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Why The Two-Party System Is Effing Up U.S. Democracy

As the “Big Lie” of a stolen election continues to dominate the Republican Party, GOP-controlled states enact restrictive voting laws and pursue preposterous election audits, aspiring candidates embrace the fiction of a stolen 2020 election, and a majority of GOP voters still believe Trump is the “true president,” the obvious questions follow: Where is this all headed? And is there any way out?

In one telling, the Republican Party will eventually come back to its senses and move past former President Donald Trump and Trumpist grievance politics, especially if Republicans lose a few elections in a row and realize that it’s a losing strategy. But there’s another possible outcome: More contested elections, more violence and, ultimately, a collapse into competitive authoritarianism enabled by electoral advantages that tilt in one party’s favor.

Trump and his particular style of party leadership are easy and obvious targets to blame for the decline of American democracy, as well as the Republican Party’s increasing illiberalism. But if Trump was transformative, the more important question is: Why was he able to succeed in the first place?

The most compelling theory based on historical patterns of democratic decline is that hyper-polarization cracked the foundations of American democracy, creating the conditions under which a party could break democratic norms with impunity, because winning in the short term became more important than maintaining democracy for the long term. 

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In order for democracy to work, competing parties must accept that they can lose elections, and that it’s okay. But when partisans see their political opposition not just as the opposition, but as a genuine threat to the well-being of the nation, support for democratic norms fades because “winning” becomes everything. Politics, in turn, collapses into an all-out war of “us against them,” a kind of “pernicious polarization” that appears over and over again in democratic collapses, and bears a striking similarity to what’s currently happening in the U.S. 

There’s no shortage of plausible explanations for why U.S. politics has become so polarized, but many of these theories describe impossible-to-reverse trends that have played out across developed democracies, like the rise of social media and the increased political salience of globalization, immigration and urban-rural cultural divides. All of these trends are important contributors, for sure. But if they alone are driving illiberalism and hyper-partisanship in the U.S., then the problem should be consistent across all western democracies. But it isn’t. 

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What’s happening in the U.S. is distinct in four respects.

First, the animosity that people feel toward opposing parties relative to their own (what’s known as affective polarization in political science) has grown considerably over the last four decades. According to a June 2020 paper from economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, the increase in affective polarization in the U.S. is the greatest compared to that of eight other OECD countries over the same time period.

Second, the change in how Americans feel about their party and other parties has been driven by a dramatic decrease in positive feelings toward the opposing party. In most (though not all) of the nine democracies, voters have become a little less enthusiastic about their own parties. But only in the U.S. have partisans turned decidedly against the other party.

Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro caution that the cross-country comparisons are not perfect, since they rely on different survey question wordings over time. But they also don’t pull any punches in their findings: “[O]ur central conclusion — that the U.S. stands out for the pace of the long-term increase in affective polarization — is not likely an artifact of data limitations.”

Third, more so than in other countries, Americans report feeling isolated from their own party. When asked to identify both themselves and their favored party on an 11-point scale in a 2012 survey, Americans identified themselves as, on average, 1.3 units away from the party that comes closest to espousing their beliefs, according to an analysis from political scientist Jonathan Rodden. This gap is the highest difference Rodden found among respondents in comparable democracies. This isolation matters, too, because it means that parties can’t count on enthusiasm from their own voters — instead, they must demonize the political opposition in order to mobilize voters.

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Fourth, and perhaps most significant, in the U.S., one party has become a major illiberal outlier: The Republican Party. Scholars at the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have been monitoring and evaluating political parties around the world. And one big area of study for them is liberalism and illiberalism, or a party’s commitment (or lack thereof) to democratic norms prior to elections. And as the chart below shows, of conservative, right-leaning parties across the globe, the Republican Party has more in common with the dangerously authoritarian parties in Hungary and Turkey than it does with conservative parties in the U.K. or Germany.

The U.S. is truly exceptional in just how polarized its politics have become, but it’s not alone. People in countries with majoritarian(ish) democracies, or two very dominant parties dominating its politics like in the U.S. — think Canada, Britain, Australia — have displayed more unfavorable feelings toward the political opposition.

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In fact, in a new book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” another team of scholars, Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne, shows that citizens in majoritarian democracies with less proportional representation dislike both their own parties and opposing parties more than citizens in multiparty democracies with more proportional representation.1

This pattern may have something to do with the shifting politics of coalition formation in proportional democracies, where few political enemies are ever permanent (e.g., the unlikely new governing coalition in Israel). This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity. Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the U.S.

Ultimately, the more binary the party system, the stronger the out-party hatred. But there is also something particular about what’s happening in the U.S., even compared to other majoritarian(ish) democracies. For example, the major parties on the right in Canada and Australia have not become as illiberal as their American counterpart. Canadian politics scholars would point out that in Canada, regional identities are often stronger than national partisan identities, and this regionalism has kept Canadian politics more moderate. And Australian scholars would point out that ranked-choice voting has exerted a moderating force on Australian politics. 

In the U.S., meanwhile, (and to some extent the U.K.), politics have become extremely nationalized. Cities became more socially liberal, multiracial and cosmopolitan, most of the rest of the country held onto more traditional values and stayed predominantly white, and suburbs turned into the political battleground. And as Rodden explains in “Why Cities Lose,” parties with rural strongholds often wind up with disproportionate electoral power, since their opposition tends to over-concentrate its vote in lopsided districts. This rural bias is especially pronounced in the U.S. Senate, for instance. 

But while it’s true that cultural values have emerged as a more important organizing conflict across advanced democracies (one compelling explanation is that following the collapse of Communism and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s, parties of the left and right converged on support for market economics), the urban-rural split in countries with more proportional voting systems is far less binary. That’s in large part because in proportional democracies, multiple parties can still win seats in geographically unfriendly areas, with coalition governments including some balance of both urban and rural representation.2

It’s not just the lack of a stark urban-rural divide that makes proportional democracies less polarized, though. There is also less of a clear strategic benefit to demonizing the opposition in an election that has more than two parties. For instance, in a multiparty election, taking down one party might not necessarily help you. After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash. And because parties can take stronger positions and appeal more directly to voters on policy, there’s less need to rally your supporters by talking about how terrible and dangerous the other party is. Moreover, in systems where parties form governing coalitions, demonizing a side you’ve recently been in a coalition with (or hope to be in the future) doesn’t ring quite as true.

While it is both easy and appropriate to criticize Trump and fellow Republicans for their anti-democratic descent in service of the “Big Lie,” it takes more work to appreciate how the structure of the party system itself laid the groundwork for the former president’s politics of loathing and fear. A politics defined by hatred of political opponents is a politics ripe for hateful illiberalism.

The new scholarship on comparative polarization is crucial in understanding this dynamic. In one sense, it offers a very depressing view: Given the current binary structure of American party politics, this conflict is mostly locked in. No level of social media regulation or media literacy or exhortation to civility is going to make much of a difference. But it also offers a kind of master key: If the structure of a party system is as crucial as these studies suggest it is, then the solution is obvious: The U.S. may want to change its voting system to become more proportional.

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  1. In their book, Gidron, Adams and Horne write, “Countries with majoritarian institutions that concentrate policy-making authority in the hands of a single party (or multiple parties that lack majority popular support) display sharply more intense affective polarization than countries featuring consensual institutions that tend to disperse power more broadly. In particular, the countries in our study that feature single-member districts that tend to concentrate political power (France, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the U.S.) all display above-average levels of affective polarization.”

  2. As Rodden explains, in parliamentary systems, “Elections are much less likely to take shape as winner-take-all geographic battles pitting the urban core against the countryside. In contrast, the legislative coalitions supporting Conservative governments in the U.K. and Canada contain virtually no urban MPs. The same is true of Republican U.S. House majorities in the United States. Moreover, unlike many Americans who live in politically homogeneous Democratic urban neighborhoods or Republican rural areas, Europeans in all geographic settings are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where others in their immediate social network vote for, and identify with, a different party.”

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He’s the author of the book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”