Even within the major parties, fragmentation is on the rise. Democrats are split between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton wings and Republicans are torn on whether the best path forward is Donald Trump, libertarianism-lite or status quo neo-conservatism draped in the mantle of zombie Reagan. And then there are the political independents and third-party types, many feeling ever more politically homeless and ill-served by a political system with no real place for them.
I can’t offer much wisdom on how such fragmentation could be overcome or even whether it ought to be — while vehement political hatred is wrong and counterproductive, actual open and honest political diversity has real value in the public discourse. What I can offer, however, is a suggestion for making that diversity productive: We should change our electoral structure so a true multi-party system can flourish.
I’ve made this argument before, here at Rare and over at The Week, but I’ve been most immediately re-inspired by a fresh case for such a reform published at Foreign Policy in the wake of Germany’s recent elections:
Our first-past-the-post electoral rules enormously advantage the large, existing parties. And since the U.S. Constitution dictates that presidential elections in which no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes are decided by the House of Representatives, a multiparty system could throw every election into the House and thus make a mockery of democracy. So let’s treat the idea as a thought experiment. […]
“I think it’s better to have more parties,” [Josef Janning, an expert in German politics] said. “While it appears to be a weakness of the European party system, it can actually be a strength. It gives an opportunity for these fringe parties to express themselves but also to become an object of disillusion.” Fringe parties, he said, tend to tear themselves apart, as France’s National Front now seems to be doing. A multiparty system allows those on the flanks to rise and fall “without taking along with them the party structure of the party they have hijacked.”
The author of the Foreign Policy piece, James Traub, writes significantly out of a concern that the major parties not be pulled to the fringes by whatever populist impulse is presently ascendant. My interest in such a proposal is a bit different. Yes, it would allow the GOP and the Democratic Party to be the basically centrist, establishment outfits they are inclined to be. But it would also allow what Traub terms “fringe” ideas to develop on their own terms, to share their views with the public unfettered by the need to operate within a major party framework.
This could have something of a winnowing effect, weeding out the grotesque and unethical by revealing them in their full horror while simultaneously giving a boost to good innovations that can’t get a fair hearing today. Some of this can happen in our current system, but the way we vote makes meaningful political success — and the national scrutiny that comes with it — nearly impossible for these smaller movements.
Traub rightly notes this idea for structural electoral chance is at this point somewhere in the great expanse between mere whimsy and viable plans for constitutional updates. I don’t know if it’s realistic to hope it moves toward the latter pole in the near future, but I’m hoping for it.