Can America Break Free from the Two-Party Doom Loop?

Ranked-choice voting may be the answer to the gridlock, polarization, and gamesmanship that has come to define our politics.

There is a growing consensus that the American political system is no longer the gold standard it once was. The United States ranks outside the top 20 countries in the Corruption Perception Index. U.S. voter turnout trails most other developed countries. Congressional approval ratings hover around 20 percent, and polling shows that partisan animosity is at an all-time high. It doesn’t take a social scientist to see that our legislatures are increasingly defined by gridlock and gamesmanship.

Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America
by Lee Drutman
Oxford University Press, 365 pp.

It’s always tempting to think that the next election will turn things around, and for both Republicans and Democrats to believe that our country would course-correct if only they could elect more of their own. But what if the problem isn’t the people on the other side of the aisle? What if the two-party system itself is creating a vicious cycle, making government less effective and driving us apart?

That’s what Lee Drutman argues in Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop. Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at New America, writes that moving to a multiparty democracy can create fair representation, reduce partisan gridlock, lead to more positive incremental change, and increase both voter turnout and voter satisfaction. And through concrete reforms, like implementing ranked-choice voting and expanding the size of the House of Representatives, Drutman lays out the path forward. 

It is difficult to imagine that the partisans who occupy the halls of power will voluntarily make room for third, fourth, or even fifth and sixth major parties. But Drutman leaves little doubt that the American political system would benefit from more viable options in the voting booth. 

For anyone born after 1990, it would be easy to believe that American politics has always been the toxic blood sport it is today. But the dominance of two extremely polarized parties is a recent phenomenon—and it’s something the framers actively sought to avoid. As Drutman notes, George Washington’s final presidential address warned of “the alternate domination of one faction over another,” and John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties . . . is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” So how did we get to where we are today?

Where Drutman believes the framers erred was in failing to realize that simple plurality elections—used for most state and national contests—would foster the exact two-party system they wanted to avoid. They were justifiably concerned about the danger of “two great parties” and right to think that several smaller factions balancing each other out could be the solution. But they were so leery of political parties in general that they never seriously considered a multiparty system. 

Parties are useful, Drutman argues, especially in countries as large as the United States. They help voters understand where candidates stand and make it easier for constituencies to organize. A two-party system can only succeed, however, if it strikes the right balance. If the parties are too similar, they don’t offer voters meaningful choices. If the parties are too different, they rarely cooperate. When parties become so different that they view each other as an existential threat, it justifies all manner of sins to defeat or obstruct the opposition. 

One obvious counterargument to Drutman’s thesis is that we’ve had two dominant parties for most of our history without the current level of gridlock and polarization. However, he argues that for decades we effectively had a four-party system inside the two-party system, with “liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats, and liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans. Each group represented distinct and meaningful voting factions. None had a majority of its own.” From 1965 to 1990 voting patterns did not follow a “predictable one-dimensional left-right structure but reflected complicated trade-offs across competing priorities.” That time period was considered one of peak performance for Congress, characterized by landmark, bipartisan legislation. But then the landscape changed.

In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, newly elected speaker of the House, led Republicans to adopt a “politics as war” mentality, which drove both parties away from the center. As politics grew more contentious, a series of “wave” elections replaced moderate representatives with more extreme ones. By 2016, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans had become an endangered species in Congress, and significant bipartisan legislation went extinct along with them. 

Now the two major parties largely reflect an urban-versus-rural divide, and the number of “swing” districts has halved since 1998.  Our winner-take-all electoral system makes it virtually impossible for third parties to gain traction. Voters who are dissatisfied with their party’s nominee hold their nose and support them anyway, or, worse yet, stay home. 

Our ineffective, weakened Congress also makes for a more powerful presidency, Drutman explains. Every election becomes more consequential as control of the executive branch and the legislature grows more important. Party leaders demonize their opponents to fire up their base. “It’s a self-reinforcing doom loop, with no obvious way out in the existing two-party system.”   Shifting to a multiparty democracy, he argues, is the obvious solution.

To start, Drutman proposes that we implement ranked-choice voting, or “instant runoffs,” for congressional seats and the presidency. Under that system, voters rank their first, second, and third choices on the ballot, and so on. When tallied, votes given to the lowest-performing candidates are subsequently redistributed to the second choices of that candidate’s voters. The redistribution continues until one candidate reaches the requisite threshold and wins. 

Ranked-choice voting breaks the two-party cycle by giving voters the freedom to vote for third parties without the fear of their vote being wasted or of their preferred candidate being a “spoiler” for another candidate they like. It rewards candidates with broad appeal and leads to less divisive campaigns, since candidates benefit from being a voters’ second or third choice. Several large cities, like San Francisco and Minneapolis, have already implemented ranked-choice voting, and Maine voters will use it in their 2020 Democratic primary. 

Drutman argues that ranked-choice voting should be combined with multi-winner congressional districts. Multi-winner districts work like this: Imagine merging five congressional districts into one larger district with five representatives. In elections for this new, larger district, the top five finishers (after the ranked-choice votes are tabulated and redistributed) would all go to Congress. This would pave the way for additional political parties and a more ideologically diverse Congress that better reflects voters’ true preferences.

This kind of reform may sound drastic initially, but, as Drutman explains, plenty of other countries use more representative methods of voting. And the United States’s two-party system is an outlier in the modern world. Most of the countries that rank ahead of the U.S. in voter turnout or government effectiveness have between three and six effective political parties.  Shifting to a multiparty democracy wouldn’t be a leap of faith—it would be America catching up with what works elsewhere. 

Drutman makes the case for other changes, like dramatically increasing the number of representatives in the House and eliminating congressional primaries. Of course, as with all significant reforms, the biggest question is whether any of this can become reality. 

To be sure, most of the elements necessary for fundamental change are there. Americans’ level of trust in government is hovering near historic lows, at around 20 percent.  A majority of Americans say they want a viable third party.  Multi-winner districts and ranked-choice voting are the best ways to give people more choices. The Constitution gives Congress the power to set the rules for congressional elections, so we could pass a law to implement ranked-choice voting or multimember districts. 

But there is little evidence that the two major parties would welcome greater diversity. Republicans, in particular, may be resistant to change since their party is so often overrepresented in the halls of power. In 2018, Republicans maintained control over multiple state legislatures despite winning only a minority of votes. In the U.S. Senate, smaller states like Wyoming that tend to lean Republican are overrepresented relative to large blue states like California and New York. 

But the difficulty of structural reform should not deter us from the effort. All any of us can do is soberly assess our problems, search for evidence-based solutions, and work toward the plan we think has the best chance of success. Through his thoughtful, engaging work, Drutman has done more than his fair share. If even a small fraction of the Americans who are fed up with our toxic politics work toward a multiparty democracy, we may be able to break the two-party doom loop sooner than we think.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.