By Hayden Siratt
George Washington in his farewell address after his last term as President of the United States warned the American people about forming political parties, “It [political parties] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
As we have seen by the most recent elections, American politics has started to become what Washington warned would happen if a two-party system were embraced. There has been increasing polarisation, more divisiveness, less legislation passed, riots, and more concern over foreign influence in US elections. These issues are a direct result of the two-party system just as Washington warned. So what alternatives are there to this two-party system, so that we may avoid this path of instability?
Ireland, France, and Germany all have multiparty systems. A system, one could say, that is more effective and inclusive than the American system. Under this system, no two parties are likely to win an election, and must rely on coalitions in order to gain the majority in the legislative. This encourages parties to work together and compromise bringing them more to the centre. Some may argue that this would mean that a multiparty system would be less effective in passing legislation by making government more complex. This can be seen with the inefficiency of Brazil and similar countries. However, this is not because of the multiparty system, but due to corruption which has continued to be a problem in Brazilian politics. This could indicate that multiparty systems lead to corruption; however, there are plenty of free and successful multiparty system countries such as Germany, France and New Zealand. Because of this it is not likely, that a multiparty system causes corruption.
Also, even if less legislation were passed and the political system slowed down, the complexity of governance and the need for coalitions causes those in power to consider more viewpoints and would be more inclusive. Let’s say you are a moderately fast runner, and you joined the cross-country team for a run with friends and say that there were only two groups: one extremely fast and one extremely slow. If you joined the slow one, you would not get a good workout in as your pace would be far too slow. However, if you joined the faster one then you would not be able to keep up and either fall far behind or pass out from exhaustion. But if there were more groups incorporating different paces, then you would be much happier as you could still run with friends but also get the right workout in. Like in a two party-system, by having more groups, you can find a group which aligns more with your interests and what you want.
A multiparty system increases freedom and democracy as voters can choose from a greater ideological. In government, a multiparty system encourages parties to work together by forming coalitions which considers more viewpoints and leads to more inclusive legislation.
Another alternative to the two-party system is a one-party system such as the one implemented in China. A standard family is a good analogy to a one-party system. The parents lay out the rules and the kids are forced to follow them. If you want to go to a party and your parents say no, you can’t just remove your parents from power and elect new ones who would allow you to go, and if you disobey them, they can punish you. Now they may be efficient in keeping you safe and keeping order in the house, but you have no freedom or choice to do anything different from their rules.
Similarly, a one-party system is one where the state and government is effectively one party and that no other party has any chance of gaining control of the state. One-party systems are inherently undemocratic and often are authoritarian. They give the voter no choice and no way to influence change or present another viewpoint. In China, no one can challenge the Chinese Communist Party and leaders are immune from democratic process and can often choose to stay in power for as long as they wish. Take Xi Jingping abolishing term limits which allows himself to remain in power for life.
While promoters of a one-party system may point to its efficiency and stability, these come at a price. Efficiency is often achieved by only promoting one ideology which fails to consider alternate viewpoints, and stability is often achieved through acts of oppression, the silencing of political opponents, and an oppressive surveillance system. A one-party system can be highly efficient but often lacks democratic values of freedom and impartial justice.
The third alternative would be a system which has no political parties. This is an interesting one as not many countries in history, especially large ones, have implemented a system like this. Ancient Athens and the short-lived Republic of Texas both had a non-partisan democracy. In this sort of direct democracy, every citizen is a participant. You could bring any sort of legislation you wanted to the Assembly. Imagine being able to bring any sort of bill to Congress or Parliament and have the whole population vote on your bill. This would give power to the individual but in a large country this would be nearly impossible to implement. I have two siblings and already we can barely come to an agreement after hours of arguing on where to go to dinner or what movie to watch. Now imagine having over three hundred million people deciding on what restaurant to go to each suggesting their own ideas. The Athenian democracy only worked because it was small in scale and often times the main orators belonged to an even smaller select group of aristocrats.
Today, there are a few countries with a non-partisan system,
like Nauru. Each of these non-partisan systems are small countries or have been very short-lived, and so it is hard to imagine what a non-partisan system would look like in a large country such as the US. The reason is that naturally people will divide into parties as it helps them organise a collective goal as a group. If political parties were banned or if no parties came into being, what would that look like in the US? One could expect elections to have much more of a diverse range of candidates and representative of most ideologies. This would allow voters to really vote for whom they most closely align with.
A non-partisan representative democracy would be more likely to be implemented in the US. The government would be much smaller in scale than a direct one, but like the problem in an Athenian system, if every individual in government has their own agenda the government would be highly inefficient or dominated by a few powerful leaders. Groups could be formed on certain issues with politicians belonging to many groups depending on the issue. I would imagine that a system with no political parties would have too many choices and too many differing agendas causing the government to become highly inefficient and get very few things done. In this case, it has the opposite problem of a one-party system by allowing too many choices and differing views.
Having looked at three possible alternatives to the two-party system, the system which is most functional and could most likely be implemented in the US is a multiparty system. A Foreign Policy Review suggests that in order for a multiparty system to fully take hold in the US, the election process and government will have to change. A few of the reforms which the Review suggests is changing from first past-the-post system, which facilitates a two-party system, to a proportional system such as where five congressional districts are combined, and the front-five candidates are the ones who are sent to Washington instead of one candidate per district as would be in a first past-the-post race. Also, the House of Representatives should be increased to 700 and to eliminate primaries and have party leaders nominate their own candidates as they do in the UK. The article points to historical precedent where until 1842 states often used multimember districts meaning that these reforms could be implemented.
These changes are possible and could allow for a multi-party system to take hold in the US which would benefit the US. Voters will no longer be constrained between two continuously polarising forces but have more choice. In government, they will be forced to work together in coalitions and compromise which will further decrease polarisation and allow for more meaningful legislation which encompasses more viewpoints.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.