America / Politics

The Power of Two

Let’s pretend you are ten again (or in my case, 21), and your parents ask you and your siblings what they should make for dinner. You say you want pizza, your sister requests spaghetti and your older brother is “dying” to have chicken. It’s not reasonable to expect your parents to cook all three for dinner. In fact, it’s virtually impossible for your parents to be able to make every ideal dinner option effectively within a dinner time frame. Thus your parents end up asking for a compromise. You recognize that if you continue to insist upon your dish of pizza you may be stuck eating chicken, which you despise. Thus, you throw your vote behind spaghetti because it has some of the same components of pizza such as sauce and cheese, and even though you don’t love noodles you’ll make due. Majority rules, and your parents side with you and your sister.

At first glance this may seem like a pointless analogy explaining a common dining room experience for me as a child growing up. However, it’s also an analogy latent with meaning.

Let me start you off with a quick history lesson on the United States electoral system. The United States voting system is based on a simple-plurality rule instead of a majority rule. Plurality rule means that in order for a candidate to win an election, at the very least he/she must have the same amount of votes as their competitor–plus one. A majority rule translates to a candidate having over fifty-percent of the overall vote. Since the United States electoral system is based on a plurality rule, it engages in one of the most basic principles of Political Science; Duverger’s law.

Duverger’s law is a doctrine that asserts in a plurality rule based election in a single-member district, a two-party system will prevail. The United States is a clear portrayal of this principle. The two-party system has been in place 1824. Why is this? Well, humans are rational beings and recognize that there’s no point in “wasting a vote” on a candidate that has no chance at winning. Instead, they choose between the top two candidates that actually have a chance at winning the election. Oftentimes this results in voters looking past certain initiatives that their potential candidate champions even if they may not fully support it, in exchange for promoting ones they do.

For example, Karen supports raising taxes to promote a higher minimum wage and is also a pro-life advocate at her local church. Karen has the choice between two potential congressional candidates; Casey, who is pro-life but doesn’t support a tax hike for a higher minimum wage and Mark, who agrees with Karen on her tax initiative but is pro-choice. Karen must choose which of the initiatives she feels is more pressing and would like to see change within the government.

When you and your siblings were conversing over what to have for dinner, you also engaged in Duverger’s law. You realized that pizza wasn’t in line with the two most likely options of dinner, thus, you sided with the dinner that had some of the same components of pizza while accepting all of the parts of the dish you didn’t particularly care for. You were a part of the “third” party in Duverger’s law, and what happened to your option for dinner is exactly what happens to third parties in the United States. They aren’t only placed on the back burner in elections; they’re nearly forgotten. Remember how previously I mentioned that a third-party hasn’t won an election in nearly two centuries? Just to outline how little gravity third parties hold is exhibited in the 2004 election of George W. Bush versus John F. Kerry, where less than a half of a percent of electoral vote was shared between all of the third parties.

There are many proponents for the two-party system, but there are even more opponents to this system. Most people initially disagree with the two-party system and instead admonish it for trying to label electorate under a common brand. “Why can’t I just vote on a certain issue instead of accepting the umbrella of the ‘X’ party?” You know the complaints and there’s a high chance you’re one of the people participating in them.

However, let’s go back to the example of your parents making dinner for the family. It is not plausible or effective for them to make all of the dishes requested. This is how politics works as well. To put it frankly– if the United States had a multi-party system even less would be accomplished. In a TEDTALK in 2005, psychologist Barry Schwartz explained through the “paradox of choice” how in theory human beings want as many options as possible—but in reality this hinders our ability to make rational decisions. The theory is based on the premise that too much choice doesn’t give us more freedom; instead it actually takes it away. When we are given too many choices we spend more time exploring the options, regretting the decision we make or never choosing at all. In addition, added stress usually results in us making worse off decisions than we would have made if there had been fewer options. Schwartz explains that it’s the whole “did I make the right decision, could I have done better,” way of thinking that we, as Americans, are so familiar with. There aren’t two human beings on this planet who see completely eye to eye. Reflecting that fact into a political party would mean a perfect political party for each of us to contain one person: ourselves.

In addition to reducing stress for the average American by having fewer options, there are much stronger arguments for a two-party system. While a multi-party system gives voters more options, it also allows for political groups with radical ideas to gain traction much more easily. Many people blame Germany’s lack of a two-party-system for how Hitler came to power because he swayed the populace by being a powerful speaker preaching radical ideals.

And to be frank, having a two-party system gets sh*t done. If the United States was set up with a parliamentary system imagine all of the parties it would have. It’d have a center right and left party; the green party; the progressive party, probably even Texas secession party as well. Imagine trying to pass a bill through that group.

Whether you like it or not, the two-party system is here to stay. As they say two is better than one…and three…and four..and (you get the point).

Capital Sunsets on Capital Hill by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC By 2.0