On the Number of Parties 4: The Oddity of Two, Part 3 (Thinking About Just Two)

A post about thinking in a comparative way.

Let me pause from continuing on the pathway of the issue of counting parties and digress for a second about why, when taken in comparative perspective, the rigidity of the US party system might be a problem. It also strikes me that I should make overt something that I often suggest, but am not sure I ever say it as directly as the following. Specifically, the way in which comparative thinking influences the way I think about political questions.

I think that human beings are human beings. And while I think that it is objectively true that cultural differences matter, and can be very significant, on balance people from the US are not radically different from people in Brazil, Germany, Japan, or elsewhere, especially in terms of mass behavior.

Therefore understanding how politics works requires looking globally. Granted, not every place is equally useful. The human beings in China or Saudi Arabia are governed by such a different set of structures that we aren’t going to learn a lot about how, say, political parties form and behave in environments in which parties are neither free to form on their own nor to operate as they see fit. So, sure, there are limitations.

But we can engage in research in like cases (and then determine how they aren’t alike). So, for example, my co-authors and I looked at representative democracies over five million in population which had been democratic by a series of measures for at least twenty years. This provided 31 cases in all for A Different Democracy. It was striking how much the US stood out from other democratic cases, and some of those differences are just differences. Some may be ways the US does things better. Others are things that the US perhaps doesn’t do as well. (And this is well beyond a question of the number of parties). At a minimum, the US is mostly locked into pathways that started in 1789 (if not before) and so often has not been able to take advantage of institutional innovations of the last couple of centuries that other countries have.

Comparative logic is pretty straightforward: if human beings are, at least at some level, the same then they will behave in response to the stimuli around them in ways that are reasonably similar regardless of other factors (but, again, agreeing that culture and other variable do matter as well, but that we should be able to identify and understand them).* The issue then becomes understanding what stimuli produce what kinds of outcomes when observed across space and time.

Indeed, while it is often tempting for human beings who live in a specific place to just assert, “Well, that’s just the way we are” the reality is it is rarely the case that such an explanation is anywhere near as helpful as it is made out to be. I am reminded of a quote from Seymour Martin Lipset Lipset once wrote “it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.”**

It is my view and a view that my co-authors and I express in ADD, that the US needs to be understood from a comparative perspective, not just in comparison to itself (i.e., via historical analysis) or simply treated as its specialization in political science, which it is. In the United States,e a major sub-field of political sciences is simply “American politics” and folks who study it only study the US. Another major sub-field is “comparative politics” which looks at the rest of the world. This reminds me of another quote, attributed to the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori,*** “A scholar who studies only American presidents is an Americanist, whereas a scholar who studies only French presidents is a comparativist.  Do not ask me how this makes sense—it does not.”

And, yet, this is the case. Most scholars of the US Congress only study the US Congress and derive theories of legislative behavior based on the US Congress. While, more likely than not, a scholar who studies the British Parliament does so based on theories of legislative behavior based on the study of numerous legislative bodies around the world.

On balance, I would argue that the American press has a similar mindset to my colleagues in Americanists in polisci, and I think, too, this is the mental approach of most Americans. As a result, politics is the way it is either because this is the only way to do it and/or we just aren’t living up to the ideals of the Founders (or something). It is all very self-referential (or anything else is just considered, well, foreign).

All this is to say the following: I think that if it is true that human beings are largely the same across the globe on some basic levels, that they will respond to certain incentives, structures, and stimuli under roughly similar conditions, then we can learn a lot about what is possible and what is not by looking at how differences and similarities play out over time in numerous countries.

Lots of times the patterns are so disparate as to tell us nothing. Sometimes it seems there is a pattern, but it is indeterminate or we just don’t have enough observations to help us confirm a pattern or even seek to assert a conclusion. But sometimes a pattern is crazy stark and raises real questions.

As I have demonstrated empirically, the United States of America’s two-party system is an outlier.

Now, that raises a couple of possibilities.

  1. Citizens of the US are just hardwired for two parties. This, however, seems rather unlikely. What would the US, of all democracies of any size be so locked into two parties?
  2. US culture is uniquely cleaved into two groups. Or, put another way, there is only one issue dimension that cleaves Americans and creates only two broad groupings. This does not fit even basic observations of our politics.
  3. There is something about US institutions that creates this remarkable two-party structure. Obviously, I think this is true, and have written about it incessantly for years.

(And yes, one could dive deeper into all of these things).

Now, even if we think we know why next comes an assessment of whether this is a good thing or not for American democracy and government.

Here’s what I know from looking at the rest of the world over a multi-decade timeframe (in some cases many, many decades): it appears that the overwhelming norm in representative democracies is multiple parties (really, something that was presaged by Madison in Federalist 10 when he said “Liberty is to faction, what are is to fire”), and yet the US has two and has only had two at any given moment in time.

Now, again, this might be a good thing. But, I ask, is it? I would note that we can’t pass budgets and we have a really hard time addressing policy problems as a general matter. American governance is not, I think it is fair to say, knocking it out of the park.

Beyond that, we have seen how easy it is, when there are only two choices, for one of those choices to be taken over by a fringe of the party.****

And since we look around the world and see different structures and behaviors, it is wholly reasonable, I would argue, they might suggest the value of making changes to our institutions.

And yes, it is hard.

And yes, other countries have problems too. The Israeli party system is too fragmented. The Italians have too many governments over time, etc. So, like with the US I would suggest that maybe they have some structural problems in their systems that need addressing and that they could learn some comparative lessons. And, of course, as with the US, some of their problems may be inherent to their societies.

Look, I am not saying that it is just an obvious slam-dunk to say that the rest of the world has one outcome and we have another, therefore we should change. But I do think that we see that difference and then can also see a string of pathologies in our own system (lack of competition, lack of representation of various groups and ideologies in government, lack of accountability, a terrible feedback loop, rigid partisan identities and so forth) then maybe when we see some aspects of American exceptionalism it may suggest that the rest of the world may have figured something out that we haven’t.

Put another way: if your country is unique in something, and it is demonstrable that that uniqueness is adding value to your country, then maybe others should emulate you. But, if your uniqueness is not adding value, then maybe you should think about emulating others. (This seems to me to be true about life in general).

To be clear: I am not saying that because other countries do X, that X is automagically better. I am saying that if a lot of other humans do X and we do Y, and if we find that Y has some problems, then maybe we should ask ourselves why we do Y and the rest of the world does X.

It is a wholly reasonable position.

At a minimum, I think that we have to think about the whole of the world as the basis for understanding politics, not just one country’s experience, even if it is a large and mostly prosperous one.

Here’s where I am: years of study have led me to a place (a place shared by many others who have studied the same issues) where America’s unique bipartism is one of several structural problems in our system that make democratic governance more difficult and therefore I try and illustrate these problems in the hope that, at a minimum, people will understand why we get the outcomes we get (and that, maybe, interest in actual reform will take hold).

But I do very much think that a comparative approach is best because it increases the number of observations into human behavior that can be made.

One concluding comment, in case this is not clear: I am not claiming here, nor have I claimed anywhere, that the number of parties is the only variable of significance when it comes to understanding American democracy and its outputs. It is, however, a key indicator of how other aspects of the representation function of our representative democracy is, or is not, functioning. Moreover, as I have tried to explain numerous times and in numerous ways, it is unhealthy to give voters just two choices. It is overly limiting and causes humans, who are already really good at rationalizing, an acute need to rationalize why their side is best. When there are only two real choices, it forces everyone to think, “My side is good and the other side is bad” and that can lead to a host of other pathologies (up to and including violence).

*A simple example: clearly we would expect a country divided in some way by ethnicity, language, religion, etc. to have different challenges than a monocultural case. Indeed, part of why comparative politics, as a discipline, includes area and case specialists is because such things matter.

**Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W.W. Norton.

***The quote is from a comparative politics textbook by Draper and Ramsay, The Good Society: An Introduction to Comparative Politics (2008) in the book’s intro on page xv. I have never been able to find the original source (indeed, left the quote out of ADD for this reason).

****Unlike, say, in Germany where the rightist nationalists (the Alternative for Germany) have been contained in their own space.

FILED UNDER: Comparative Democracies, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. gVOR08 says:

    The U. S. was not the first democracy, but did set a pattern for modern democracies. Which is to say everyone else was able to learn from our experience. We had considerable influence, if not control, over the writing of the post WWII German and Japanese constitutions. I have no idea what the state of constitutional scholarship was like at the time, but even we don’t seem to have wanted to impose a presidential system like ours.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Two big things–
    1) Unlike other western democracies, America had the problems of empire and colonialism within its original borders and had to deal with managing the rule of people who had no right to representation.

    2) The period between the Civil War and WW1 was filled with attempts by finance and industry to crush organized labor with state-sanctioned violence. In England, a labor party managed to form. In America, 1912 was the high point.

    Basically, the idea of parties managing various interests triumphed over having parties organized around an interest. Had a separate labor party formed the situation would have been much different.

  3. @gVOR08: As you basically note, it is intriguing to note that while the US had a considerable hand in imposing both the German and Japanese constitutions, we did not simply overall the US system, not by a longshot. Both are parliamentary in basic structure and neither used FPTP electoral systems.

  4. @Modulo Myself: I am not sure that any of that really has any bearing on the argument in my post, however.

    But without any doubt, the lack of a labor-oriented party is an important element of American political development. Although the New Deal Democrats were close.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08: Didn’t Japan have effectively one party for decades?

  6. @MarkedMan: Japanese elections (and therefore its government) by one party for much of its post-war existence, yes. At least in part, this was the result of their usage of SNTV (the single nontransferable vote). Partly it was simply that they had dominant levels of support. Japan changed to MMM (mixed-member majoritarian) in the 1990s (I would have to go bak and look to get specifics). Interestingly, at least as it pertains to this conversation, even when the the LDP dominated the governement, there were more parties operating in Japan in terms of winning votes and seats than in the US.