Say this for the two-party system: At least it’s better than the one-party system.
Apart from that, though, the two-party system doesn’t get much love. Lots of people complain about it, but nobody ever seems to succeed in doing something about it. Attempts to break out of it via third parties eventually trail off into disappointment and futility. Even its defenders typically sound more resigned than enthusiastic. In its unvarying Democrats-vs.-Republicans iteration, it’s been around since the Lincoln administration. We’re stuck with it, goes the received wisdom, so suck it up and live with it. It’s not going anywhere.
News flash: That may be about to change, starting on November 8, in Maine. And you know what they say: “As Maine goes…”
Up in the easternmost state of the Union, an initiative on the November ballot, Question 5, would establish something called ranked-choice voting (RCV) for governor and both houses of the State Legislature. That’s important. It would do the same for primaries as well as for general elections. That’s important, too. But what makes Question 5 of truly national significance is that it would also apply to Maine’s United States senators and its two members of the House of Representatives in Washington. If Question 5 passes, it will be what Joe Biden would call (when he knows there’s a hot mic in the vicinity, that is) a very big deal.
I’ll get to RCV in a moment. First, a caution: The two-party system is not a malevolent conspiracy. It’s not an elite-generated “duopoly” whose designers set out to limit choice, suppress innovative ideas, and marginalize candidates and parties that threaten the comfortable (for some) status quo. It’s not even a system per se. It’s a side effect of a system. The real system is simply the set of electoral rules and customs bequeathed to us from the primitive political technology of powdered-wig days. The two-party pattern is a logical, almost inevitable, maybe even desirable consequence of two main features of that technology: (a) single-member districts, which are inherently winner-take-all, as are elections for executive offices; and (b) plurality elections, otherwise known as first-past-the-post, under which the candidate with the largest vote total wins even if a majority of voters would rather have somebody else. When there are more than two non-negligible parties contending for a single office, one common result is ideological fratricide—the notorious spoiler effect. By voting for the party or candidate you like best, you may help elect the one you like least. Another consequence is to diminish the chances that the outcome will more or less reflect the wishes of a majority. Given these realities, natural selection took its course and, by 1828, gave us roughly what we’ve had ever since: a two-party “system.”