The Case For Multiparty Democracy

by Jerry Cayford: It’s a book about how our political system fell into this downward spiral—a doom loop of toxic politics. It’s a story that requires thinking big—about the nature of political conflict, about broad changes in American society over many decades, and, most of all, about the failures of our political institutions. (2)

Where to begin fixing our dysfunctional society is about as contentious a question as there is. Lee Drutman’s 2020 book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America confronts it head-on. Chapter 1, “What the Framers Got Right and What They Got Wrong,” goes straight to the heart of the matter: what the Founding Fathers got wrong is political parties. They understood the threat of tyranny that parties (“factions”) posed, but they misunderstood the benefits and inevitability of parties. They structured our government to discourage parties, instead of to accommodate them. As Drutman explains, those structural weaknesses have finally caught up with us in today’s toxic partisanship.

Like the Founders, Drutman gets important things right and wrong. He says, “At its core, my argument can be distilled into two words: institutions matter” (4). Political parties are the institutions he defends and criticizes. What we need parties to provide are substantive choices, not coercive conformity or destabilizing toxicity. This focus on parties is one of the many, many things Drutman gets right in his well-written, informative, and important book. When he turns from diagnosis to solution, though, he gets one big thing wrong.

Compromise for the uncompromising

The book is in three sections: “Origins,” “The Contemporary Crisis,” and “The Solution.” Drutman’s quick tour through the history of American democracy in “Origins” argues that our culture’s various forms of distaste for parties—antipartisanship, bipartisanship, even “responsible partisanship” (52)—all work against a well-functioning democracy:

The Progressives failed in their vision of populist nonpartisanship for the same reason the Framers failed in their vision of elitist nonpartisanship. Politics without parties to organize and structure conflict yields only chaos. Chaos is unsustainable. That’s why parties always emerge to structure politics. (43)

Without the structure that parties provide, people “are incoherent and powerless, and easy to divide and conquer” (43). (Viable parties largely distinguish democracy from dictatorship, a point Drutman quotes (41) from E. E. Schattschneider, the eminent midcentury political scientist whose work inspired this book.) Drutman returns often to the necessity of parties: “parties are the key institution leading disparate citizens to common purpose”; “Parties are the most powerful engines of mass political participation ever invented. Parties set the alternatives and frame the debates. They organize political conflict to render it comprehensible” (41). These are tremendous benefits, but they hint, too, at a dangerous power.

The Framers designed “anti-majoritarian,” “compromise-oriented political institutions” not easily controlled by any party: “We have separation-of-powers government designed to make narrow majority rule difficult to impossible” (3). Mostly, parties haven’t ruled even their local chapters, let alone the country: “for most of our history the two parties have been capacious, incoherent, and overlapping. This overlap lent a certain stability to American national politics, because it worked with, rather than against, our compromise-oriented political institutions” (2). Eventually, though, mass culture, urbanization, population explosion, instant communications, and two hundred years of change brought coherent identity to the parties, but “a fully divided two-party system is decidedly unworkable in America, given our political institutions” (3). The hostility to parties the Framers fostered inclines us to think escaping partisanship is the solution. Drutman’s solution is more and better parties.

Tracing the root of all evils

We are all familiar with the toxicity of current American politics. In addressing “The Contemporary Crisis,” Drutman does not shy away from the enormity of our danger: the two-party doom loop, as he calls it, threatens us not just with paralyzed government but with societal collapse. Politics is how we live together, and parties are how we structure politics. Drutman lets us see our crisis through the lens of political parties.

So, what is the two-party doom loop? In a nutshell, we are stuck with two parties, and they are stuck in a loop of increasingly toxic partisanship: ever-higher stakes, ever-deeper antagonism, and ever-greater incentives to break norms, cheat, and undermine long-term social structures for short-term advantage. There is a straightforward solution. What sticks us with two parties is our poorly designed electoral rules. If the winner can win without a majority or a runoff (our “first-past-the-post” rules), then voters have a powerful incentive to vote only for one of the top two candidates and ignore any others. This logic gives those two parties an insurmountable advantage. Drutman quotes a succinct 1923 expression of this “same old difficulty” where the “same old single-shot ballot…presents…the same old dilemma between voting for a candidate [the voter] really wants and voting for the less objectionable of the two who have some chance of winning” (198, quoting C. G. Hoag). Our best choice is the lesser of two evils…

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