Short Handed, Short Changed

As is the case with much of our everyday political shorthand, it is not entirely true to say that the United States has a "two-party system." It is probably more correct to say that it has a weak multi-party system: in the last election, citizens voted for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Independents etc. However, in the final instance, it should be maintained that the United States does not technically have any party system whatsoever, since none is mandated by the Constitution. Nonetheless, widely believed to be the result of winner-take-all, single-member district plurality voting, the two-party system structures the field of political representation, collapsing a multiplicity of positions and perspectives into a simple binary form. The result is the duopoly of Democratic-Republican ideology over all political discourse and activity via the medium of the party apparatuses in conjunction with the state, the willing press, and a reluctant public.

At The Columbian (WA), John Laird argues that the United States effectively has a three-party system, and that, as a result, it is inherently unreliable because it is thrown off balance by the spoiler effect. "A three-party political system is precarious and unreliable. Often, the opposite of the desired effect occurs," he writes. To exemplify his point, he names Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. But Laird is no fan of the two-party state, and thus proposes that a four-party system would be necessary to break the duopoly maintained by the Republican and Democratic Parties:
Instead of a third party involuntarily helping the party it hates most — indeed, altering presidential elections in the worst way — perhaps four parties could concurrently tap the power of both Republicans and Democrats.
Resigning himself to the unlikelihood of such a development, Laird concludes that there will be no change to the structure of the party system without change to the voting system, and he therefore advocates the abolition of the Electoral College:
which instead of distributing electoral votes proportionately, assigns those votes in winner-take-all fashion in almost all of the states. Until we abolish that abomination, even the most outstanding third- or fourth-party candidate has no chance.
Unfortunately, in the guise of defending multi-party politics, Laird reinforces the logic of two-party ideology: "third-party candidacies are worse than disastrous, they're calamitously counter-productive." Yet, if the election of both Democrats (1992) and Republicans (2000) represents disaster and calamity, one might reasonably wonder what difference it makes whether the contest spoils in one way or the other. The false assumption at the heart of Laird's analysis is, of course, the assertion that the United States has a three-party system, as based on his interpretation of a handful of presidential contests featuring a prominent third party candidate. But the spoiler effect is not evidence of a three-party system. It is rather symptomatic of a defect in the two-party system, marking the inherent limits of its capacity to effectively represent the people of the United States.

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