(Un)Divided Government and Third Party Strategy

It was over the course of the twentieth century that the Republican and Democratic Parties auto-institutionalized the duopoly system of government. The history of restrictive ballot access laws, beginning in the early 1930's, reveals one key arc in this overall trajectory, which is punctuated by the development of the so-called "responsible party model" of government in 1950. Over this same period, the voting public's preferences regarding the ideal party composition of government drastically changed. As I noted in 'unchecked, imbalanced,' in the first half of the twentieth century undivided government was the rule, interrupted by periods of divided government, which marked the exchange of undivided control between the major parties. In the second half of the twentieth century, divided government became much more common, increasing almost fourfold: between 1901 and 1951, there were four two-year periods of divided government, between 1951 and 2003 there were sixteen. (If this Wikipedia chart is to be trusted, that is.)

The twenty-first century has already witnessed, in quick succession, two periods of undivided party rule, first under the Bush administration and now the Obama administration. Accordingly, "divided government" has gone from being the rallying cry of Democrats to that of Republicans. The complaints lodged against undivided party government by partisans on both sides of the duopoly divide have been rather similar over the last seven years, as are the distortions on which they are based. A common grievance claims that undivided government leaves half of the public unrepresented, as the majority party pursues its agenda. The assumed conceit, an axiom of duopoly ideology, is that Democrats and Republicans represent the entirety of the political populace. The reality, however, is that taken together the duopoly parties only garner the support of roughly two-thirds of the public. It is no coincidence that voter turnout rarely exceeds 60% in presidential elections, and hovers around 33% in midterm contests.

The argument for divided government is often paired with a flippant dismissal of independent and third party activism. A number of cynical formulas spring to mind: "a third party isn't the answer, we need a second party," or "we need to establish a two party system before we worry about a three party system." Such rear-guard actions reveal a blind spot of two-party ideology. Given that there are now so many elected offices for which there is only one candidate in a given election, it may well be the case that there cannot be a strong second party without strong alternatives to the duopoly parties. Proportional representation is one potential solution to this problematic. The Truth Shall Set You Free lays out this alternative to plurality voting:
A fully representative system, which seats people in legislatures based on their proportion of their supporting vote. Under this proportional representation system, everyone is represented, as long as they make up at least 1% of the vote. Thus, if your party gets 10% of the vote, they would get 10% of the legislative seats. We would not longer be stuck in an inflexible and unresponsive two party system. Everyone would have representation and feedback in the government. The end result is greater diversity, and greater creativity, in our political system.
Teresa Amato also recently argued for proportional representation in a panel discussion with Rick Perlstein at the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Literature Festival. (C-Span's Book TV has the whole video of the panel at their website, it's well worth a viewing.) Such reforms, however, face the usual contradiction, the limit of the two-party system: they would have to be carried out by the duopoly parties themselves. And few foresee them ceding any significant power any time soon, though there are distinct possibilities in certain locales. On this reading, the implementation of proportional representation presupposes minor and alternative party representation in government. How can this be facilitated? Score voting, or range voting, is one possibility.


Samuel Wilson said...

Leaving aside duopolist fallacies, the deeper, more dangerous presumption behind complaints against "undivided government" is the notion that someone is not adequately represented if the representative does not agree with his ideology. The idea that bodies of opinion are entitled to representation is dangerous in its own right, regardless of how it might be entangled in duopolist politics, and could well taint third-party movements in the future.

d.eris said...

Do you find proportional representation problematic for that reason then?

Samuel Wilson said...

Only if it is explicitly motivated by the kind of argument I cite above, and if all third parties are presumed to be ideological in nature.