The Case for Multiparty Democracy

Weekly Article
Jan. 23, 2020

Excerpt adapted from Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America by Political Reform senior fellow Lee Drutman.

Today, American parties are more united internally around competing visions of national identity than any time since the Civil War. This division defines national partisan conflict and communicates to voters what is important. And because it is binary, it communicates only two, irreconcilable options. Voting means endorsing one of these visions, either implicitly or explicitly. A vote with reservations counts the same as a vote without reservations. An enthusiastic vote for Trump’s anti-immigration policies counts the same as a hesitant vote against Clinton.

A multiparty system in America would not collapse such thinking into reductionist binary generalizations. It would offer more options across the spectrum and give voters more ability to see nuance and shades of gray. A ranked-choice voting system, where voters could order their preferences, would add even more precision and nuance to elections.

All societies have some social divisions—across religion, geography, education, class, and so on. When some of those identities point in one political direction and some point in other directions, we are less likely to approach partisan politics in us-versus-them terms and more likely to be broadly tolerant of the other side(s). But when the major social group identities all line up with one big partisan division, partisan conflict reduces all issues into a single us-against-them dimension. This is when politics turns toxic.

In a multiparty system, it’s a lot less likely (though not impossible) for all the relevant social divisions to cumulate on a single partisan dimension. It’s more likely for some groups to be allies on certain issues and enemies on other issues. In a multiparty system, it’s less likely for politics to collapse into binary conflict when the political landscape communicates more complex, multifaceted choices.

In a multiparty system, there is no “lesser of three evils” or “lesser of four evils” campaign strategy. Say you’re running in a five-party race. Going hard after another candidate or party is a risky strategy. You might both get dragged down, since there’s often a “backlash effect”18 when a candidate or party goes negative. And since parties need to form governing coalitions after the election, overly nasty pre-election fighting can make post-election negotiations challenging. In short, negative campaigning is a riskier and more complicated strategy in multiparty systems. This is especially true when ranked-choice voting is involved, since parties and candidates are also competing to be voters’ second and third choices.

Certainly, some negative campaigning occurs in all democracies. But multiparty democracies experience less. And to be sure, some negative campaigning is necessary for political accountability. A cross-partisan love fest would leave voters unclear of the alternatives and the differences, and with little basis on which to choose. Negative campaigning often involves surfacing details about candidates’ voting records and public statements, information that is relevant for voters.

But while it can certainly energize and engage voters, too much negative campaigning also “tends to reduce feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and perhaps even satisfaction with government itself.” It makes partisans more resentful of each other. It supplies increasingly vicious attacks for voters to repeat and internalize (e.g., “Lock Her Up”). Toxic two-party politics creates a uniquely fertile ground for negative campaigning to spiral out of control, leaving resentful, distrustful voters in its wake.

In multiparty systems, campaigns also tend to be more policy-focused. That’s because in a more crowded field, parties look for clearer policy spaces that distinguish them from each other. Moreover, as smaller tents, parties have fewer internal differences to navigate. In a two-party system, specific agreement is harder within parties (since they have to be broader coalitions). So parties emphasize vague but grand promises and values, and they especially focus energy on the shortcomings and the alleged extremism of the other party as a way to distract from their own internal fights.

In multiparty democracies with proportional electoral systems, parties rarely win outright legislative majorities. Parties do not campaign as the “true majority,” and partisan voters do not perceive themselves as the true majority. Citizens vote for parties expecting they will form coalitions in government and then compromise to make policy. No party expects to gain total power to enact its agenda if only it holds out and wins the next election.

In multiparty democracies with proportional electoral systems, parties also do not make grand electoral promises about what they will do in power. They understand that governing requires a multiparty coalition, and what they can achieve will depend on the coalition that forms. They can only promise to advocate for particular policies and values, which leads to less overpromising. In a two-party system, parties are campaigning for control of government. This leads to rampant overpromising. And in American politics, it also leads to disappointment. Anti-majoritarian political institutions make it difficult for narrow majorities to succeed.

If voters learn what politics should be about through electoral campaigns, multiparty and two-party democracy communicate different messages. Multiparty democracy communicates that democracy is about building coalitions and alliances. Two-party democracy communicates that democracy is about the true majority triumphing.