There's only one way to end America's political extremism

In the American presidential election of 2024, there will be more presidential candidates on the ballot than there are major political parties.

The latest to throw their proverbial hat into the ring is West Virginia Senator John Manchin, who announced his retirement and stated that he is open to a run for the presidency. He’ll presumably stand as the nominee of No Labels, a centrist grouping that denounces the extremes of left and right.

If he does run, Manchin will face not only Joe Biden, the Democratic incumbent, and perhaps Donald Trump, seeking to regain the White House, but also the left-wing candidacies of Jill Stein and Cornel West, and the bid for the presidency of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

The dissatisfaction of American voters with the two-party duopoly is not new, but it is growing. According to Pew Research, 45 per cent of Americans in 2022 called themselves independents rather than Democrats or Republicans, tied at 28 per cent in self-identification. Independents themselves share little in common, other than alienation from the mainstream parties.

What explains the persistence of two national parties in a country in which nearly half of the population dislikes both? Like the UK, the US uses winner-take-all plurality or “first-past-the-post” voting, which tends to disfavour third and fourth parties. If the US, like many other democracies, used a system of proportional representation (PR), the present Democratic and Republican coalitions would almost certainly dissolve in favour of a multiparty system.

What would the new parties in a multiparty America be? In 2021 Pew broke the American electorate into nine groups, with names like Faith and Flag Conservatives, the Populist Right, and the Outsider Left.

Under proportional representation, a handful of significant parties would be more likely than many tiny ones. The Republican Party would split into a Trumpy populist nationalist party, and a libertarian party aligned with big business and in free of abortion, gay rights, free trade and mass immigration. There might also be a smaller religious right party, dominated by evangelical Protestants.

For its part, the Democratic Party might fission into three groups – socially-left but fiscally conservative neoliberals, some of whom might join the new post-Republican libertarian party; a social democratic faction, identified with organised labour, attracting many of today’s working-class black and Hispanic voters, as well as some white former Republicans; and a radical left party, based in universities, nonprofits, and the civil service.

In a multiparty America, shifting coalitions rather than trench warfare might be the rule. For example, the populist party might collaborate on some pro-family and pro-labour issues with the center-left social democrats. America’s existing two-party system did not prevent Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist Senator from Vermont, from joining with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a populist conservative, to introduce a measure supporting striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

If proportional representation were adopted for elections to Congress and state legislatures, in the US the president would continue to be elected by plurality voting (or by another proposed reform, ranked choice voting). Even so, a multiparty system would motivate American presidents to appoint members of parties other than their own in their cabinets, to increase their legitimacy or reward other parties for support on particular issues.

For the foreseeable future, however, America’s multi-party electorate will continue to be locked in the straitjacket of the two-party system encouraged by first-past-the-post plurality voting. The defenders of the two parties will warn voters that if they vote for third-party or independent candidates they will waste their vote – or, even worse, help to elect the major-party candidate they like the least.

And the warnings will be correct. In a plurality voting system, the danger that third-party and independent candidates will be “spoilers” is real. Many Democrats blame Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate in 2016, for siphoning away enough votes from Democrat Hillary Clinton to permit Donald Trump to win the electoral college and thus the presidency, even as he lost the popular vote. Ralph Nader’s presidential run is also sometimes blamed by Democrats for throwing the electoral college, and thus the election, to the Republican George W. Bush in 2000.

But political strategising has its limits. If voters really despise both of the mainstream options, persuading them to hold their noses and pick one of them as “the lesser evil” may not work. Voting is about expressing personal values and opinions, not just determining who gets committee seats or cabinet appointments. For that reason, a vote for a protest candidate who has no chance of winning may still make sense to some voters who have no other way to send a message to the political elite.

Sometimes parties do get the message and reform their policies, in the hope of luring the protest voters back into the fold.  On social issues and environmentalism, though not necessarily on other issues, Biden in his campaign and as president has been well to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2016 – perhaps out of sincere conviction, but possibly to keep large numbers of progressives from abandoning Biden for a more left-wing candidate in 2024.  After Ross Perot won 19 per cent of the popular vote in 1992, more than any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, the Democrats under Clinton and the Republicans in Congress both signaled their commitment to fiscal deficit reduction, a major theme of Perot’s campaign.

Whatever happens in 2024, we can expect more rebellions against America’s two-party cartel in the years ahead, now that Democrats and Republicans can each claim only a quarter of Americans as reliable partisans. And when combined with America’s electoral college system of electing the president and its winner-take-all plurality voting rules, third-party and independent candidacies can produce dramatic and unpredictable effects.

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