The two-party system is a much-maligned aspect of the American political system. Indeed, I am met with stunned reactions whenever I try to explain American political parties to foreigners. Unlike most other liberal democracies, it is very rare for third-party candidates to win elections in the United States. This means that voters are only presented with two choices. If the United States had a European-style party system, then voters would have more choices and more voices from a broader political spectrum would be heard, or so the argument goes. The Bernie Sanders and Ralph Naders of America would actually have a shot at winning.
Unfortunately, the multi-party system comes with some major disadvantages that would outweigh any benefits. For one thing, more voices are not better voices. Radical, crazy and just plain stupid candidates will have a much easier time getting their foot in the door. Donald Trump is an excellent example. In the two-party system, crazy candidates initially lead in the polls for their perceived honesty before enthusiasm peters out and more moderate candidates win the primaries. Such was the case with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, who both surged to first place in GOP polls before voters eventually decided that they were too crazy, even for the Republicans. The same fate will likely befall Donald Trump.
Such would not be the case in a multi-party system. As The Economist has pointed out, if Donald Trump were in Europe he would have his own party and parliament seats. Indeed, far-right parties in Europe have made alarming gains. The recent European Parliament election 24 seats for France’s National Front, three seats for Greece’s anti-Semitic Golden Dawn Party and three seats for Hungary’s radical nationalist Jobbik Party. There is now even a German neo-Nazi on the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. In extreme cases, radical and reactionary parties can take over completely. People forget that the Nazis were a third party and that they rose to power through democratic elections. Although Hitler never won a majority, he was able to secure more votes than everyone else which was enough in 1930s Germany. It is extremely unlikely that the Nazis would have won an election in a two-party system.
While it is rare for a radical party to gain complete dominance in a multi-party system, they can still wreak a lot more havoc than they can in a two-party system. In most multi-party systems, there are only two or three parties that are dominant. For example, the main parties of Britain are Labour and Conservative. Thus, a multi-party system comes with many of the drawbacks of a two-party system. However, multi-party governments have one additional disadvantage. Since even the dominant parties have difficulty gaining a majority of seats, they must form coalitions to prevent a hung legislature. This means that small, radical parties can hold the system hostage by refusing to join a coalition until their demands are met.
In Israel’s most recent election Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party won a plurality but not a majority. As part of a deal with the far-right Jewish Home Party, Netanyahu appointed one of their Knesset members, Ayelet Shaked, as his Minister of Justice. Shaked not only lacks a background in law (she started her career in high-tech), she has also advocated for genocide against the Palestinians and seeks to undermine the Israeli Supreme Court. Although The Jewish Home only has eight seats in the Knesset (out of 120), Netanyahu needed their support to form a coalition.
Such a system would be disastrous in the United States. The number one American news network is Fox News, which studies show makes its viewers less informed than those who watch no news at all. A study done by Ipsos MORI examined 14 countries and found that the United States was the second least informed (only Italy ranked worse). Other democracies have populaces that are much better informed than Americans and they still elect crazy candidates. One can only imagine what would happen if a multi-party system was brought to a nation as ill informed as the United States.
While the two-party system has its disadvantages, it is far better than the alternative. Under the American system candidates like Trump can stir the pot but have little serious political clout and eventually turn into laughing stocks. Under a European-style system Trump would have serious leverage in Congress.
Imagine if a mainstream candidate had to give someone like Trump or Santorum a senior cabinet position in order to gain a majority. Imagine if Congress had to cut deals with the America First Party or the Prohibition Party in order to avoid gridlock. The American political system is certainly broken but a multi-party system is not the solution.