Last time I wrote about countries with single or multiple political parties. The American political system, however, is geared toward two major political parties.

George Washington decried political parties, but even before he left office, two parties had formed. To the right, I have outlined how the two major parties have shifted over the years. The first two to form were the Democrat-Republicans, centered around Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalists, centered around John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Other than the election of John Adams after Washington, the Federalists failed to elect another president from their party. By the 1820s the Federalists had atrophied and disappeared. In fact, all four candidates for president in 1824 were Democrat-Republicans. The Democrat-Republican name was awkward and often shortened to either Democrat or Republican. At the time, the name Democrat brought to mind the mob rule of revolutionary France; it was sometimes used by the Federalists in a derogatory manner. Since the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, this term was a neutral and vague title, and was generally preferred for use by the party. However, after his election in 1824, Andrew Jackson officially shortened the name of the party to Democrat. At this time, the remaining Federalists and the Democrats who opposed Andrew Jackson banded together to form the Whig party. The Whigs were strongest from 1824 to 1856, and they succeeded in electing four presidents during that time: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore.

The modern Republican party was formed in 1856 with a strong anti-slavery plank, and John Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president, ran on the platform of “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont.” This party incorporated many former Whigs, and as the Republican party ascended, the Whig party ceased to exist. With the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to be elected president. Since this time, the American presidency has passed between the Democrat and Republican parties. There have been numerous third-party candidates, mostly formed around a specific person (the “Bull Moose” party around Theodore Roosevelt, the Reform party around Ross Perot) or an idea or philosophy (Anti-Masonic, Free Soil, Greenback, Socialist), but none of these parties has succeeded in electing a candidate to the presidency or generating long-term support.

The American system works best with two large political parties. This is caused by ballot laws that promote the major parties, but also by the “winner-take-all” method of votes. Basically, winner-take-all means that in an election for a position like mayor, the candidate with the most votes will “take all” — being elected to the mayorship, while the rest get to make concession speeches. This is known as “Single-Member District Plurality” in political science, but other than poli-sci majors and Jeopardy contestants, who really cares? OK, I like Jeopardy, so here’s a great Final Jeopardy answer: “This principle asserts that a winner-take-all election system naturally leads to a two-party system.” If you said, “What is Duverger’s Law?”, you should look at competing against current Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.

People have made a big deal over Vice President Al Gore getting more votes than President George W. Bush in the 2000 election, but Americans do not elect their president based on the popular vote. The Founding Fathers of the United States were hesitant to create a true democracy, where the majority vote wins, since they knew that system is inherently unstable. Once a democracy learns it can vote itself goodies from the public coffers, the people quickly vote themselves into bankruptcy. It is also susceptible to the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the few are trampled by the mob.

Rather than the popular vote, the president is chosen by the Electoral College. The individuals in a state are not really voting for a president; they are voting for an Elector who will then vote for the candidate. Each state has the same number of Electors as it has people in Congress. So Wyoming has three Electors for its one Representative and two Senators, while California has 55 for its 53 Representatives and two Senators. In our “winner-take-all” system, the political party whose candidate gathers the most votes gets to select all the Electors for that state, except in Maine and Nebraska where the winner gets two votes (for the Senators) and the rest of the votes are distributed according to the winner of each congressional district. Confused? You can read all the trivia and history about this that your poor eyes can stand at the Electoral College’s website.

With the closely-contested election of 2000, and in pretty much every election cycle, people have discussed getting rid of the Electoral College and shifting to a nationwide election for president based on the majority of votes. While we now have the technology to do this, I believe it isn’t a good idea. First, it would require changing the Constitution, an act not easily achieved. Second, it would negatively affect states with smaller populations. Let’s pick on Wyoming with its sparse population to illustrate this. In our current system, Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes out of 538 is more than three times the percentage of Wyoming’s population divided by America’s population. In an election determined by popular vote, the candidates would only need to campaign in the most populous states and kiss off the smaller ones. But since the president represents all Americans, it’s a good idea to all states from populous California down to meager Wyoming.

Since 270 electoral votes or more are necessary to elect a president, it is critical that a presidential hopeful have the greatest number of votes in each state. In our two-party system, the voters may chose to elect either a Democrat or a Republican for president. A commonly seen corollary of Duverger’s law (and you thought I wouldn’t bring it up again) is the spoiler effect of a third-party candidate, effectively siphoning votes away from one of the two leading candidates. You could make the argument that Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run pulled enough votes away from George Bush to push Bill Clinton into the lead. This was definitely the case in the 1912 election. Theodore Roosevelt pulled enough Republican voters away to his “Bull Moose” party (officially called the Progressive party) that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected. You can spend some time (as I did) at Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections site and look at elections such as 1884, 1888, and 1892 when third-party candidates had more votes than the difference between the first two candidates. Had these third-party candidates not run, the numbers had pulled could have thrown the election either way.

My wife asked if there had ever been a third party that managed to get a president elected. In a word, no, and for a tautologous reason: once a third party succeeds in placing one of its candidates in the presidency, it has become a majority party. This last happened 144 years ago when the then four-year-old Republican party succeeded in putting Abraham Lincoln into the White House.

Even though George Washington decried political parties, envisioning the United States running just fine without any of them, parties had already begun to form as Washington left office. As political parties often form around charismatic leaders or a common idea or cause, it isn’t surprising that two parties quickly formed around the ideals of Thomas Jefferson on the one hand, and the beliefs of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams on the other. Once a party begins, it needs some recognizable name and/or symbol to make identification easier. This has led to such symbols as donkeys, elephants and eagles, and such names as Democrats, Whigs, GOP, Greens, PRI, PAN, and ungainly mouthfuls like “Workers World Party” and “We The People, American People’s Party.” (You can see a longer listing of presidential hopefuls at Politics1. My favorite longshot candidates are running on the Socialist Workers Party ticket; even if they somehow got the necessary votes to become President and Vice-President, they could not legally hold office. Roger Calero is not an American citizen, and Arrin Hawkins is younger than the Constitutionally mandated age of 35 years. Talk about a double duh for them.)

Since political parties are inevitable (and sometimes hysterically funny), just how many do we really need? Let’s look at several examples of party systems as they currently exist. In a parliamentary system, as found in most of Europe, it is easy for a small political party to gain a few seats. It is therefore extremely difficult for a single party to gather enough seats in parliament to have a majority and thus gain control of government. To attain this majority, a larger party will sometimes extend offers to smaller parties and form a coalition. You can see this in Israel as the Likud and Avoda parties form alliances with smaller religious and radical parties. Another example is nicely summarized here:

The classic historical example of this sort of multiparty system is France’s Fourth Republic (1946 – 58). In the various elections no party ever came close to obtaining a majority in the National Assembly. Therefore, governments were always the result of coalitions of many parties. These governments would last only so long as they avoided important and contentious issues. When such issues arose (as eventually they must), they would tear the coalition apart and force the resignation of the government. The net result was a government that was incapable of addressing itself to the most pressing problems facing the society. In 1958 the French, under Charles de Gaulle, ratified the Fifth Republic, which provided for a cross between a presidential and a parliamentary system and gave the president a specified term of office and extensive powers.

So if you are of the opinion “that government is best which governs least,” the parliamentary system is for you. As long as no single party gains enough control and coalitions are necessary, the government will be paralyzed, unable to make sweeping changes. Of course, such a country is also paralyzed when it comes to important problems that demand immediate action, such as war. Parliamentary coalitions, in addition to being slow to affect change, also award more influence to the smaller parties than their numbers would ordinarily allow. Since these small parties are necessary to form a coalition majority, they often engage in coalition blackmail, effectively threatening to pick up the political ball and go home; this tactic reduces the coalition below the majority numbers needed. And there seems to be no end of these parties. Check out Italy’s kajillion political parties, for example.

It is possible to go to the other extreme and have only one controlling political party. This is normally the case in repressive governments like China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In these countries, the act of voting is meaningless. Do you suppose Brezhnev or Saddam would have stepped down if the vote had ever gone against them? Fat chance of that!

But it is possible for a real democracy to have one controlling party. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, was led by just such a political party for almost 70 years. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) controlled federal and local offices in its centralized, authoritarian party. While other political parties existed, they did not have anywhere near the numbers that PRI had. In an attempt to deter some of the re-election concerns which plague and distract American presidents at the end of their first terms, Mexico has decreed that its president may only be elected to a single six-year term. Unfortunately, this law has had unintended consequences; namely, since there is no way they can be re-elected, Mexican presidents have rarely concerned themselves with public accountability during their term of office. The PRI party bosses would select the next PRI president, who would inevitably be elected. (This political tradition only changed in 1999, when PRI held its first-ever presidential primary.) Since Mexico was controlled by a single party, corruption ran rampant. My Mexican friends complained that each president, at the end of his term, would loot the national treasury and flee to another country. Since he knew he would be followed by another PRI president and protected by PRI people in every level of government, he never feared being brought to justice for his actions.

The PRI stranglehold on political control started to fail in the 1980s, as the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN) won its first state governorship. This was considered about as meaningful to Mexican politics as the Minnesota governorship of Jesse Ventura was to the USA, but it did indicate changes to come. In 1988, PRI managed to retain control of the presidency thanks to widely-claimed “voting irregularities” (read: voter fraud), but a year later it lost six state governorships. In 1997, PRI lost majority control of the lower house of the legislature, and the mayorship of Mexico City also slipped out of PRI control. Finally, in July 2000, the Alianza por Cambio (Alliance for Change) was successful in electing PAN candidate Vicente Fox Quesada to the presidency. This broke a cycle of PRI presidents unchallenged since 1929.

Thus far I have examined foreign governments, both those run by multiple parties and those controlled by a single party. In my next article I will discuss the American two-party system, its history and its benefits to society.