13 August 2009

The American Bipolarchy: Power without Discipline

Listening to yet another round of Republican infighting raised anew the old questions of why one faction doesn't split from the other. I have my own answer to the question, which is that all sides covet the party organization's fundraising apparatus. But I suddenly found the old question begging a new one: why is it up to disaffected factions to leave the party or not?

The more I think about the American Bipolarchy, the more convinced I become that it is a structural rather than a conspiratorial phenomenon, the result of a sequence of decisions of policies, few of which were designed consciously to exclude rival parties. I wonder whether invoking the Bipolarchy creates a deceptive image of two powerful parties on the model of the monopoly parties of one-party states. The fact is, the Democratic and Republican parties lack a particular power that is characteristic of tyrannical parties elsewhere. When we think of the history of communist parties, for instance, we likely think of a succession of purges. These purges would not only eliminate people from positions of power within the parties, but often would expel them from the parties entirely, which in one-party states was tantamount to disfranchisement. Elderly purge victims like Vyacheslav Molotov might spend the rest of their long lives begging to be reinstated into the ruling party. Nothing like this happens in the dominant American parties.

Nobody gets thrown out of the Republican party for failing to toe the current ideological line, no matter how many people call for or dare dissidents to go elsewhere. All the groups can call each other "RINOs" or otherwise disparage each other's partisan credentials, but no one has the power to state as fact that someone else is no longer a Republican. On one hand, this looks like a matter of common sense; if one faction purged another, the losers would have nothing else to do but join the other major party or form a new party, and it makes no sense to force people to vote against you in the general election. On the other hand, it may have been a historical accident that revealed the genius of this reticence, since recent history, at least, has shown that dissidents, if not pushed out or purged, will not leave. This wasn't always the case a century ago. The more local you got, especially, primaries very often resulted in independent tickets as recently as 100 years ago. In my research on the city of Troy I found that the 1905 mayoral election was a four-way contest, not counting smaller parties like socialists or prohibitionists, because independents had split from both the Democratic and Republican parties. But this tendency seems to have become less pronounced as the 20th century went on. Perhaps there was an ultimate concession that splintering was always futile, but perhaps something else was happening that made dissidents less likely to bolt. What that might have been may be a key to the consolidation of the Bipolarchy, and that makes it a subject for further research.


Anonymous said...

So you don't like two-party duopoly huh? Then I assume you are a big proponent of score voting, since that should be your one and only concern. Until you have a voting method that escapes Duverger's law, no other issue (like fair debates, or fair campaign funding) matters. And until you eliminate bipartism in single-winner races, you'll never see proportional representation at higher levels of government.


d.eris said...

BL, you don't necessarily need a new voting method to "escape Duverger's Law." To achieve wider representation we may not even need to escape Duverger's Law. The two-party system has deteriorated into single party rule in districts and states across the country. As I've argued before, Duverger's Law would therefore suggest that, given the inability of the "second" party to mount credible campaigns in such locales, a third party or independent group could and should arise to fill the political void.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing. I don't necessarily believe in proportional representation, nor do I think that small parties are entitled to political success. My ideal would look more like a no-party system, though how that could be achieved over the heads of the two major parties remains to be seen. In the absence of partisanship the imperative of adopting score voting might not be so strong, but it may have merits in its own right.

Anonymous said...


Single-party rule is almost certainly due to Gerrymandering. And the empirical fact is that minor parties have not managed to thwart duopoly by using this tactic of running in "uncontested" areas. I've heard it brought up, but it doesn't seem to work, as history attests. Even if it happens from time to time, it's statistically almost insignificant. So I stand by my argument. I see no evidence that anything aside from changing the voting method holds any hope of breaking duopoly.

@Samuel Wilson
The imperative of adopting score voting exists wholly apart from political parties. It provides vastly more satisfying winners, as judged objectively via Bayesian regret. It literally doubles the effectiveness of democracy. It increases social happiness as much relative to our current system as our current system does relative to random-selection non-democracy.

As for getting rid of political parties, the only way to effectivel do that, is to reduce the benefit of party membership to almost nothing. You do that by making it safe for voters to support candidates they like more than their favorite front-runners -- i.e. you adopt score voting.

Samuel Wilson said...

d.eris: A potential problem with your suggested state-by-state strategy would be lingering loyalty to major parties on the national level regardless of dissatisfaction with local performance. While there's nothing stopping someone from voting Republican nationally, for instance, and voting for the local conservative party, ideological solidarity and fear of the "worst" party tend to benefit the major parties at all levels. Paradoxically, left and right indepedents might benefit from less fear of each other, since that fear always benefits the biggest "left" or "right" parties.

broken ladder: one benefit of party membership is favorable positioning on ballots. If ballots stopped being built around party lines as an organizing principle, or if we reached a point where technology allowed us to do without ballots and party lines, partisanship might lose some of its appeal to candidates before the question of score voting even comes up.

d.eris said...

BL, point taken. I would add then that movement toward proportional representation would be greatly facilitated by the election of third party and independent candidates at any level under the present system.

SW, agreed. But, imo, the problem of "lingering loyalty" could be addressed by fielding alternative candidates in districts rigged to be "safe" for whichever major party. This would seem to be similar to the situation referenced by BL, i.e. where it is "safe for voters to support candidates they like more than their favorite front-runners."

Anonymous said...

@samuel wilson:
Ballot positioning is virtually irrelevant. Even if a minor party is in the first position, the fact that it is almost certainly a "wasted vote" to vote for that candidate inspires voters to vote strategically for their favorite front-runner.

To get third party and independent candidates elected, you...have to get score voting.

To both of you:
Here's one solution to Gerrymandering:

Samuel Wilson said...

Just to clarify: my proposal is not to give independents favorable positioning on ballots but to do away entirely with the concept of party lines. There is no reason why ballots have to be organized that way, except from the viewpoint of partisan interest. Broken Ladder's argument for the necessity of score voting may still apply, of course.