Two Parties May Be Better Than Three

The only thing worse than two-party polarization is permanent rule by the center.

Louvre Paris France
The Louvre in Paris, France, February 9, 2020 (Unsplash/Louis Paulin)

I once hailed the French voting model as an alternative to America’s. Unlike the first-past-the-post system, which encourages voters to sort into two major parties lest their vote go wasted, France’s two-round voting system encourages temporary, not permanent polarization. Multiple parties thrive in the first round. Voters choose between two finalists in the second.

Until 2017, third parties seldom made the runoffs. But they played an important role by conditioning their support for one of the two major parties on policies or cabinet posts.

Under François Hollande, several members of the Radical Left and Greens served in a Socialist-led government. Nicolas Sarkozy had ministers from small centrist and center-right parties who backed him in the presidential election.

But what if the major parties don’t qualify for the runoffs at all? That has now happened in two presidential elections in a row, and it calls the stabilizing effect of the two-round voting system into question.

Three-way split

Between 1958, when Charles de Gaulle put France on the two-round system, and 2017, when Emmanuel Macron won the presidency, power alternated between the Socialists on the left and Gaullists on the right. Not too dissimilar from Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Macron’s double victory — he was reelected on Sunday — ended this duopoly. Rather than a center-left or center-right candidate, he twice defeated the far-right Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

The strong third-place finish of the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who got 22 percent support to Le Pen’s 23 percent this year, suggests the French can roughly be divided into three: a radical left, a moderate center and an authoritarian right.

Historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has argued this marks a return to the pre-de Gaulle era.

Mélenchon is the inheritor of the 1871 Paris Commune and France’s strong mid-twentieth-century Communist Party; its militant trade unions and history of street protests.

Le Pen stands in the tradition of Georges Ernest Boulanger, François de La Rocque, Philippe Pétain and Pierre Poujade: far-right strongmen who emphasized family values and French independence, including of the Catholic countryside from liberal Paris.

Macron’s coalition of middle-class liberals and social democrats is reminiscent of the bourgeois Orléanists, who governed France in the late-nineteenth century, and the Third Force that tried to govern France in the late 1940s and early 50s but was overwhelmed by the Communists on the left and the Gaullists on the right.

Center wins by default

Arthur Goldhammer, an American expert on French politics, points out that since the radical left is unacceptable to the authoritarian right, and the authoritarian right is unacceptable to the radical left, in a two-round voting system the center wins by default, even if a majority of voters don’t support it.

That is, so long as democracy prevails. The failure of the Third Force cautions that this cannot be taken for granted. De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 was precipitated by a military coup in Algeria. The country was on the brink of civil war.

The Socialists and Gaullists may yet have their revanche in the upcoming legislative elections. The parties of Mélenchon, Macron and Le Pen are weak at the grassroots.

But certainly at the presidential level, Goldhammer’s concern is well-founded. It turns out that de Gaulle knew what he was doing when he channeled France’s three political tendencies into two political parties.

What this means for America

A three-party system in America could see a Bernie Sanders-led socialist wing split from the Democrats on the left, and Jeb Bush- and Mitt Romney-style conservatives defect from a Trumpist Republican Party on the right to join the now-centrist Democrats. Who, like Macron, would then win by default.

I would be happy, because such a party would be closer to my politics. (I also support Macron.) But it would be calamitous for American democracy when the far left and far right have already questioned the legitimacy of elections, the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court.

This is not an argument against change. The two-party system has conditioned Americans to think there are only two possible solutions to every problem. It has hardened divisions between urban and rural areas, between the college- and non-college-educated. It has made it almost impossible for the parties to compromise, which has shaken the foundation of American democracy: the separation of powers between Congress and the president.

Political scientist Lee Drutman explains:

Under unified government, congressional co-partisans have no incentive to check the president; their electoral success is tied to his success and popularity. Under divided government, congressional opposition partisans have no incentive to work with the president; their electoral success is tied to his failure and unpopularity. This is not a system of bargaining and compromise, but one of capitulation and stonewalling.

Other alternatives

French runoffs are out, and a switch to European-style proportional representation is probably a bridge too far.

Luckily there are two more alternatives:

  1. Multi-member congressional districts: Essentially proportional representation, but at the district or state level. Individual states could make this change. They could merge districts or convert their entire state into a single congressional district. Democrats in red states and Republican in blue states would finally have representation in Congress. Third parties could compete without playing spoiler.
  2. Ranked-choice voting: Also called instant runoffs. Voters rank candidates in their order of preference. The candidates with the lowest support are eliminated, and their votes transferred to the next candidate, until there is a winner with majority support. Maine switched to ranked voting in 2016. Alaska will use it for the first time in November. New York City used ranked voting in its most recent mayoral election.

More parties in America

Either change could usher in a multiparty system, which would be more responsive to voters.

When Echelon Insights, an opinion research firm, asked Americans to choose between five hypothetical parties in 2019, it found that:

  • 28 percent would back a center-left Labor party led by Barack Obama.
  • 21 percent would back a center-right conservative party in the mold of Ronald Reagan.
  • 19 percent would back a right-wing nationalist party led by Donald Trump.
  • 12 percent would back a centrist “Acela” party led by Michael Bloomberg. (Named after the high-speed train that connects the cities of the American Northeast.)
  • 10 percent would back a left-wing Green party led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Even some Republicans would be motivated to vote for a Labor party that ditched cultural liberalism in favor of universal health care and workers’ rights.

A socially progressive and pro-business Acela party would draw most of its support from wealthy Democrats.

It would be the obvious kingmaker, but over time a looser form of coalition politics may emerge in Congress. Labor, Acela and the Greens could pass climate legislation and gun reform. Labor might be persuaded to join Acela and the Reaganites in simplifying the tax code. Labor, Reaganites and Trumpists could support stronger immigration enforcement. Labor and the Greens would find an ally in the Trumpists on trade.

On many of these issues — health care, labor rights, climate change, gun control, simpler taxes, border security — there is a majority in the country, but progress is stalled in Congress. Either because the two parties have taken opposing positions that reflect the views of their most influential supporters. Or because they are internally divided and loyalty to party is so strong that lawmakers are unwilling to “reach across the aisle”. A multiparty system could change that.