people on the extreme right and left can fight over me, but I still wouldn’t vote for them. For the record, had he stayed in, I would have voted for Joe Leiberman on Super Tuesday.
    (I guess to some people he would seem very liberal and not a centrist, and to some Democrats, they think he is a Republican.)

  • tom beta 2

    Whether the two-party system works or not depends on your definition of working. If you mean candidates get elected to office, sure, it works. So did the recent Iranian elections.
    We do get to choose, but to create an analogy, it’s only between Coke or Pepsi. I don’t want either. What happened to orange juice, milk, beer, water, root beer?
    If it was just my preference that determined this, okay. But actually, other choices are actively suppressed. Election law reinforces the two-party system and makes it difficult to make a third party viable. The parties force would-be candidates to fit into certain molds in order to be taken seriously. So you get a choice – Coke or Pepsi. Oh, you can order a beer, you just won’t ever get it.
    And it’s not even like the majority of people necessarily want just Coke or Pepsi. The fact is, those are the only real choices on the menu. Drink them or drink nothing. Most of us choose to have something rather than nothing, even if that something is an overly-sweet, ugly, unhealthy drink that will make you fat and rot your teeth.
    I try to stay up on the issues. I read a lot of stuff on the candidates in 2000 and really tried to decide well. But at the end of the day, even truly wanting to participate, wanting to make a difference in my country, every time I thought of voting for either Gore or Bush, I felt ill.
    The two-party system works for Jeff. Good for him. It is a total failure for me at every level.
    Half or nearly half of all Americans don’t vote most of the time. There may be other explanations, but rather than just chalking it up as apathy, maybe we need to consider the idea that the system simply doesn’t work for nearly half of us.

  • James Stephenson

    I see only one person mentioned Perot siphoning off a little moderate base from Bush in 92. Yet I see no one bitching about that. Is that because their candidate won in 92?
    Mine did not of course. I do not blame Perot, he hurt, I blame the recession. That we actually starting coming out of before Clinton took office.
    Anyway, these guys, Perot/Nader are meglomanics(sp), they want to be the one people are looking too. They want the spotlight. I have not liked Nader since my dad railed about him because of the Corvair. Seems Nader said the car was unsafe because of the mid-engine. Turns out those Ferrari’s run pretty damn well with those mid-engines.
    I realized then of course, that he did have agendas, and those agendas did not always pertain to the consumers.

  • Actually, there is a new party, the American Patriot Party that is focused on being just that. A centrist party that bases every action and law off the firm belief that the Constitution is the foundation of our laws, and extraconstitutional laws should be out. The basic premise of the Democrats is to get politicians out of our bedroom, but into our pocketbooks. The Republicans are trying to get politicans out of our pocketbooks (not so much lately) and into our bedrooms. The Patriot Party is focused on getting government out of our bedroom and our pocketbooks.
    The basic problem with the article is that there is a base assumption that there is a God given right to the votes the Dems and the Republicans get. There isn’t. The Republican Party wasn’t always one of the majors. They were a minor party for a while. They grew when one of the majors collapsed.
    At the Patriot Party, the concept is to build an organization from the local level first, instead of recruiting some dynamic shining star who burns up any political capital we may earn with a disaster run for president. Once we have support, we’ll start running a Presidential campaign.
    I hope you stop by and visit.

  • Jeff-
    Sorry I didn’t see this sooner.
    I disagree. We do not have a Constitutionally mandated two party system. We have a two party system created and maintained by the two parties in power.
    Our public debate is limited by their narrow interests.
    Why else would the Libertarian candidates have been excluded from the Presidential debates in spite of being on the ballot in all 50 states in each election cycle?