In recent days, the newly formed Forward Party has made quite a splash, garnering headlines from major news outlets in the United States and internationally. The Party claims to appeal to the “moderate, common-sense majority” and includes issues such as guns, abortion, and climate change as ones from which the party will woo potential voters. It has very quickly become the largest “third party” in America.
In a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday by Andrew Yang, Christine Todd Whitman, and David Jolly, the authors argue that “political extremism is ripping our nation apart, and the two major parties have failed to remedy the crisis.” The authors go on to state that sixty-two percent of Americans want a third party because today’s outdated parties have failed the People by catering to fringe radicals.
In recent days, a number of commentators have promoted a multi-party system or spoken in favor of a specific “third party.” Peggy Noonan, for example, predicted five years ago that soon moderate Republicans and Democrats would break from their own parties and form a third party that coalesces around certain shared commitments.
Another commentator, Matthew Dowd, also pointed out recently that our Founding Fathers were concerned that the United States might fall into a bitter partisanship between two entrenched monopolies, that their worries have been realized as the two major parties are undermining our democracy by creating an “us v. them” mentality, and that the way forward is to support innovative new political parties so that they and the major parties are forced to compete for the People’s vote.
Let me be clear: I will not be joining the Forward Party. And yet, I welcome its formation because I think a multi-party system is what our nation needs at this stage of its existence. Just as I welcome the existence of the American Solidarity Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Green Party.
The argument for an American multi-party system has been made by many thought leaders in the past. One of the most prominent and articulate of those voices is James Skillen, author of The Good of Politics and Recharging the American Experiment. Skillen foresaw years ago the eventual breakdown of America’s two major parties and the subsequent need that would arise for a multi-party system. He made his argument for a multi-party system—theologically and politically—on the basis of “principled pluralism.”
Similar to Skillen, I argued for “principled pluralism” in One Nation under God and Letters to an American Christian, The argument in those books (for principled pluralism) is theological, but its application in this article (to a multi-party system) is political-scientific, and for that reason I lean heavily on a Skillen, who is a political scientist, and intend the article to be more suggestive than declarative.
Based on Skillen’s work and the United States’ current social, cultural, and political situation, here are eight reasons we should consider the possibility that a multi-party system would serve Americans better in our current era.
Our current system of electoral representation strains to meet the challenges of our increasingly diverse nation.
First, we must recognize a number of ways our current system is struggling to meet the challenges of our increasingly diverse country. In Recharging the American Experiment, Skillen lists six components of our electoral system that are aggravating one another in a downward spiral. Here I paraphrase and slightly modify his points:
- Our country has only a single elected official to represent more than 300 million people.
- Our major political parties are no longer able to construct national agendas that bind their candidates together for post-election governance.
- Political candidates who win elections represent entire districts of people (including large numbers of people who voted against them) rather than a constituency of citizens who voted for them.
- Voters feel disconnected from, and even mistrustful toward, the politicians who supposedly represent them.
- Elected politicians can and often do function as lone rangers.
- Elected politicians tend to have their strongest connections with special interest groups rather than with national parties or the supporting voters of their own districts.
As a result of this downward spiral, Skillen argues, there are two negative consequences:
- Elected representatives tend to be special interest brokers rather than public-interest representatives.
- Citizens tend either to be uninvolved in politics or, at the other extreme, throw their energy into special interest pressure games, court litigation, or marches and protest movements. Far less often is their energy directed into mature public-interest debate or the construction of substantive platforms and policy alternatives.
The healthiest electoral systems foster the strongest connections between citizens and elected representatives.
In order to improve upon our stressed two-party system of representation, we need next to consider what representation should mean. In our view, a healthy form of representation should foster strong connections between elected representatives and citizens. Those strong connections are better forged by political parties than by special interest groups because the latter do not submit their ideas to the electoral process or come under control of the citizens. The former, however, can function as powerful public accountability structures who bear the responsibility of designing platforms and programs to serve the citizens and ensuring that their candidates govern accordingly.
Skillen crystalizes the ideal when he writes, “In sum, American citizens should have an electoral system that allows them to be represented meaningfully, that encourages the growth of strong parties that connect voters and elected officials closely, and that elevates public-interest statecrafting about interest-group brokering as the chief task of government in Washington.”
One way to foster connections is to adjust the House of Representatives to a system of proportional representation (PR).
One way to forge strong connections is to modify the way we elect members to the House of Representatives. Under the current system, each state’s number of seats is determined by the size of its population, and those seats are then divided by voting districts in which “winner takes all.” If a Republican wins 51% of the district, he or she then represents the interests and ideas of all of the citizen’s districts, including its democrats, libertarians, democratic socialists, nationalists, and progressives. All of the losing votes, even if they total 49%, count for little or nothing.
An alternative to this system would be a system of multi-party proportional representation (PR). A PR system makes each state into a single, multimember district whose seats would be filled proportionally according to the vote tallies. For example, if New York state has 29 seats in the House, a system of PR would allow every political party (not just the major parties) to run twenty-two candidates for the entire state. The election would divide the seats in accord with the votes. If Democrats win 55% of the vote, they get 55% of the seats. If Republicans get 35% of the votes, Libertarians 5%, and Green Partiers 5%, they are allotted seats accordingly. In this system, every vote counts, and minority views are represented. Nearly every voter would be represented by at least one person whose party he or she voted supports.
The advantages of PR seem to fit very well this era in our nation’s democracy.
One criticism of proportional representation is that the proliferation of parties would destabilize the government. Another criticism is that a statewide PR system would not guarantee voters a localized representative; in other words, their representative might hold the same political views but be from another corner of the state.
In response to the first criticism, the proliferation of parties might be just what we need. Wouldn’t it be better for citizens to see, transparently, the full diversity of the electorate rather than having it veiled by two major parties purporting to represent the entire citizenry? And would an alternative system be any more unstable than what we’ve already got? Perhaps a PR system would be more stable than our present system, but have the added benefit of clearly-defined party platforms and more closely connected representation. In response to the second criticism, while it is true that one’s representative might be more distant geographically, he or she would be considerably closer ideologically. In an era of instant communication, the geographic distance doesn’t matter as much and the ideological closeness matters perhaps even more.
PR could bring greater accountability to Washington D.C.
In a multi-party PR system, political parties exert great effort to define themselves clearly in comparison and contrast to the other parties. The parties find it in their best interests to define what they will do in relation to a broad array of issues, showing why their solutions are better than the ones proposed by other parties. The candidates of those parties don’t have to behave as chameleons during primaries, making contrasting promises to competing sets of interest groups; instead, candidates have clearly defined agendas to which they are held accountable. Special interest groups would not be easily able to “purchase” representatives before or after the elections, because citizens would be directly connected to their candidates, able to hold them accountable from start to finish.
PR would produce more (and probably) better nominees for President.
In a multi-party PR system, each national party will be forced to map out comprehensive and distinctive platforms, articulating their positions on policy issues and how their policy position on each issue coheres with their position on the other issues. Each national party will put forward their strongest leaders for Congress and for President, leaders who feel less pressure to talk out of both sides of their mouth during primary season in order to satisfy the numerous factions present within each party of our current two-party system.
Consider the current election cycle. Instead of having to settle for two of the most disliked and divisive politicians in American history, a multi-party system would have given us a number of strong candidates. Those candidates would not have had to remain coy or engage in doublespeak during the primary process, and would be disciplined candidates who are less easily bought out by special interest parties.
Even without a PR system for the House, there still is a viable path toward multiple major parties.
Even if the House of Representatives never adjusted to a system of proportional representation, there is a viable path toward expanding the number of major American political parties. In fact, as Peggy Noonan opined recently that the Democratic party is ripe for such a break. Democrats will leave, she avers, because they are uncomfortable with smiley-face socialism that might become actual socialism; because they no longer will tolerate the extreme political correctness fostered at our public universities and in our public restrooms; because “they will have increasing qualms about spending $60,000 a year to have their bright, kind children turned into leftist robots.”
In the near future, she argues the disaffected Republicans and Democrats will create their own party. “It will be pro-growth, moderate on social issues, more or less neoconservative in its foreign policy. It will be smallish but well-heeled.” I’m not sure what the Las Vegas betting odds are on Noonan’s proposal, but this article’s proposal doesn’t depend on whether or not she is right about the shape that a third party might take. What is most important is that she’s placed her finger on the nerve of what might happen in upcoming years: the emergence of additional political parties that clearly define their beliefs and values, hold their politicians accountable to the party and to the voters, and have enough power to sway elections nationally.
A Multi-Party System Would Provide A Voice for Every Voter and a Unity in Diversity.
As the United States becomes an increasingly diverse country, we need to find the electoral process best suited to a healthy and ideologically-diverse twenty-first century democracy. This system needs to have strong national parties that define their priorities and platforms clearly, hold their candidates accountable to the party and the people, thereby giving every citizen a voice in the national political debate. It needs to demote special interest politics while promoting genuine party politics in which citizens carry on sustained and reasoned debate about matters important to the national interest.
I am willing to bet that a multi-party system (especially one with proportional representation in the House) would cause a significant increase in voter turnout. Additionally, it would stand a good chance of helping unify our political order precisely by giving voice to our nation’s diversity rather than muffling it. Each citizen’s unique voice could be disciplined and articulated through one of multiple national parties and into shared responsibility for our common life together.
Multi-Party in the Meantime
Out of more than 300 million Americans, I am fairly sure that most do not feel adequately represented by the platforms or leaders of the two major parties. Both parties now struggle to unify the competing factions within their constituency. As I detailed in this article, the GOP contains within it at least seven discernible factions. Similarly, the Democratic party is a house for ideologies as disparate as liberalism, progressivism, and socialism.
Perhaps the increasing dis-integration of the two major parties will bring with it some unexpected blessings. The first blessing, and the thesis of this article, is that the disillusionment within the two major parties might open the door for a multi-party system which marginalize the more radical constituents of the two major parties and offer a broader array of options for citizens who wish for a party that more closely represents their beliefs and values. A second blessing is the reminder it brings that we will never find a platform that satisfies our evangelical yearnings until Jesus returns to install one one-party system in which the lion lies down with the lamb (Is 11:6) and in which justice rolls down like the waters (Amos 5:24).