The Case for Multiparty Presidentialism in the United States

Policy Paper
The Case for Multiparty Presidentialism in the U.S.
Dec. 15, 2023

For many Americans, anything besides our two-party electoral system is hard to imagine. Multiple parties and proportional representation, the main alternative, might seem more fitting for a parliamentary system than our presidential one. But the truth is, how a country elects its legislature and how it selects its executive are two separate decisions. Multiparty presidentialism—the system the United States would have if it adopted proportional representation—is common around the world.

In a sweeping new review of electoral system combinations published by New America and Protect Democracy, Scott Mainwaring, a leading scholar of presidential systems, and Lee Drutman, a prominent expert on proportional representation, conclude that multiparty presidentialism is the best fit for the United States. In particular, they find that it would:

  • Functionally eliminate gerrymandering, increasing the competitiveness of elections and decreasing electoral incentives to entertain extremism to defeat primary challengers;
  • Allow for parties and governing institutions to more flexibly respond to ongoing challenges; and
  • Attenuate hyperpartisan polarization by empowering compromise-oriented officials.

Democracy in the United States is an outlier in many ways—most democracies around the world use some form of proportional representation, and rarely is presidential democracy paired with a two-party system. This unique combination is exacerbating factionalism and political brinkmanship, pushing our democracy beyond inefficiency and towards autocracy. 

Historically, our system worked because the two major parties operated as overlapping and fluid coalitions. Voters in the twentieth century often engaged in split-ticket voting, electing divided governments that encouraged presidents to compromise with legislators across party lines. Presidents often operated as moderating national figures, while congressional party politics focused on the local. 

But increasing ‘us vs. them’ polarization and the nationalization of our politics encourage voters to consider the executive and legislative branches in tandem, and attempt to elect a unified government across the two. However, our Constitution’s checks and balances—design features originally meant to guard against majoritarian tyranny—frustrate these efforts, and instead are deepening factional brinkmanship and distrust. As a result, the parties are more warring camps than workable coalitions. Cross-partisanship is often politically untenable. Voters looking for one party to sweep the executive and legislative branches are rarely satisfied, and most often are either locked out of representation in both or frustrated by a divided government unable to compromise. 

This zero sum warfare offers little hope for the future of American democracy. To mend our broken politics, Mainwaring and Drutman argue that we must engage the country’s vast political diversity, encourage collaboration across party lines, and electorally disadvantage anti-democratic extremism. Multi-partyism via proportional representation offers a compelling opportunity to do all of these things, and to address the manifold threats to American democracy.

Related Topics
Political Parties Voting, Electoral, and Local Reform