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Justin Amash is wrong: We don't need to get rid of political parties, we need more of them

A multiparty system means voters don't need to choose between one of two teams, freeing our politics from its destructive us-verses-them mentality.
Image: Justin Amash
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash caught Washington’s attention over the July 4 holiday with his personal declaration of independence from the Republican Party. “The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions,” Amash wrote in a Washington Post op-ed announcing his parting with not only the GOP but also the very concept of party affiliation.

Amash is right: The two-party system is indeed in a “partisan death spiral” (or, as I prefer to call it, a “Two-Party Doom Loop”). But Amash’s solution of simply rejecting any party identification and bashing partisanship is as impractical as his limited-government libertarianism.

Without parties to put forward programs, limit political choices to a manageable number and engage voters, modern democracy fractures into incoherence.

Parties — and therefore partisanship — are essential to modern mass democracy. Without parties to put forward programs, limit political choices to a manageable number and engage voters, modern democracy fractures into incoherence. The alternative to partisanship is not nonpartisan deliberation, as Amash argues. It’s chaos.

Thus, the answer to the two-party doom loop is not to get rid of partisanship. What we need instead is more partisanship. That is, we need more parties. The binary nature of partisanship in our system echoes every other social conflict we have and rolls them into one sweeping, deafening, zero-sum contest for the soul of the nation, making our political system unworkable.

A multiparty system, in contrast, makes space for flexible coalitions and for parties to change in a responsive and resilient manner. It doesn’t require voters to choose between one of just two opposing teams — a divisive choice that works poorly with the tribal parts of our brain that see the world in black and white.

Amash in his op-ed made reference to his experience in Congress as a frustrated dissident within a top-down Republican Party. He complained, “With little genuine debate on policy happening in Congress, party leaders distract and divide the public by exploiting wedge issues and waging pointless messaging wars.”

This is a fair and resonant critique. Both parties have centralized power in a leadership always focused on winning the next election, and winning the next election means drawing sharp contrasts, not making deals to solve pressing public issues.

Amash also wrote: “These strategies fuel mistrust and anger, leading millions of people to take to social media to express contempt for their political opponents, with the media magnifying the most extreme voices.”

But it’s not entirely fair to blame social media. Social media is certainly an amplifier, but the causes of polarization go far deeper and further back. They are more structural.

Indeed, the partisan polarization has deep roots in the electorate. Largely, it’s the result of the way the two party coalitions have sorted along ethnic, religious, cultural and, most of all, geographical lines. Today, the Democrats and the Republicans represent two very different visions for American identity: Democrats for urban cosmopolitan diversity, Republicans for rural traditionalism.

These divisions, combined with the way our winner-take-all system of elections leads both parties to ignore sizeable parts of the country they see as unwinnable, amplify and reinforce the us-against-them politics that is so maddeningly destructive. Because the two parties represent such different values, the stakes of each election seem so much higher.

The winner-take-all contests, both in the House and the highly disproportionate Senate, also overrepresent rural America and underrepresent urban America. As a result, Republicans now have a built-in six-point advantage in both chambers.

Because the GOP is up against unfriendly demographic trends (more people are moving to cities; America is growing more secular and diverse), they’ve pushed harder on gerrymandering and voting restrictions to maintain what appear to more Americans as unfair advantages (well, unfair only if you think the party that gets the most votes should win the most seats). But they’ve justified these acts by arguing that Democrats are engaging in voter fraud, and would gerrymander even worse if they were drawing district lines.

These perceived unfairnesses make political conflict feel even more high-stakes. Democracy depends on some basic shared sense of electoral fairness. Without it, electoral results start to feel illegitimate. Might threatens to make right. A death spiral indeed.

While Amash’s criticisms resonate, his solution rings hollow. He predictably cites George Washington’s valedictory inveighing against the evils of partisanship; but despite the framers’ clever constitutional design, political parties formed almost immediately after the first president left office. Parties, it turned out, were incredibly useful for organizing voting coalitions and building public brands. No modern mass democracy has thrived without parties, and for good reason. Parties are necessary to organize politics.

But for most of American political history, these parties were loose and baggy coalitions without coherent ideological programs. (The obvious exception to this was the 1850s and the 1860s.) This flexible incoherence meant that while America had a two-party system in name, it had something more akin to a multiparty system in practice. For most of the second half of the 20th century, American politics operated more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans often voting with liberal Democrats, and conservative Democrats often voting with conservative Republicans.

That made governing possible, with support for the president neither anathema nor knee-jerk, and Congress organized in a decentralized, committee-oriented fashion, which is how it has been most effective.

But as the party coalitions re-sorted along regional and identity lines starting in the 1980s in response to the tumultuous politics following the rights revolutions of the ’60s and the ’70s, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats began to vanish. In 2010, America became a truly two-party system, with two distinct and mostly nonoverlapping coalitions, each with a very separate geography. Since then, it has become ungovernable.

I choose 2010 because that was when the conservative Blue Dog Democrats dwindled to irrelevance in the midterm election, essentially eliminating the last vestiges of the old four-party system. It was also the year when Amash won his first election to Congress as a young Tea Party Republican.

Binary political conflict oversimplifies by limiting us to just two choices. The simplicity makes us more certain we are right. It makes compromise difficult. Multiparty political conflict, on the other hand, complicates by expanding the choices. It adds new dimensions. Complexity confuses us. This is good, because it opens us to new approaches and new ideas. When we are uncertain, we seek out new information, and this makes political compromise possible because we are more open to new perspectives.

What Americans need — and want — is more political parties.

When no party expects to win an outright majority in an election, campaigning doesn’t rely on a negative, lesser-of-two evils logic. And voters tend to be happier.

If the United States moved to a system of modest proportional representation, in which legislative seats were allocated to match the share of the vote each party received (ideally in five-member districts, with ranked-choice voting, like Ireland), we’d probably wind up with five or six parties.

No party would have a majority in Congress, and so parties would need to build governing coalitions as happens in other multiparty systems. No president would have an automatic majority either. In multiparty democracies, parties must join together to govern. More perspectives are represented. And policymaking winds up closer to the middle. When no party expects to win an outright majority in an election, campaigning doesn’t rely on a negative, lesser-of-two evils logic. And voters tend to be happier.