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In Defense of the Two Parties

Wednesday, September 01, 2004
It is not enough to point to the flaws of 3rd parties- I think it is incumbent upon me to explain why the two party system is absolutely necessary for a functioning democracy. I will explain first why parties at all are useful, and secondly why we need a two (rather than multi-) party system.

E.E. Schattschneider said that functioning democracies are simply inconceivable without parties. This is because without parties, voters have no idea which government officials to hold accountable. Without the convenience of party labels, it is impossible to assign responsibility. Elected officials would find it too easy to blame some other member of congress. And the absence of political parties would place a tremendous burden on voters. Rather than selecting a party because of its governing philosophy, they would have to exhaustively research every candidate. Furthermore, the absence of parties would make it extraordinarily difficult for middle class candidates to run for office. They couldn't tap into pre-existing party networks- they would have to do it from scratch. Traditional social and economic elites, and celebrities, would have even more of a short cut to office than we have now.

So I've convinced you about the need for parties, right? So why only two? The reason we have 2 parties is structural (see Duverger's Law), but the reason we need them is also structural. Separation of powers and checks and balances makes it very hard to govern, and having only two parties makes it likely that one political coalition will be able to govern, to unite what the founders have separated. But the bigger reason is government accountability. A multi-party coalition would find it easy to shift blame to some other group.

But ultimately, the reason we have two parties is because there really are only two parties. This is true in any stable democracy. In Israel there are the Labor and Likud, in Britain Labor and Conservative, and in France Socialists and Conservatives. The minor parties shave off the edges of the major coalitions, but they more often play the role of spoilers than anything else. There are really just two parties in every country: the right and the left. There are those who are socially traditionalist, pro-corporate, and imperialist, and those who are tolerant, pro-labor, and democrats.

So why make it more complicated than it needs to be? The impulse towards minor parties is, I would suggest, just a strange "independence" chic. You can be in a democracy and be an independent. The whole point of politics is working together. So please, please, if you are on the left, join the Democrats.

And those on the right? You go ahead and make your third parties. It'll be great.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:27 PM
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