Two vs Multi Party Politics

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This topic contains 9 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  tom sarbeck 1 year ago.

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    In true American style, I’m relatively clueless wrt multi-party politics, e.g. how it works (or doesn’t work) in UK.

    If memory serves, third parties in USA commonly attract about 10% of the vote, recently most notably Libertarian. Our evidently permanent two parties retain big dollar campaign sponsors, and bifurcated loyalties dominate political discourse and decision-making. Two tribes, along with the short-term profit-seeking industries of mainstream media and corporate businesses help carelessly boil current issues down to simplistic, good guy vs bad guy positions. Even the current populist movement, as disruptive as it has been to conventional politics, still must channel most of their energy into just one, traditionally incumbent party to achieve the most effect.

    In UK, the new Brexit Party has won the most votes in May 2019. The “party” here was born of a single issue movement, and keeps thriving with its single issue-based branding. Populists have formed the new party, and have “won” an election with the most votes.

    However, The Gaurdian argues that brexit-as-an-issue support is actually waining among voters, in spite of the Brexit Party’s big win. More than one party is now claiming gains. As an American, I find this kind of pluralism in party politics very confusing!



    Canada has 5 parties that regularly win seats. While the American electoral college is grossly undemocratic (for presidential elections) the Canadian and British system (Westminter) is the most unfair system in the free world. The Green Party with between 5-10% of the national vote wins 1 out of 338 seats (0.25%). Meanwhile one of the major parties wins an abolute majority (meaning they can do virtually whatever they want) with around 40% of the vote. It is pretty grotesque that while 60% didn’t want that party in, they have virtual free reign for 4 years with almost nothing to stop them as the senate is generally powerless and the Queen’s representative never interferes with politics. Trudeau won a large majority with 40% of the vote. That’s insanely unrepresentative. The advantage of more parties only becomes apparant when there are minority governments occasionally in Canada. Almost invariably one party props up another party meaning they have to compromise and work together, all things which helped create Canadas best features such as healthcare and social services and civil protections. In Canada’s case, this plurality is good…some of the time.

    However it works so much better in most of Europe. Belgium for example has 8-12 parties who take seats. Divided by language and ideology, the king only permits a coalition government that has at least 1 party from both language areas. Unfortunately it can take a very long time to negotiate a coalition (they often contain 4 or 5 parties) and negotiations can take over 1 year while an effective care-taker government is in charge. But the advantage is their entire agenda is pretty much already planned out and most laws are tentatively drafted. Smooth sailing for the next several years. The amount of compromise involved is incredible and for the most part policies and laws end up being somewhat moderate, middle-ground while still including advantages for the various special interests. Most European countries work at a smaller scale but still have to form coalitions and work together. It is ideal. However, a couple countries have a pretty hard time getting together and forming coalitions. Spain and Italy are the more famous examples. Spain had to call a new election after a year of negotiating cause no one could compromise. The results of the new election were virtually the same. Finally there was a tentative compromise which didn’t last for long and parties tried to go on their own with a lot of failures. Italy is usually more disastrous with frequent elections to beat the deadlock where compromising seems almost impossible and parties are very hostile to one another even when they are in a coalition. While right now they are relatively stable (though aggressively criticize one another) there can be decades before any government fills up a full term. So while multiple party systems are often fantastic (Belgium, Germany, Denmark) or good (Ireland, Czech Rep, Japan) it is a bad system for a few countries. You need to have a proportional representative system to regularly have large coalitions and the UK, Canada and the US don’t have one and are systems highly resistant to reform or proportionality.

    The craziest of all however is the EU. I am always in awe of how it manages to function. There are between 6-7 blocks of parties in the parliament and each one is formed by dozens of parties from around Europe (sometimes even 2 parties from the same country). That means that not only do 3 or more blocks have to come together and negotiate a basic outline of the agenda, but each block also has to come together and negotiate their position with many very different parties involved. A functioning EU parliament working group can basically consist of 40 or more national parties all working together. It doesn’t quite work like a coalition but more a general understanding of policy direction. It is still amazing, incredible and fantastic than anything actually gets done. Add on top of that the EU commission (the leader of all 27 countries) who must make new laws by absolute unanimity and it just makes the functioning EU all the more outrageously unique and astonishing. And incredibly democratic and pluralistic and representative of various views.

    You can be sure that if the USA switched to a proportional representation system in the house of representatives, that multiple parties would pop up and many would win seats and no party would ever have a majority. Regional interests, specific agenda parties and even far-left/far-right factions would require multiple parties to form coalitions. US politics would become instantly more moderate, less extreme (or insane) and the rhetoric would soften, parties would trash each other less and a large variety of interests would be considered for all laws and policies. It really is what the US desperately needs. Considering how cumbersome it is to change the constitution and how protective people are of that document, I just cannot see that happening in the next 50 years.

    • This reply was modified 1 year ago by  Davis.

    That is a very good summary Davis.  In Ireland we have the PR system where rather than marking an “X” in one box we get to give every candidate a vote if we want to. If there are (say) 7 candidates from 4 parties and 3 independents, for a total of 4 seats,  we can mark them in order of preference from 1 – 7, or just vote for 1 or them or any number of them in between, marking our first with a 1, second preference with a 2 and so on. Second and subsequent votes are passed on as candidates are elected or knocked out (via a quota system) until the number of seats are filled (in proportion to the votes they got).

    This means that smaller parties and Independents can often hold the balance of power when the main parties do not have an overall majority. This can work as a check on the power of the majority party and help Independents (often socialist (not communist!)) get legislation through the House that may not have had a hearing without them being in power. I have voted in several British local and general elections too and have even done some work in Whitehall for certain departments but I would prefer the Irish format as it seems more equitable towards all candidates as it is not just “first past the post”.

    I think the American system has become too polarized which leaves little room for moderates to be heard above the rhetoric of the extremes. I also think the way that State voting divisions are setup (like in Texas for example) is very unfair on minorities and what happened in GA last time reminded me of a banana republic. Imagine if the GOP (or the Dems) had to deal with 5 Independents who gave them their majority in order to keep them in power!! As for the Electoral Colleges….time to YouTube me some Bill Maher.



    their entire agenda is pretty much already planned out and most laws are tentatively drafted

    […] multiple party systems are often fantastic (Belgium, Germany, Denmark) or good (Ireland, Czech Rep, Japan)

    […] who must make new laws by absolute unanimity and it just makes the functioning EU all the more outrageously unique and astonishing

    Thank you for that awesome summary. I aced poly sci, but it was very America-centric, as are most Americans, blissfully ignorant and non-caring of what works well in the rest of the world. (I’m also ignorant, just not blissfully ignorant!)

    There seems to be a magic ingredient that leaks out of great institutions as they age, and I’m hoping the EU political success doesn’t suffer from that someday. Even a one-party system like in China should be successful for a while, their vast population appreciating new economic opportunities. But that newly-activated magic ingredient can’t feel new and exciting forever. Nor (I bet) can leadership immunize themselves against the monetary corruption made possible by the new economic success.

    Considering how cumbersome it is to change the constitution and how protective people are of that document, I just cannot see that happening in the next 50 years.

    Yeah, those founding fathers couldn’t foresee some of today’s new difficulties (as with any dogma), and amendments require a super-large critical mass to pass.  I’m big on outlawing gerrymandering, and expect enough people to eventually see it as an evil they need to vanquish, especially now that some states are tackling that issue. It’s just too easy for one party out of two to divide up their constituencies in ways that balloting favors their party’s permanency.




    “History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.” – Thomas Jefferson



    In Ireland we have the PR system

    I’ve wished that could be part of American discourse for many years. In addition to added plurality, it eliminates the need for run-off elections (when 1-candidate-only balloting doesn’t result in a majority-chosen candidate).

    the American system has become too polarized

    Indeed. Bipolar is, in practice, the only game in town.



    Thank you for that awesome summary. I aced poly sci, but it was very America-centric, as are most Americans, blissfully ignorant and non-caring of what works well in the rest of the world.

    You aced poly sci and so you are qualified to speak for all of us blissfully ignorant Americans on Memorial Day are you?  Thanks so much!  I am somehow reminded of the Japanese fleet commanders who assumed Americans were morally weak and had no spine for war. Holy shit….they were wrong as they watched wave after wave of almost suicidal US pilots attack their fleet in the Battle Off Samar.  That battle is quite a study.

    You may want to take a minute today and think about all the billions of dollars and all the thousands of ignorant Americans sons who laid down their lives so that our  incredibly enlightened Western European friends can freely voice their incredibly intelligent opinions about the shortcomings of the United States.

    • This reply was modified 1 year ago by  _Robert_.


    @robert, it would be just as meaningful, impactful, and personal if you just wrote an emotionalized retort like “You just hate America, don’t you?!”.

    I am reminded of Bush’s cliche “just stay the course” during one of our most horrific mistakes of foreign policy by war ever made. As if American self-examination was an evil.

    Perhaps you are proving my point?



    Speaking of Memorial Day (if you think my timing here is so profound), you do realize how many more Americans died as a result of our knee-jerk response to 911, right? What did it actually achieve, other than to soothe the angst of ‘Mericans waving their flags, out to prove they will “never forget” in any way they can, and anyone who disagrees can’t possibly be recognized as true patriots? Talk about righteousness and hubris, and often in the name of their purportedly righteous God, not to mention while finding new enemies to demonize amongst other fellow Americans. Or was it also in the name of Allah, since invading Iraq energized Islamic extremists just as much as our new American “patriots”?

    Dammit, you got me, and you got me good.


    tom sarbeck

    I live in one of the eighteen states in which American voters can use the direct initiative to circumvent the plutocratic and oligarchic major parties and occasionally do so. In the other states, the voting prey elect their predators.


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