What If America Had a Multiparty Democracy?

Every four years, many voters must decide which party is the lesser of two evils.

United States Capitol model
Scale model of the United States Capitol (Andy Castro)

Leonid Bershidsky raises an interesting question at Bloomberg View: What if America had a multiparty democracy like most countries in Europe?

Based on the outcome of the first presidential voting contest in Iowa this week, Bershidsky imagines the country could five parties: a center-left one led by Hillary Clinton, a far-left one led by Bernie Sanders, a Christian right one led by Ted Cruz, a populist one led by Donald Trump and a center-right, pro-business party led by Marco Rubio.

The two left-wing parties would have a majority, at least in Iowa. Clinton, placing first, would head the government. Sanders, as leader of the second largest party, would get an important cabinet post: say, minister of the economy.

The right-wing parties would go into opposition, but with a reasonable prospect of returning to government in four years. They could either win a majority between the three of them or perhaps Clinton’s and Rubio’s parties would get enough support to form a government of two parties, like the left-right coalitions that rule in Germany and the Netherlands.

As it is, Clinton will probably win the Democratic nomination as well as the presidency. Both Sanders’ supporters and the entire right of the country will feel left out. The latter “will express their discontent in Congress,” writes Bershidsky, “resulting in continued gridlock.” The former won’t have any power at all.


If factions were formalized and represented in Congress as parties, Bershidsky adds, “coalition negotiations would probably become easier than they are today.”

Such an arrangement allows voters to understand more clearly who speaks for their particular worldview and the deals between formal parties are seen not as backroom arrangements but as products of open negotiation and legitimate compromise.

Bershidsky makes it sound prettier than it is. Coalition politics can be messy too. It often does involve backroom deals and compromises that satisfy no one.

But the alternative is worse.

Left out

In the United States, there is such stark polarization that party affiliation has become part of many people’s identity.

As for the rest, the two-party system forces them to decide every four years which is the lesser of two evils. There is no party for Americans who are economically as well as socially liberal (“libertarian”). Nor is there a nativist or nationalist party for Trump’s fans. They are largely excluded from the political process despite making up a big chunk of the electorate.

Reform, of course, is unlikely. It would require a rewrite of the Constitution, which is virtually impossible under any circumstance, let alone when neither of the two major parties has an interest in changing the system.

Still, “it’s worth a thought,” says Bershidsky.