The Era of Two-Party Politics Is Over

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The emergence of the Independent Group in the U.K. parliament, where 11 legislators from the two dominant parties have broken ranks to form a new centrist entity,  poses important questions for the world’s remaining two-party systems: Are these systems still relevant, sustainable and fit for purpose? It’s possible that the two-party mold is obsolete and just needs somebody to wield a hammer resolutely enough.

The Independent Group was born of centrist politicians’ frustration with the demands of partisanship. As a Conservative in the U.K. these days, one must support Brexit even if one doesn’t believe in it – to preserve party unity. As a Labour Party member, one has to accept, if not agree with, leader Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left views as well as what some members see as the party’s anti-Semitic bend. But what if you consider Brexit, especially a hard one, fundamentally stupid and communism a dead end? Is there a political home for you in today’s U.K. apart from the largely irrelevant Liberal Party? A case can be made for a new beginning, just as one could be made in France in 2017, when the hidebound two-party system failed to respond to challenges from the far left and the far right and Emmanuel Macron had to start a centrist force from scratch to score a win for political moderation.

There are similarities between the French and now the British situation – and that seen in the U.S. ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Some in the U.S. are already arguing that the coalition-style makeup of the two major parties that has existed since the last third of the 20th century is shifting shape. Clearly, it’s hard for a common-sense centrist to find a political home in it. Witness the left-wing attacks on Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, a lifelong Democrat who finds it difficult to join the party's current field of presidential candidates, as well as contempt and sometimes outright hatred among Donald Trump supporters for former Senator Jeff Flake, an anti-Trump Republican.

It’s tempting for these politicians to stick with the existing party structures regardless. There, they enjoy the comfort of well-oiled fundraising and campaigning machines, the powerful support of the long-established party brand. In the U.S., the idea that any third-party candidate is no more than a spoiler is especially strong; many are eager to discourage Schultz from running so that he wouldn’t inadvertently help Trump win re-election by stealing votes from the Democrats.

For the Independent Group at least, disagreement with their parties’ prevailing ideas has turned out to be strong enough to leave the comfort zone. I believe this will be happening in other two-party systems, too.

At the end of the 19th Century the U.S. legal scholar Abbott Lawrence Lowell made the argument that there should be only two parties in the lower house of a national parliament “in order that the parliamentary form of government should permanently produce good results.” (As president of Harvard University, Lowell also argued for an admissions quota for Jews and against black students’ rooming with whites; so clearly, diversity, political or otherwise, wasn’t something he enjoyed). 

Then, in the 1950s, French sociologist Maurice Duverger argued that two-party systems keep the opposition (and by implication, the government, too) moderate: “The very conditions of political warfare which imply a certain alternation between the parties, and the possibility that today’s opposition will tomorrow assume the sole responsibility of office, preserve it from any exaggerated demagogy which might react to its disadvantage.” It’s enough to read half a dozen Trump tweets or listen to one Corbyn speech to see how wrong Duverger was about that.

Academics long assumed, along with Duverger, that first-past-the-post electoral systems, like those in the U.S. and the U.K., lead naturally to two-party political systems. If votes and seats aren’t distributed proportionally, the bigger parties, the logic goes, stand a better chance of winning pluralities and sending their people to parliament; it makes no sense for politicians to join smaller parties or for voters to back them.

But in 2017, Estonian political scientist Rein Taagepera and his U.S. colleague Matthew Shugart found, using data on multiple elections  in 49 countries, that the number of politically relevant parties that win seats in a parliament is strongly predicted by just two factors: The number of seats in the parliament and the number of legislators elected in each constituency. Other factors, such as, for example, a country’s ethnic diversity, are far less significant, though they can affect the shape of the political system, too. 

The Taagepera-Shugart model shows, for example, that Spain, with its electoral system, shouldn’t have just two strong parties – and, as of recently, it no longer does. It’s highly predictive for Canada and most Caribbean states too. According to the model, there should be 2.94 major parties in the U.K. parliament and 2.75 in the U.S. Why hasn’t that happened yet? 

The reasons are likely psychological. In these days of social platforms and big data, a party doesn’t need a strong ground game to win big, as Trump’s campaign before he won the Republican nomination, the success of Macron’s En Marche movement in France in 2017 and the Five Star Movement’s strength in Italy showed. Today’s political movement can be an internet echo chamber; the doors to knock on are on Facebook more than on physical streets. There’s no need for a politician who disagrees with a flagship party’s line to hang on to membership. Many voters, too, no longer feel their choice is limited to the standard two choices: France, Spain and Germany have provided ample evidence of that in recent years.

The last time there was a major party split in the U.K. – in the 1980s – the internet didn’t exist and party machines mattered hugely. These days, it’s more a matter of courage for U.K. and U.S. politicians to try to break the mold and fight to represent the voters dissatisfied with the increasingly unappetizing standard choices. In the U.K., time will tell if members of the Independent Group have the courage. In the U.S., Schultz may or may not do so, but someone with the necessary resources eventually will: The U.S. is a country so fundamentally diverse and competitive it can’t stay shackled while others adapt to a new political reality.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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