26 February 2010

We Need To End The Two Party Zero Sum Game In Congress

One of the spurious arguments against supporting a third party is the assertion that nothing would get done with 3 (or 4, or 5) political parties in Congress.

But nothing is being done now, and one of the reasons is the zero-sum game that results from only having two parties in the legislature. For example:

CS Monitor: Obama health care summit: Obama should focus on Democrats, not Republicans

The fact is that the debate over healthcare reform in Congress has been going on for nearly a year now and all sides are deeply dug in.

Before Thursday, Republicans in Congress were already nearly universally opposed to the Democrats’ legislation. And with the majority party flailing and the retaking of Congress looking increasingly possible, politically, the GOP has no reason to help Democrats enact a bill that is patently unacceptable to many in the Republican caucus.

Now imagine a scenario with multiple parties. The various parties could coalesce in different arrangements depending on the issue. Parties could cooperate on one issue, disagree on another issue, without having to bear the entire weight of public opinion of the President.

Even a casual read of the Constitution indicates that Congress was intended to be the central institution of the federal government. Congress would more properly fill its constitutional role by containing multiple parties, by causing it to be more independent of the executive.

As currently situated, Congress is either in reaction to, or overly supportive of, the executive branch. All Congressional decisions are taken in light of the position of the White House, as Congress is either controlled by the president's party, or is controlled by the opposition. Either way, the party that controls the executive controls the agenda.

Contrast our situation with the theoretical multi-party Congress. The agenda and priorities would be set by the members themselves. The support of, and the influence of, the executive on the legislature would depend on the issue, and members would look more to their constituents.

Wouldn't this hypothetical be better than our current blocked-up, overly centralized and presidential-focused system?

The argument that nothing would get done is usually predicated on the example of Italy. But in a presidential system such as ours, only one party controls the executive, and the legislative process could even function more smoothly in a multi-party environment with less hypocrisy, obstinacy and corruption. Parties that did not negotiate would soon find themselves on the outside looking in. And because we have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system, the stability of the government would not be threatened, but instead be enhanced.


Dale Sheldon said...

You linked to a game theory definition for zero-sum. If you're familiar with game theory, you'll know that wishing it weren't so will not change the fact that single-member plurality districts tend to two-party rule.


So is your proposal to push for proportional representation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proportional_representation

Or is your proposal to push for spoiler-free voting methods: http://rangevoting.org/

Because those are the only options that can actually change the game (by the game theory definition); not campaign-finance (although that's good for other reasons), not anti-gerrymandering (although that's ALSO good for other reasons), not ballot-access improvements (although that's also ALSO good for other reasons) and certainly not launching another party that will either fail entirely like dozens before it, or (less likely) become part of a new two-party system so we can repeat the cycle again: http://leastevil.blogspot.com/2010/02/abyss-stares-also.html

Septimus said...

First past the post does not always produce a two party system. Two examples:

In Britian, there are 11 parties represented, and four independents. The Liberal Democrats, holds nearly 10% of the seats.

In Canada, there are four political parties, and one independent.

As for Duverger's law, see:


and related posts there.

Septimus said...

Oh, and my post did reflect some wishful thinking, as redistricting reform is about as likely as moving to a proportional system (by state, which would be my preference) as none of these improvements are likely to come to pass.

My only response to this unhappy situation is to assist the formation of the Modern Whig Party as much as I can, as I want to take action to do what I can, instead of just bitching about yhe state of things.

Believe me when I say I realize the difficulty of a new political party, but I least I will be able to say I did what I could, and that I took action in additional to writing about it.

Dale Sheldon said...

You are correct, of course, that Duverger's "Law" isn't quite anything so rigid as law.

But it is a strong tendency, and the UK enjoys several counter-balancing forces against Duverger's law.

Firstly, parliamentary systems, as opposed to presidential systems, resist two-party dominance. But that won't help you in the US.

Secondly, is strong regional parties. You'll note that the 5th, 6th, and 7th largest parties in parliament are all regional (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, respectively.) The LibDems take a strategically similar route, focusing in areas where one of the two major parties is for practical purposes shut-out of elections. That's a model that might be helpful to you.

But even with their current record-setting number of seats, the LibDems have quite a bit less than 10% of parliament despite taking over 20% of the vote (9.6% vs. 22.1%, 43.4% conversion); and they've actually had FEWER seats with MORE votes in the past (13.8% conversion).

I'm not just bitching about the state of things and telling you you're doomed to fail: I'm telling you why so many have failed before you, and that the single most effective thing you can do to help yourself succeed (short of converting the US to a Westminster system; eww) is to push for either some form of proportional representation (which you've said would be quite difficult) or--and this is my favorite--the spoiler-free election methods of approval voting and score voting for single-winner elections.

Alternative voting systems have been popular in the US before; there is support out there now again for them, but many activist (including the Green party, but I'm working on them) are pushing for the un-productive system of instant-runoff voting. I want to help you, and so I want you to support approval and score voting.