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How much longer can the two-party system hold?

The cracks are growing. But the status quo has powerful forces propping it up.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States
President-elect Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on January 20, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty Images

Two-thirds of Americans think there ought to be a third party in the United States. This number is now at a record high.

But just because Americans are dissatisfied with the current two-party system doesn’t mean it’s about to change.

Something more is required. That something more is electoral reform. And we’re not quite there. At least not yet.

Is a third major party needed?

This finding comes from “Spoiler Alert,” a new Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report I co-authored with Bill Galston and Tod Lindberg. The 2018 VOTER survey, on which the report is based, asked the following question: “In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?” Sixty-eight percent said “a third major party is needed.” This view was held by solid majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, and especially independents.

Though the number has been up and down a bit over the past two and a half decades (since pollsters began asking this question regularly), 68 percent is the highest in at least 25 years. Polling going back further is spottier, but nothing before the 1990s, and even back to the 1940s, comes anywhere close to two-thirds dissatisfaction with the two-party system. (Possibly there was more dissatisfaction in the anti-party Progressive Era, but there’s no polling from back then.)

Is this a crisis? Like most looming crises (think climate change), it isn’t really a crisis until it is a full-blown crisis.

At this point, think of it as a strong warning sign, and one that correlates with a number of indicators showing widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the American political system. I happen to think it’s a core piece of the current maelstrom of discontent and instability. So core, in fact, that I’m currently writing a book about it.

For now, I want to keep the focus in this piece on a separate question: If Americans are so eager to have a third party, and have been for so long, why don’t we have one already? And what would it take to get one?

The problem with our electoral system

The simplest explanation for why we don’t have a major third party in the United States is that we have an electoral system of single-winner plurality (“first past the post”), which renders third parties as “spoilers.” In a single-winner plurality election, voters for third parties are seen as wasted since only one of the top two parties has a chance of winning. Since third-party votes are wasted, all serious electoral energy goes into the two major parties, and third parties become the home of fringe candidates who everybody knows will never win — a self-reinforcing dynamic.

For a third party to break through and appear appropriately viable to potential supporters and fundraisers alike, it has to appear as potentially popular as either of the existing parties. It also requires a large number of voters who are willing to risk voting for a third party because they see one party as clearly better or worse. Neither of these preconditions exists in American politics right now.

Yes on a third party. But which third party?

At first look, having 68 percent in support of a new third party might make it seem like a third party is imminent. And yes, that is a very high number. But we’ve had majority or near-majority desire for a third party in American politics for two and a half decades now. Every year, pundits pick up on these kinds of polls and pronounce the imminent death of the two-party system. But the heart keeps on beating. How? Why?

The first and most important reason is that there’s not enough consensus of what that third party should stand for, at least not enough to form a party that would be more popular than either of the two major parties. Some might think that as the two major parties have pulled apart, it leaves an opening for a more centrist party. But our data shows that there’s simply not enough broad demand for a centrist party to displace either of the two major parties.

How do we know? In addition to asking about desire for a third party, the 2018 VOTER Survey also asked respondents where they would place a third party, should such a party exist, in relation to the existing parties on questions of economics (as defined by how much the government spends and how many services it provides) and immigration — the two most salient issues in American politics right now. The results are below:

This analysis shows why a major third party doesn’t gain traction. There is demand for a party that is more liberal, one that is more centrist, and one that is more conservative than the current two parties.

Among the 68 percent of voters who support a third party:

  • Almost one in five (18 percent) want a party that is more liberal than the Democrats on one or both dimensions, and 11 percent want a party that is more liberal than the Democrats on both dimensions.
  • Roughly one in three (37 percent) want a party that is more centrist than either of the two parties on one or both dimensions (while not also being more liberal/conservative than a major party on another dimension), and 22 percent want a party that is more centrist on both dimensions.
  • Slightly more than one in five (23 percent) want a party that is more conservative than Republicans on one or both dimensions, and 17 percent want a party that is more conservative than Republicans on both dimensions.

To be sure, asking voters abstractly about the ideology of a potential third party is not the same as asking them to respond to a real third party, with a real candidate. For many voters, ideological placement is more symbolic than it is substantive, and in particular, moderates are especially muddy and incoherent in what they actually want.

It’s certainly within the realm of the possible that a particularly charismatic third-party candidate could emerge in a given election and garner enough support and enthusiasm.

But it seems unlikely, given the distribution of existing opinion. And if anything, the way these questions are written (emphasizing the liberal-conservative dimension) almost certainly leads to underrepresentation of the potential popularity of the upper-left-hand quadrant of social conservatism and economic liberalism, a space that made candidate Donald Trump so successful.

The bottom line is that what America would need to adequately represent the diversity of opinion in the country is five or six parties, not three. But that’s even more unlikely under our current electoral rules.

It’s highly improbable, but at least conceivable, for a third party to break through (it did happen in the 1850s.) It’s impossible to have a five-party system without some form of major electoral reform to create a system of proportional voting.

The spoiler problem

Back in 1992, when 18.9 percent of voters supported Ross Perot for president, there was a widespread sense that the Democrat and Republican parties were too similar, and so many voters could safely cast a protest vote to express dissatisfaction. It wouldn’t matter all that much whether George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton was in the White House; the country would more or less go in the same direction.

Today, it’s much harder to make a case that it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, in Congress or in the White House. The two parties are very, very different. And voters perceive clear differences. The 2018 VOTER Survey asked voters how well represented they felt by each of the two parties.

Overall, 77 percent of Americans feel more represented by one party or the other. Put another way, 23 percent are equivocal between the two parties (the sum of the diagonal squares from the lower left to the upper right). This is not enough for a major third party, even assuming nonexistent consensus on what the party should stand for.

But again, signs of broader discontent are clear in the data. Add up the four squares in the upper right and you have about 29 percent of the electorate that feels “somewhat” or “very poorly represented” by both of the two major parties. This quadrant of discontentment should be a worrying sign. Our party system is more and more being held together by negative partisanship.

In one sense, the two-party system is more or less where we would expect it to be, given the conditions. Most partisans feel somewhat well-represented by their parties and very poorly represented by the opposing parties. And the parties are also positioned about where we’d expect them to be, given the desire for a far-left, center, and far-right party. They have to straddle the diverse electorate as best they can.

So things may be at a kind of equilibrium. But it feels like a particularly tenuous equilibrium. One in three Americans think neither party represents them very well, and two-thirds want more choices. This is not the sign of a healthy political system.

How long can this system hold?

Perhaps the two-party system can continue a while longer, with steady but equally distributed dissatisfaction and frustration — not enough to topple it in one direction or the other. Or perhaps one of the two major parties will split, like the Whigs did in the 1850s, over a new issue that reorders the American political landscape. That could be the jolt of reordering chaos the American party system needs. It could also divide the nation in half and lead to violence, as it did in 1860.

A better path forward would be electoral reform. Most advanced democracies have some form of proportional voting system that allows for the party system to better reflect the diversity of opinion in the public, and for a broader number of citizens to feel well-represented. Certainly, the proportional systems of Europe are also dealing with the same immigration-related backlash politics we are facing here in America. But they’re better equipped to evolve in response.

The far-right parties have certainly exerted a pull on politics in most Western European countries. But the party systems there are already changing and readjusting, and mostly keeping the far-right populists out of power, unlike in the United States. (Eastern European countries, with a less robust history of democracy, are a different story).

One challenge of electoral reform: public understanding

One obstacle to electoral reform is that it’s not an issue the public spends much time thinking about. For most Americans, electoral reform is abstract and confusing. For most Americans, there is one system of holding elections, and that’s all we know. Our report suggests most Americans don’t have much understanding of alternative electoral systems, and don’t really make the connection to the ways electoral rules entrench the two-party system that Americans are mostly dissatisfied with.

This is understandable. With the exception of the successful ranked-choice voting campaign in Maine (and in a handful of US cities), there have been no sustained efforts to connect electoral rules with electoral choices. More deliberative polling suggests that when voters engage with the pros and cons of electoral reform, they become much more supportive of it. But nationally, there’s little talk of electoral reform. The baseline human instinct is to be conservative on big system change — the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Until it isn’t.

Yet the deficiencies of our electoral system are becoming more and more apparent. Recent polling suggests that Americans are more and more open to broad structural change, and less and less likely to be certain that our version of democracy is the best that it gets. And campaigners in Maine have demonstrated that when you explain that electoral reform gives voters “more voice and more choice,” voters generally support this.

So there’s important work to be done. Americans are unhappy with the party system they have — they just haven’t figure out how to get something better.

A second challenge of electoral reform: politicians

Maine now has ranked-choice voting because the people wanted it, not the politicians. Reform in Maine took two public referenda. New Zealand also went through a similar process in reforming its electoral system (moving from first-past-the-post to a form of proportional voting) through two public referenda.

Some US states have referenda; others don’t. There is no national referendum (other than elections). If national electoral reform is to happen in the United States, it will mean that a majority of elected members of Congress not only think it’s the right thing to do but also think it wouldn’t put them out of a job. This is an obvious challenge since they’ve been elected under the current system.

But the history of electoral reform suggests it is possible. It requires the stars to align. There needs to be a base level of public dissatisfaction with the status quo (this is building), a widespread sense that an alternative system is fairer (there’s work to be done here), and finally, a sense of uncertainty and chaos that scares politicians into thinking the status quo is unsustainable (this is unpredictable, but it happens from time to time).

Generally, countries have changed their electoral systems when new parties gained, upsetting the existing political order. Ranked-choice voting, for example, makes a lot more sense for incumbent politicians when there’s a genuine spoiler challenge. Proportional voting makes a lot more sense when incumbent parties want to guarantee some share of the seats in the legislature, rather than being wiped out entirely.

The Catch-22, of course, is that the conditions for a viable new challenger third party in the United States to upset the existing order are not really there. Not enough voters are willing to take a chance on a potential spoiler third party, and there’s no consensus around what that third party should stand for.

Yet despite this, minor third parties are quietly gaining support, and there’s some new energy around supporting pivotal independent candidates. The electoral terrain is decidedly unfriendly so such efforts. But if a few gain enough to send some real shock waves of uncertainty through the system, who knows?

Something needs to give. And eventually, at some point, something will. But at this point, it’s hard to know exactly what and when. Still, what we can do now is work toward a better electoral system. The current system is unsustainable. Better to find a replacement now than for it to collapse in a crisis.

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