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What Problem Does Ending the Two Party System Solve?

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A couple of follow-ups to my earlier post. First, a surprising number of commenters are arguing that Cuomo does not, in fact, represent political money being left on the table. The idea that Cuomo is the leftmost candidate that can win in NY can be easily disproven with two words: Kirsten Gillibrand. For that matter, since Cuomo is moving left in response to Nixon’s primary challenge he pretty clearly doesn’t believe it himself.

Of more general consequence, multiple people on Twitter brought up third party politics as a long-term goal when I first made this point on Twitter yesterday. In the very unlikely event that we get electoral reform that eliminates the spoiler problem, well, we’ll cross this bridge when we come to it. But I do think that the focus on the two-party system as a major if not the primary barrier to progressive change is very misguided, and a lot of people (particularly people who live in European multi-party systems, as several Twitter responders do) aren’t thinking through the implications in the context of the James Madison’s sausage factory very carefully:

  • So let’s say the Dems are broken into a Social Democratic Party and a Lieberman for Connecticut Party. So now what? Think of, say, the ACA. Was the barrier to a robust public option and/or more generous subsidies for the exchanges and/or a more generous Medicaid expansion the left of the Democratic caucus? Obviously not. So then the argument has to be that Bayh, Nelson, McKaskill, et al. are more likely to make concessions to Social Democrats than with fellow Democrats. This is, to put is mildly, implausible. And the fact that Lieberman did more damage to the ACA than any red state Democrat did underscores this. Dividing the Democratic coalition doesn’t solve the problem of conservative constituencies being overrepresented in the House and Senate on the one hand, and effectively crates another veto point on the other. It’s hard to see this being an improvement. What becomes easier to pass in this scenario?
  • There’s another issue that advocates of multi-party democracy in the U.S, fail to deal with — what do you do with presidential elections? If you assume that most voters will vote a straight ticket, this is an abject disaster, as it would result in virtually every presidential election being decided by the House of Representatives on a one-state one-vote basis, which would be both deeply undemocratic and give the conservative coalition a hammerlock on the presidency for the foreseeable future. So is the assumption that voters will vote for one party at the congressional level, but as strategic two-party voters for president? This isn’t very consistent with how most voters behave, and the fact that the Green Party is obsessively focused on the presidency even though it’s where they can do the most damage and hence where they’re particularly unlikely to gain traction would seem to indicate that it’s unlikely smaller parties would find this satisfying. If the idea is to eliminate the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment, well, to state the obvious malfunctions benefiting the Republican Party twice in 16 years has changed this from an extreme longshot to something that is Very Clearly Not Happening.

Focusing on the two-party system as a barrier to progressive change fundamentally fails to comprehend what the real barriers are. And without more fundamental changes that Article V makes essentially impossible, multiparty democracy is more likely to compound the democratic deficits of the American constitutional order than to alleviate them.

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