To hear those calling for change — including many scholars and some lawmakers — the inherent problem with our current system is that it shoehorns the entire spectrum of political opinion into just two parties. Warnings that the nation has backslid toward autocracy — driven in large part by the Republican Party’s shift away from democratic norms — bring added urgency, they say, and reversing that Trump-era trend will require something radical: breaking up the Democratic and Republican parties.
The two-party trap
The current system is something of a historical accident, as Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New America Foundation, explains in his book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.” It is an unintended consequence of the simple-majority election method, in which votes for third parties are effectively “wasted.”
“Given only two viable choices, all voters must align themselves with one vision, which makes it hard to register their ambivalences,” Drutman writes. And there’s plenty of ambivalence to go around. Pew Research Center surveys have measured at least nine distinct political typologies in the United States, for instance, while Gallup surveys show that fewer than 4 in 10 people believe the two major parties “do an adequate job of representing the American people.”
Matthew Shugart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California at Davis, contends there are effectively three major political divisions at work in the United States. There’s Democratic/Republican, of course, which splits the country roughly 50/50. There’s capitalist/socialist, which pits people on the far left such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who has called for a wholesale overhaul of the economic system — vs. virtually everybody else, left or right.
But the most salient one in the post-Trump era is the democratic/authoritarian split on the right. “On this one, the pro-democratic segment extends all the way from the leftmost large-d Democrats to somewhere near the middle of the Republican Party,” Shugart wrote. On the other side is the Trumpian wing of the GOP, which has “shown itself to be completely willing to set aside democracy, and even to promote/tolerate political violence, in order to advance its political agenda.”
While the anti-democratic faction in the GOP is a small slice of the country overall, it is the most powerful group within the party. Most congressional Republicans refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s electoral victory and parroted Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud well after they had been rejected by the courts many times over. On the day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol — an attack that resulted in the deaths of a Capitol Police officer and four other people — a majority of House Republicans voted to overturn election results.
“The fundamental threat to American democracy right now is that the Republican Party is overwhelmed by an extreme anti-system faction,” Drutman said in an interview. “You have a number of individual members who are still committed to basic democratic principles, but they don’t have the winning hand within the party.”
The Republican National Committee did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these issues.
Other democracies have far-right, anti-democratic factions, too. But nearly all of those democracies have multiparty political systems in which it is much more difficult for a single party to obtain a legislative majority on its own. In countries such as Ireland, Germany and New Zealand, center-right, pro-democratic parties typically have a greater incentive to partner with the center left than with the extreme right.
Ending two-party politics is not just an academic fever dream. Members of Congress, led by Rep. Don Beyer, a centrist Virginia Democrat, are considering a bill, the Fair Representation Act, that would do just that.
It would create multi-member House districts in states with more than one representative, require those districts to be drawn by independent commissions to minimize gerrymandering and allow voters to choose representatives in those districts using a ranked-choice voting system like the one in Maine.
“It’s good for everybody all around,” Beyer said in an interview. “It will make the House much more representative of the American people and make it a more stable body.”
He knows it is an uphill battle. “It serves the interests of democracy and the long-term health of the House,” he said, “but it doesn’t necessarily serve the short-term needs of anybody elected right now.”
Beyer said the Capitol riot and the rise of extremism within the GOP underscore the need for change. “In primaries, the best thing to do [now] is run to the extreme,” he said. “There’s no regard for moderation for either party in the primary.”
But with multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting, “you’re far less likely to end up with someone who thinks the Rothschilds use their space lasers to start fires in California,” he added, alluding to baseless, antisemitic claims espoused by now-Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican from Georgia.
Beyer’s bill drew eight Democrats as co-sponsors in the last session, and he thinks he will be able to get more of his colleagues to sign on when he introduces it in this term. He said his constituents tend to like the plan when they learn about it. “I’ve used shorthand like, ‘Let’s try to get the votes of people in the center,’ or ‘Let’s make sure that even in places like Massachusetts there can be Republican members of Congress.’ Those are easy messages,” he said.
How it would work
The multi-member districts in Beyer’s bill would effectively switch House elections from a winner-take-all model to one of proportional representation, in which parties win congressional seats in proportion to the number of votes their members receive.
Consider, for example, a hypothetical congressional district with a 60-40 split of Democratic and Republican voters. Under the current system, the candidate receiving most of the Democratic votes would probably win the sole House seat. That is great news for them but not for the district’s Republicans whose votes are effectively wasted.
Now consider the alternative: What would happen if that same district were represented by not one House member but five. There would be multiple Democrats and Republicans vying for the five seats. Democrats would have enough votes to capture three of those seats, or 60 percent of the total, while Republicans would get the remaining two, or 40 percent.
The district’s House delegation would now be split 60-40 in favor of the Democrats, mirroring the partisan split at the population level. Rather than being wasted, the Republican votes would translate into two seats. Everybody gets a voice in Congress.
Most plans for multi-member districts also call for reducing the number of districts overall. For a state such as Virginia, for instance, that could mean moving from having 11 single-member districts to three — two with four representatives each and one with three. Such proposals also typically call for expanding the size of the House, which would allow congressional delegations to more closely reflect partisan splits in their states.
That illustration is a simplified example of how multi-member House districts might lead to more-representative outcomes. That is what happened in New Zealand, when the country’s voters adopted a proportional system after multiple elections in which the right-leaning National Party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives despite losing the popular vote.
But an interesting thing about multi-member districts, according to political scientists, is that they could usher in the end of two-party politics.
Multi-member districts would, almost by definition, fracture the Democratic and Republican parties. Let’s return to the hypothetical district from the previous illustration: Let’s say that 20 percent are environmentalists, 40 percent are liberals, 20 percent are traditional conservatives and 20 percent are Trump-style nationalist conservatives.
Under the current system, if the environmentalists back a Green Party candidate whose values closely align with theirs, they risk splitting the Democratic vote and giving the Republican candidate a path to victory. So many wind up voting for the Democrat, not because they affirmatively support her but because they do not want the Republican to win.
A similar dynamic happens on the right, as the nationalists join forces with the traditional conservatives. In the end, the two-party system flattens the spectrum of political thought into a stark binary choice.
Now, imagine that same district has five congressional seats. That creates space for a Green Party candidate to run on a tailored appeal to the district’s environmentalist voters without having to worry about “spoiling” a Democratic victory. Similarly, a hypothetical MAGA-party candidate (like the one considered by Trump at one point) might be able to capture the nationalist vote without having to worry about spoiling conservatives’ chance of winning a single seat.
In the end, the people of the district are represented by one Green Party representative, two Democrats, one Republican and one nationalist conservative. Multi-member districts allow voters to follow their consciences, as Drutman put it, rather than choose the lesser of two evils.
Drutman, Shugart and others say such a system would allow the moderate forces within the GOP to reclaim the party from the authoritarian faction. “The idea is that the [moderate] conservatives would prefer not to be weighed down by the damage that the authoritarians would do to their label and would run separately, once the spoiler risk has been so minimized,” Shugart said in an interview.
From voters’ standpoint, they can cast ballots for a “party that has a reasonable shot at participating in government and whose proposals and ideology more closely match” their own, said Susan Stokes, director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago. “That leaves voters less prone to thinking they had wasted their vote” or cast it “for a party that fails to win or influence policy,” she added.
Researchers who study elections have found, over and over, that government tends to work better in multiparty proportional systems. Voter turnout is higher, for instance, because voters have more viable candidates to choose from. People report greater satisfaction with the government. Partisan debates are less negative. Minority populations get better representation.
There is even evidence that they handle pandemics better.
Parties also represent smaller slices of the electorate in multiparty systems, which incentivizes cross-party cooperation to create legislative majorities. This tends to foster moderation. “As a general rule, when a wider range of parties gets representation in the legislature, it’s hard to form a majority governing coalition that doesn’t include the political center,” Drutman wrote. As a result, moderate candidates are empowered and the extreme elements are banished to the fringe.
It also creates more stability in government, according to Drutman. In our current system, he said, “you have these wild swings back and forth” as Democrats and Republicans trade control of Congress and the White House, undoing the previous majority’s work each time. “In a proportional system, the coalitions shift over time, but they’re unlikely to shift that dramatically.”
Overall, Stokes said, a proportional system’s main benefit “would be the quality of representation — a better match between constituent opinion and government action.”
‘This is your last chance’
Putting a proportional system in place in the United States would not require a constitutional amendment, but it would need the support of a majority of members of Congress. That is a particularly tall order with Congress as divided as it is. At the moment, much of the policymaking energy toward such issues in Congress and the White House is focused on the For the People Act, which seeks to expand voting rights, limit gerrymandering and tighten rules governing political donations.
But that bill would not alter the fundamental electoral structures that have created the political dynamics in place today. With the extremist wing of the GOP ascendant and working to purge centrists from the party, Shugart and others warn that if Congress does not take further steps, moderate Republicans will soon be shut out of power completely.
He has a message for those lawmakers. “This is your last chance to save your party from acolytes of Trump who would rather burn the system down than pass sensible moderate and conservative policies that are popular with the electorate,” he said. “Find something that can pass, and pass soon, and improve our politics by reducing the risk of having a House majority in 2023 and beyond that is in the grip of the authoritarian far right.”