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US Two Party System Under Scrutiny: Why America’s 2-party system is on a collision course with our constitutional democracy

There was a time, several decades ago, when America’s two-party system was praised for its moderation. Unlike European parliamentary democracies where “dogmatic ideological parties” of Europe thrived, America’s winner-take-all electoral system seemed to reward and therefore encourage parties and candidates with broad national appeal. No party, it was argued, could simply give up on half of the electorate. Similarly, no party could convincingly win a majority by putting forward extremist anti-system candidates far outside the mainstream.

Obviously something has gone wrong with this theory. Instead of being rejected as outside the mainstream, Donald Trump, an extremist anti-system candidate, simply redefined what “mainstream” is for almost half of the electorate.

 And today, both American parties regularly forsake about half the electorate. Or even more than half, really.

Consider some basic numbers: Trump was the choice of 14 million people who voted in the Republican primaries. But in a nation where 230.6 million Americans are eligible to vote, that’s 6 percent of eligible voters. In the 2017 German election, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 5.9 million votes. In a nation of 61.5 eligible voters, that’s almost 10 percent. 

In short, when voters in both countries were given the full range of options, Donald Trump was less popular in the United States than the AfD was in Germany. 

But in the German system, AfD can be kept out of power by other parties forming a coalition. In the United States, Trump’s 6 percent support gave him a major party’s nomination, which gave him instant legitimacy. And because he was a Republican candidate and because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, 63 million Americans cast a vote for him — enough to catapult him to the presidency.

Sixty-three million is a lot. But that’s also just 27 percent of eligible voters nationwide. Likewise, 63 million of Americans voted for to send Republicans to the US House, also just 27 percent of the eligible voters. In many cases, these were not even affirmative votes for Republicans, but votes against Democrats

I raise these numbers to point out that, contrary to claims that American political parties have to appeal broadly to win, they only need to win a quarter of the voting-age population to gain unified control of government in Washington, and their presidential nominee needs to win far less than that. Lest you think I’m picking on Republicans, the same was true (roughly) of Democrats in 2008.

Part of this is because unlike in Germany, where voter turnout hovers closer to 80 percent, American voter turnout is usually in the mid-50s in presidential elections, and closer to 40 percent in midterms (an international laggard). Many US voters don’t bother to vote because neither of the two parties appeals to them, or because they live in a safe state where their vote doesn’t matter, or because by comparative standards, there are significant hurdles to voting in the United States (such as more complicated registration, or voting being on a workday instead of on a weekend).

In short, there is nothing structural about a two-party system that guarantees moderate parties that have to appeal broadly. We just got lucky. Well, sort of — the past wasn’t so great either.

The obvious challenge then becomes how to shift the axis of political conflict back away from a battle over the nature of America and its political institutions, and to more of a non-existential “normal politics” argument over public policy and its implementation. The answer has to involve somehow scrambling the current party system, so that being a Democrat or being a Republican is not wrapped up in these fundamental zero-sum questions about the basis of American democracy.

This is why I’m an enthusiastic supporter of efforts to expand ranked-choice voting, which are gaining steam, and of more incipient efforts to move our elections away from zero-sum winner-take-all, single-plurality winner affairs toward proportional, multi-winner elections. This would give us a more fluid party system, more in line with our constitutional design.

This means changing our electoral institutions. I recognize this is a major undertaking, and broad electoral system change is never easy. But at this point, anything less seems like taking buckets to a flood when we know the levees have broken.

There are big, important conversations to have here on the best way forward. But first, we have to admit that we have a problem. And the problem right now is that the two-party system is trapped in a doom loop that it can’t get out of on its own without significant collateral damage.

Read more: Why America’s 2-party system is on a collision course with our constitutional democracy - Vox

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