The case for a four-party system

This week, two events got me thinking about America’s two-party system. One was Eric Cantor, one of the most prominent—and most conservative—members of the House, losing his primary to candidate and a movement who felt he wasn’t conservative enough. The other was a report from the Pew Research Center, showing just how polarized we’ve become in the last 20 years.

I know, this isn’t the usual sort of thing I write about here. I’m intrigued and repulsed by politics at the same time. It’s like a car crash…you can’t look away. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about participating in our political machine. So if politics isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this post. I’m mostly writing to get it out of my system anyway.

People have been talking about third party for, well… probably as long as there have been two parties in this country. But creating a viable third party is notoriously difficult. Just ask Ross Perot. Our political system is designed to favor two parties, roughly evenly matched.

I’ve started to think that what we need is not a third party but a third and fourth party. Counterintuitively, having four major parties might help ratchet down the increasing polarization of late.

The third party in this scenario is fairly obvious. The Tea Party should break off from Republicans and form their own party. Evidently, this has occurred to lots of other people. Type the words “should the Tea Party” into Google and see what comes up. Tea Partiers are notoriously ambivalent about their own party, with 43% having a negative view of the GOP.

So why not split? Why persist with an internal slugfest that most analysts predict will hurt both Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans in the long run? Why wage a battle for the so-called purity of the Republican party, calling the other side RINOs (Republican In Name Only) without ever seeing the irony? Why not give conservative-leaning voters a choice between a center-right party and a far-right party?

Of course the reason, known to Tea Partiers and conventional Republicans alike, is that splitting the party would send both groups into the political wilderness. Neither faction by itself can cobble together a large enough base to govern. Today, 47% of the US electorate leans Democratic; 40% leans Republican. If you split that 40% two ways, well…you do the math.

But what if something similar happened on the leftward end of the political spectrum? Democrats also tend to fall into one of two camps—moderate or “blue dog” Democrats on the one hand and progressives on the other. The divide is nowhere near as fractious as the one between Tea Partiers and Republicans—yet. But it’s real nonetheless.

So what if progressives bolted? It’s no secret most are almost as disillusioned with Barack Obama as conservatives are. (OK, for very different reasons.) And the thought of Hillary Clinton as his heir apparent has caused some to not-so-secretly wish that Elizabeth Warren would mount a challenge…sort of doing to Clinton in 2016 what Obama did to Clinton in 2008.

Why not let voters choose from four parties instead of two? The right and left wings of the electorate are pulling away from each other, as the Pew Research Center showed this week. Meanwhile, the two major parties are failing to get much of anything done as they struggle to contain their increasingly discontented bases.

I think a four-party system would be good for two reasons:

1. Four parties would cover the political spectrum better than two.

Most of American politics over the last several decades has consisted of people somewhere in the middle duking it out. This might have worked well enough when the number of people identified as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” was fairly small, as was the case in 1994. But more people have gravitated to the left and the right since then, and they’re realizing they don’t have a home in our current two-party system.

Another way to get at this is to think of political ideologies in terms of four quadrants: the authoritarian right, authoritarian left, libertarian right, and libertarian left. Only the first two quadrants are represented by our two-party system. (Some would argue that both parties operate entirely within one quadrant, that Democrats and Republicans are varying shades of authoritarian right.)

Libertarians on the left and right tend to be overlooked…until they make some noise, that is—as right-wing libertarians have done in the form of the Tea Party. (Heck, many Americans don’t even realize there is such a thing as left-wing libertarianism.)

2. No party would be able to claim a majority on its own, forcing parties to work together in order to govern.

Granted, moving toward a European parliamentary model might not be most Americans’ cup of tea. But creating a system where no single party commands a majority by itself does have one key advantage: it forces people of differing ideologies to work together if they want to accomplish something.

In some cases, depending on the political cycle, that could mean a legislative coalition between Republicans and Tea Partiers. Or between Democrats and progressives. It could mean a coalition in the middle, between Republicans and Democrats.

On certain issues of importance to libertarians both left and right, Tea Partiers and progressives might even come together—for example, to roll back government infringement of privacy (Cough! NSA. Cough!).

Having four parties would not lesson our ideological differences. But it might force us to be more honest about them. It would give like-minded people a chance to organize around a platform they believe in, instead of waging a civil war for control of a political party that never really belonged to them in the first place. And because no single party could govern unilaterally, it would force people from different camps to stop demonizing each other long enough to (hopefully) achieve something meaningful.

It’s probably pie in the sky, I know. But can it be any worse than what we have now?

10 thoughts on “The case for a four-party system

  1. We had an election yesterday in Ontario. Most were surprised that it resulted in a majority government. I think the final count was 59 seats to the Liberal party (traditionally the moderates but moved farther left than usual this time), 27 to the Progressive Conservative (the right, which went even farther right than usual this time), and 21 to the New Democratic Party (the left). Then there are a few other smaller parties who didn’t get any seats, the most notable being the Green Party that had almost 5% of the popular vote, and some ridings have independents candidates who rarely contend,

    Our previous government was a minority – Liberals led with I think 48 seats. That meant if they ever wanted to accomplish anything, they had to either win the support of the NDP or the PC (more often the NDP). It works a lot of the time. The main drawback is how easy it becomes to force another election. In this case, the NDP rejected a Liberal budget even though it was very left of centre because they thought they could capitalize on some Liberal mismanagement to grab more seats. $90 million election later, the NDP did gain one seat but the Liberals gaining majority means they surrendered most of their practical decision-making power. Federally we also had a stretch of I think 3 minority Conservative governments in a row that all only lasted 1-2 years each before another election that basically maintained the same balance of power.

    Overall, I think multiple parties and their minority governments are worth, but I wanted to bring up that cost to a multi-party system and the more parties you have the less likely you are to have a majority or teamwork in a minority.

    (The first idea about balancing the spectrum doesn’t really happen here. Both the NDP and Liberal are probably more in the Authoritarian Left quadrant, as is the Green. We do have a Libertarian party running in most ridings, not sure if they’re more left or right honestly.)


    1. Good perspective. Thanks for sharing! It’s a good reminder there is no perfect solution. Though in general I agree about the relative value of having more than two parties.


  2. I have thought this for many years. Most of the European states have systems with a variety of parties and, just as you say in your second point, it is pretty rare for anyone to actually get a majority, so the party in power has to build consensus to get anything done. I would love to see such a system here, but I see two big things that work against it: (1) the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college and (2) the change in FCC policy that was made in 1960 to allow the TV debates to only feature the Republican and the Democratic candidates. Each of those hurdles individually proposes a daunting challenge for any third (or fourth) party; but the combination is devastating.


    1. Yes…to your point, there would definitely have to be some other reforms to the political process to make additional parties a viable option…


  3. So, what you’re saying seems to be this:

    The Republicans should split in 2. However the current political reality is that if they did, then the Democrats would win all elections, and therefore, in an attempt to make things “fair” the democrats should also split up ?

    The lack of political choice in USA is a natural result of the electoral system you have. As long as that system remains, it’s guaranteed that you’ll keep having to vote for the “lesser of two evils” rather than for your true preference, and thus that you won’t get a representative democracy.

    Change the election-system to give proportional representation, and you’d get 5 – 8 political parties like countries which have that already have. That would be preferable. But the problem is, for that to happen, those who are currently in power in USA would have to vote in favour of legislation that would reduce their own power.

    The odds of this happening are left as an exercise for the reader.


    1. To clarify, what I was suggesting is that both parties could (hypothetically) be split in two: Tea Partiers and moderate Republicans to the right and Progressives and moderate Democrats to the left. It is, of course, a hypothetical scenario because, to your point, our elector system reinforces the current two-party system, unfortunately.


      1. I think many more Americans should be interested in electoral reform. Nearly all Americans I know consider democracy to be of the utmost importance, yet a majority are disillusioned and saddened by the current duopoly.

        Despite this, I don’t see a lot of attempts at improving things, and that mystifies me. If most people want a better democracy, why then are so few occupied with making the necessary changes ?


      2. I take it you’re not American. In which case, there’s something you should know about us. We have an extraordinary capacity for apathy. 🙂


      3. I knew that already. The only part I’m sometimes confused about is being apatethic AND terribly passionate about the same thing, at the same time.

        There’s no lack of Americans who care deeply about Democracy in my life. But somehow none of them works for electoral reform. I think, to a significant degree, they feel it’s hopeless, i.e. they’ve resigned.


  4. 4 party system:

    1: socially conservative, economically conservative (Republican party)
    2: socially conservative, economically liberal (Faith party)
    3: socially liberal, economically conservative (Libertarian party)
    4: socially liberal, economically liberal (Democratic party)


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