Two Party Systems, Duverger’s Law and Political Polarization

It is rare to see third-party representatives in office. Bernie Sanders is a rare success story, as he is the longest serving independent member of congress. Other independents, such as Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Ross Perot as an independent candidate, and Theodore Roosevelt of the Bull Moose Party are also figures of note. While these candidates have influenced American politics, none of them were elected into office. In the United States’ two-party system, these candidates could not represent the voice of their voters. The values that certain third-parties hold are now being lumped under the two main parties. Many particulars blanketed by two generalizations increases the growing polarization between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and factions within them are emerging. DuVerger’s Law is to blame. 

An electoral system provides a set of rules determining how representatives are elected. There are two main types of electoral systems: single-member district (SMD) and proportional representation (PR). In an SMD system, the territory is divided into districts, each of which elects a single member. In a PR system, multiple members are elected per district. This system implies that parties receive legislative seats in proportion to the vote share. The United States uses the SMD electoral system, creating a two-party system. 

Part of the U.S. case can be explained by Duverger’s Law. Maurice Duverger proposed that SMDs tend to produce two large, moderate parties. The law depends on two effects: psychological and mechanical. The former happens before the vote, and the latter occurs after. Voters know that small parties can’t win in SMD electoral systems, so individuals who align themselves with smaller parties are reluctant to ‘waste’ their votes. As an outcome, the psychological effect produces strategic voting. One will either vote for a giant party with similar values or stay home. The mechanical impact plays along with the idea that for a party to win in a SMD system, the party must be large. This effect incentivizes smaller parties to merge, and the same logic works in reverse. 

Why should we care about Duverger’s Law and our two-party system? The two-party system as a whole brings about questions regarding how democratic this system is. In the 2016 Presidential election, 53.9% of the country voted against former President Donald Trump. The majority of constituents were not represented when taking third parties into account. Every presidential election in the U.S. since 1852 has been won either by the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. More importantly, we should care because not everyone’s voice is heard. These voices can bring enormous change and new perspectives that are representative of the people. On occasion, one of these views may come into the same light as those from the Democratic and Republican Parties. For example, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign focus was the growing budget deficit. Even though he won 19% of the popular vote and received no electoral votes, his message was so profound to voters that Democrats and Republicans ended up addressing the budget deficit. After Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he adopted Perot’s desire to balance the budget into his policy-making. Perot’s campaign should be considered the most successful endeavor of a third-party candidate in the twentieth century. Other third-party voices are not so fortunate to have an impact on the federal government. 

I believe that the overall consequence of Duverger’s Law in the United States is political polarization. In economics, the scarcity hypothesis claims that basic needs take precedence over self-expression, i.e., economic ideology is more important in times of scarcity. As citizens become stable and wealthier, they focus on postmodern values (i.e., subjective views instead of absolute truths; thinking about the existing institutions and structures within societies) and how they shape their identity. Examples of postmodern values in politics are contentious topics: gun rights, abortion, affirmative action, and the like. These values create a new playing field for politicians. It is now up to them to decide where policy meets values.The incorporation or rejection of these values into policy-making is something that voters care about. From the 2000s and on, contentious events (small or large) have gained national attention and will make people think about their values and where they stand. With many different views, especially from third-parties, it is hard for someone like old-school Democrat Joe Manchin to be on board with green initiatives. These values further drive polarization not only between the two parties and their factions, but between the American public as well. In 2017, the Pew Research Center in studied political polarization in the American public, finding that partisan antipathy has the most substantial presence now than at any point in the last two decades. If third-parties had a more significant impact on government happenings, I believe that polarization would not be as severe as it is today. Allowing different voices that cherish different values into the secular sphere will provide specific ideological parties for people to align with, reducing the overall tension between two mammoth parties. Maybe then, people will start to trust our government with the assurance that their voice matters. What is to come from the driving political polarization we see today as a result of Duverger’s Law? The answer may be unclear, but the results could be soothed if we gave third-parties more of a say.