The biggest problem with American democracy is one that hardly gets any attention. The United States doesn’t have enough political parties. Two is not enough.
Most modern democracies are multiparty systems. They use fair electoral methods like proportional representation (for multimember legislative districts) or ranked choice voting, sometimes called the alternative vote (for single-member districts) to ensure that the full spectrum of political opinion in the society is represented among elected representatives.
The U.S. does not. Along with Britain and some of its former colonies, including India, the U.S. is stuck with single-member districts in state legislature and the House of Representatives and an archaic voting system called “plurality voting.” This means that the candidate who wins the most votes — even if the number falls short of a majority of 50 percent — wins the race.
The candidate with the most votes wins — that’s fair, isn’t it? But plurality voting can lead to perverse results. In a race among three candidates, a candidate opposed by a majority of voters can win, because the majority splits its vote among two other candidates.
This is why countries like the U.S. with plurality voting tend to have two dominant parties. If you vote for a third party, you may end up electing the one of the two main parties you like the least. Progressives who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 took away votes from Al Gore and may have helped to elect George W. Bush.
But what if your society is not naturally divided into two parties? If your country has plurality voting rules, you will still tend to get two national parties; but they will be incoherent coalitions of what, in a system with other electoral rules, would be independent parties.
Under a different, more fair electoral system, the Tea Party would be a real political party. It would not be stuck in a loveless marriage bickering about “crony capitalism” with Wall Street kleptocrats.
If the U.S. had a fair voting system, the Democratic Party might fission into more independent caucuses or even different parties. Why should upscale environmentalists who want to eliminate hydropower dams, nuclear power plants, natural gas pipelines and automobiles be in the same party as unionized workers who want to build all of these things? In a fair voting system, they wouldn’t be.
This being America, any inherited institution, no matter how obsolete, destructive or mindless, is wrapped in the flag and sanctified with patriotism, and our antiquated premodern British colonial electoral system is no exception. For generations, defenders of plurality voting have praised it for producing stability and consensus and keeping radical minorities at bay. But that was before the age of gridlock and government shutdowns produced by a minority of the minority party.
Some defenders of plurality voting claim that it has a moderating effect, by forcing groups to join larger coalitions. True, no doubt — but why should a faction get permanently stuck as a coalition partner in one of two parties? The more parties you have, the more chances there are for cross-partisan coalitions. The Tea Party right and the anti-corporate left might team up today against “crony capitalism,” while battling on other issues. The need to maintain unity and discipline in one of two major national parties would no longer exist. Instead of gridlock, we’d have ever-shifting alliances, like multiparty democracies elsewhere in the world.
Our inherited plurality voting system has many other terrible effects. One is the correlation among region and party. The correlation is partly the result of our electoral rules. There are Tea Party conservatives in Massachusetts, and quite a number of non-Hispanic white Texan liberals, but their views are neutralized in single-member districts electing members of Congress by plurality voting.
What if we had multimember districts elected by fair voting — that is, some kind of proportional representation? The electoral reform organization Fairvote (I am privileged to belong to its board) has illustrated what a radical impact a more democratic electoral system could have in its latest "Monopoly Politics" report, by contrasting likely 2014 House election outcomes with what the state’s congressional delegation would be under multimember districts using fair voting rules. In some cases the differences are striking. For example, conservative Virginia might go from a current 8-3 split, with seven Republicans and one Republican-leaning district to one likely Democrat, to five Republicans, five Democrats and one seat up for grabs. In liberal Massachusetts, underrepresented Republicans under fair voting might shrink the Democratic share of the state’s congressional delegation from eight out of nine to six out of nine.
In today’s politics, regional cultural differences — over gun culture, for example -- are often politicized and turned into partisan issues. If there were more New England Yankee conservatives and more white Southern progressives in Congress, it’s a good guess that regional culture-war issues would play a greatly reduced role in national politics, compared to truly national issues like economics and foreign policy.
The Fairvote simulations assume that most Americans would remain Democrats or Republicans. But as the authors of "Monopoly Politics" point out, what they call “fair representation voting” might generate successful new parties, once voters realized that they were not wasting their votes by voting for third or fourth parties in multimember congressional districts. And once new parties took root in the multimember House, no doubt they would soon begin to run candidates for governor, president or senator, which could also be elected by fairer voting methods like “ranked voting” or “instant runoff” in which voters rank multiple candidates by preference.
By now, the world-weary cynics have sighed that this entire discussion is a waste of time, because it will supposedly never happen.
Struggles to enlarge democracy always begin with oddballs and troublemakers who reject the idea that things must always be done the way they have always been done in the past. In trying to make the U.S. live up to its claim to be the world’s greatest democracy, we can be inspired by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”