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Multi-Partyism in American Politics?


Is America on the verge of a European-style multi-party democracy? A May 12th Wall-Street Journal/NBC poll finds that 31% of American adults' view on the two-party system is that, "The two-party system is seriously broken, and the country needs a third party." This sentiment is consistent with my analysis of partisan voter registration, which shows a slight rise in the number of people who are eschewing the major political parties to register with minor political parties or affiliate with no political party.

What is the cause of discontent with the major political parties? The most accessible answer is that it is a product of the times. Voters' attitudes are tied to the economy and they are expressing their displeasure with those in power through multiple measures of low trust in government, low approval of the political parties, and a desire for an alternative.

The economy is likely a major factor for voter anger towards the parties, but there are long-term historical trends that also shed light as to why minor parties may be poised for modest electoral success. In the figure below, I plot from 1870-2006 the effective number of parties elected to the US House (black line) along with a measure of the ideological cohesiveness of the two major party's caucuses (blue and red lines). McDonald Effective Number of US House Parties.png

Source: Michael P. McDonald. 2009. "Mechanical Effects of Duverger's Law in the USA." In Duverger's Law of Plurality Voting: The Logic of Party Competition in Canada, India, the United Kingdom and the United States, Bernard Grofman, André Blais and Shaun Bowler, eds. New York, NY: Springer.

The effective number of political parties weights the number of parties by their relative strength. When two major parties hold all the seats and are near parity, the effective number of parties is close to two. When one party dominates the other, it is less than two. When minor parties win seats, it is greater than two. For it to be close to three, essentially at least three parties must be near parity.

Since the American Civil War, the effective number of political parties in the US House has generally only been substantially greater than two in the period before 1920. Two significant minor party movements during this period, the Populist and Progressive movements, account for the minor party candidates elected during this period. Indeed, the success of the minor parties during the era is understated, as major party candidates would often run "fusion" campaigns with minor parties, by running under such labels as the "Democrat Populist" and "Republican Progressive" parties.

What is also distinctive during the period of minor party success is the ideological cohesiveness of the major political parties. I analyze the ideology of US House members using a widely-used measure by congressional scholars is known as DW-NOMINATE scores, which identify the ideology of members from the votes they make in Congress. A measure of ideological homogeneity is the standard deviation of these ideology measures. When it is low, the congressional parties are more ideologically cohesive.

Minor parties have greater electoral success when the major parties are more ideologically cohesive. If the relationship is not visually apparent, the correlation coefficient between the effective number of US House parties and the standard deviation of the Republican ideological voting scores is -0.39, a strong relationship. The correlation for the Democrats is a weaker -0.20. This is due to the greater ideological dispersion of the congressional Democrats when the conservative Southern and liberal non-Southern wings of the party existed in the uneasy New Deal coalition formed by FDR during the Great Depression, and which began fragmenting during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Since 1982, the congressional parties have again become more ideologically cohesive.

Conventional wisdom in political science has until recently been that single-member district electoral systems, like that used in the United States, tend to foster a party system composed of two major political parties. Recently, there has been a resurgence of minor political parties in democratic countries that use single-member districts systems like Canada, India, and the United Kingdom. The United States has been resistant to this trend. One reason may be that the American political parties are like willows in the wind. They are able to bend to local conditions within districts to effectively squeeze out minor party candidates.

As American parties become more ideologically rigid, more space is provided to minor party candidates to flourish. If so, then we may be on the verge of at least some electoral success for minor political parties. However, this success is most likely to be fleeting. Since the dissolution of the Whig Party prior to the Civil War, the major parties have proven themselves quite capable of absorbing these minor parties into their electoral coalitions.

 

Comments
yokem55:

In most of the world, people of like mind form parties, and then form coalitions of parties in order to govern. In the U.S., coalitions of like minded people form parties, and then work to grow their party to get enough support in order to govern. Same thing, but the coalition forming happens at the level of party building, not the actual governing level.

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