Why a Multi-Party Congress Would Not Revitalize American Democracy
American politics, we all know, has reached a dangerous inflection point. Indeed, the disturbing contemporary realities have become so commonly discussed that they hardly need to be restated (but I’ll do so anyway): decades of gridlock and dysfunction have resulted in exceptionally high levels of frustration and distrust in government among the general public. The country’s political parties, once just ideological adversaries, have transformed into warring tribes whose members view the other side as a genuine threat to the nation’s well-being. The norm-breaking presidency of Donald Trump, culminating in the attack on the Capitol on January 6th of last year, seems to presage an unstable, potentially violent future. The possibility that American democracy will collapse, once considered laughable, is now taken seriously in the pages of the country’s most important publications.
In response to the critical condition facing the U.S., political thinkers have proposed a wide array of reforms to create a healthier, more functional American democracy. Inside Congress, the focus has been on bills like the Freedom to Vote Act that seek to secure voting rights and ban partisan gerrymandering. But many observers feel that such changes will not be enough to cure what ails America. According to these observers, while protecting the right to vote and ensuring fairer district boundaries may be laudable goals, they do not address the core disease infecting American politics: the rise of a corrosive binary partisanship that increasingly causes Americans to view their political opponents as mortal enemies and justifies extreme, antidemocratic measures to prevent the other side from taking power. Ending the binary nature of modern American politics, these observers say, is necessary to make American democracy healthy again, and doing so will require truly transformational reforms, most importantly changes to America’s electoral system aimed at turning the U.S. Congress into a multi-party legislature.
The proponents of multipartyism have a point. America’s two-party system does have the tendency to funnel political conflict into just two poles, and in 21st-century America at least, it has indeed instantiated in two highly polarized tribes. But if breaking up the two-party system seems like the obvious cure to this malady, one has to ask — before delivering the antidote — if the supposed cure will be worse than the disease. For there is the possibility that party-based tribalism is more of a superficial symptom than the root cause of America’s current malaise, and that imposing a multi-party system on the American structure of government would — while treating the symptom effectively — make the patient worse in a more fundamental way.
In this article, I argue that grafting a multi-party system onto America’s national institutions would exacerbate a core problem facing modern American government: institutional gridlock and political paralysis. Unlike in the European countries where it is commonplace, multipartyism in the American national government would need to coexist with a particularly strong form of legislative bicameralism and — more important — separated legislative and executive branches. These institutional arrangements were, for better or worse, intentionally designed to create a fragmented political system; having more than two parties would fragment the system even more. And doing so runs the serious risk of amplifying the very features of American government that Americans most dislike, leading to an even more pronounced crisis from which in-regime reform could prove impossible.
Is Toxic Partisanship or Institutional Fragmentation More to Blame for America’s Political Crisis?
According to Lee Drutman, perhaps America’s foremost intellectual proponent of multipartyism, the core problem facing modern American politics is that it has become binary. In Drutman’s telling, American politics during the mid-20th century featured a range of cross-cutting conflicts and salient group identities. Though the U.S. had a two-party system then as it does now, regional variations within both parties ensured that the multiple lines of division within American society were not absorbed into a single, two-party dimension. But as American politics nationalized in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, intraparty regional differences disappeared and political conflict in the U.S. was increasingly organized along a single, Democrat-versus-Republican axis. Individuals (both political elites and, eventually, many ordinary Americans) responded by prioritizing their partisan identities above all other group memberships. Thus, in today’s America, the political parties constitute what political scientist Liliana Mason calls “mega-identities”: paramount affiliations whose unity increasingly derives less from shared policy preferences than from antipathy toward the other side. This new condition, Drutman argues, is what is behind the combustible reality of contemporary American politics. And the only way to change it, his argument proceeds, is to undermine the structural factors contributing to America’s two-party system. Given the elementary political science axiom (known as “Duverger’s Law”) that single-member, first-past-the-post elections produce two political parties, Drutman proposes ditching this electoral system in favor of multimember districts with proportional representation for U.S. House elections and ranked-choice voting for U.S. Senate elections. These changes, he believes, will foster an environment in which several new parties will emerge in Congress, thereby making American politics multi-dimensional again.
But is the binary nature of modern American politics really what is at the heart of current crisis? Much literature from the past several decades suggests a somewhat different core cause, one that is rooted more in the basic structure of American government than in its electoral system. According to this literature, the fragmented institutional arrangements set up by the Constitution — most especially the separation of the legislative and executive powers into different departments, but also the division of the legislature into two nearly coequal chambers — make changing national policy an inherently difficult feat in the United States. On top of this underlying reality, a variety of modern trends — including not just party polarization but also the rise of a dense network of interest groups in Washington, D.C. — have coalesced to create a political system defined by policy rigidity and stasis, or what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has called a “vetocracy.” Frustration with a political system seemingly rigged to reward entrenched insiders and forestall much-needed policy change has led to feelings of widespread alienation and distrust in government among the American people. The legal scholar Stephen Griffin argues that public distrust in government has spawned a vicious cycle in which Americans increasingly support anti-system politicians and institution-weakening reforms, but these politicians and reforms only further undermine effective governance in the U.S., leading to even greater distrust and a more destabilized system over time.
It is difficult to determine which of these accounts of America’s political crisis has greater causal power because, in many regards, the two are interconnected. For example, as already noted, political dysfunction and policy rigidity, while ultimately owing to deeper structural factors, have clearly been exacerbated by party polarization. Likewise, there is a more hidden but equally significant link between increasing levels of political distrust and the rise of angry partisanship among ordinary Americans (the populist takeover of the Republican Party, and the increasingly bitter antipathy of GOP voters toward liberal elites, highlights the connection between the two). A plausible argument could be made that the fragmentation-based account, focusing as it does on America’s constitutional foundations, reveals the deepest problems facing the American polity. But proponents of the partisanship-based account might counter that the American constitutional order functioned relatively well for much of American history, so focusing only on constitutional structures is clearly insufficient to explain modern circumstances. Granting that both political fragmentation and toxic partisanship are contributing to America’s political difficulties in complex ways, we should seek solutions to our current political conundrum that do not exacerbate either of these problematic features of our political system.
Combining Multipartyism with Presidentialism: Findings from Abroad
This brings us to the proposals (by Drutman and others) to change how our federal elections work with the goal of facilitating the emergence of multiple political parties inside the U.S. Congress. Such proposals seek to solve the partisanship problem by introducing an additional element of fragmentation (i.e., a multi-party system) into our already-fragmented governing institutions. To get a sense of what could happen if we did so, we should examine the experiences of other countries that have combined multipartyism with a system of separated legislative and executive powers (what political scientists usually call “presidentialism”).
We won’t find those examples among the countries most often compared to America: the advanced democracies of western Europe. With the exception of France, those countries are all parliamentary democracies, i.e., systems in which the legislative and executive branches are fused together. Because parliamentary governments feature fewer internal roadblocks to the passage of normal legislation than presidential systems do, multipartyism can take root within them without overcomplicating the policymaking process to such an extent that gridlock and paralysis are likely to result. But even in parliamentary governments, paralysis can ensue if the number of parties becomes too large, as the recent examples of the Belgium and Israel make clear.
Rather than the countries of western Europe, it is the newer democracies of Latin America and other parts of the developing world that can offer Americans some clues about what might await the U.S. if it were to graft a multi-party system onto its presidential structure of government. Since they democratized in the 1980s, countries like Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Uruguay have featured the combination of multipartyism and presidentialism in various forms, and political scientists have been closely examining how well it has been working ever since. And while scholars of “multi-party presidentialism” (or “coalitional presidentialism”, as it also sometimes called) are not uniformly critical of the arrangement, their findings collectively provide little evidence that it could produce the sort of democratic revitalization envisioned by Drutman and others if it were adopted in the United States.
There are several key areas of consensus among the studies of multi-party presidentialism in Latin America and elsewhere over the past several decades. The first is that the success of multi-party presidentialism depends much more on the powers and political skills of presidents than on the creativity of legislators. This makes sense: where parliaments are fragmented across multiple parties along with being (in many cases) divided between two chambers, the onus will fall on presidents — the only unitary actors around — to build the coalitions necessary to overcome the various political and institutional barriers within the system and make it produce something. As Carlos Pereira and Marcus Andrew Melo (scholars who have defended multi-party presidentialism from critics) concede, multi-party presidential systems “require strong presidents in order to generate effective governance.”
How, then, do presidents governing alongside multi-party legislatures pump energy into the lawmaking process? In a 2018 book, the political scientists Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy J. Power describe the “toolkit” available to presidents as they seek to build and maintain coalitions in multi-party legislative bodies. Importantly, many of the tools the authors delineate are not available to American presidents, who are constitutionally weaker than the presidents of other countries. For example, in many Latin American countries, presidents enjoy a wide range of legislative powers — including the power to initiate legislation, issue partial (or “line-item”) vetoes, and propose popular referenda, among others — which they deploy to organize national parliaments around their agendas. But in the U.S., presidents have no formal role in the legislative process until after Congress has passed a bill, so they cannot assert themselves in Congress’s business in the same way. Similarly, in other countries, presidents enjoy enhanced control over the distribution of national government spending, allowing them to dole out “goods” to various constituencies to secure the support of minor parties in the legislature. But in the U.S., the spending power is tightly controlled by Congress, so once again this “tool” is off-limits for American presidents.
Even with their substantial powers, presidents of other countries have often found that the tools at their disposal have not been sufficient to grease the legislative wheels inside multi-party parliaments. Thus, they have had to resort to far more reprehensible ways of promoting their agendas, going beyond garden-variety pork and patronage to outright graft and large-scale corruption. The scholars Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor argue that many of Brazil’s massive corruption scandals — including Operation Car Wash, the “largest corruption scandal ever to beset a democratic nation,” which led to the collapse of the Brazilian Workers Party and the eventual rise of far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro — have been products of the efforts of Brazilian presidents to advance their agendas in the country’s highly fragmented parliament.
How Would Multi-Party Presidentialism Work in the U.S.?
Based on the insights of the studies described above, we can make some educated guesses about what implementing a durable multi-party presidential system in the U.S. would entail, as well as the likelihood that such an arrangement would lead to a functional, healthier American democracy.
To begin with, it seems very likely that a multi-party system in the American national government could only be sustained amid an even stronger presidency — and a more marginalized Congress — than we have today. Those who are anxious about the growth of presidential power over the past half-century will no doubt be discomfited by this conclusion, but one cannot turn away from the evidence supporting it from around the globe. Indeed, there does not appear to be an example — anywhere in the world — of a multi-party presidential system in which the legislative branch is the institutional center of gravity. In parliamentary governments, multi-party legislatures can be vigorous and vital because the primary source of governmental energy — the executive branch — is simultaneously a part of the legislature and (due to the installment of legislators from different parties as members of the executive cabinet) is often itself composed of multiple parties. But in presidential governments, the executive stands outside the legislature, and given a context of legislative fragmentation, legislators will inevitably look to the executive to assist in organizing the legislature around a clear policy agenda.
In his thoughtful book, Drutman argues that the modern growth of presidential power in the U.S. is at least partly a result of Congress’s abdication of its constitutional authority, a phenomenon he blames on party polarization. In Drutman’s telling, as the congressional parties polarized in the late-20th century, power accumulated in the hands of congressional party leaders and the decentralized, committee-based system through which Congress did much of its work in the early and mid-20th century became obsolete. With the decline of congressional committees, Congress lost much of its institutional capacity, causing the executive branch to step into the breach and assume many of Congress’s responsibilities. A multi-party Congress, Drutman reasons, would reverse this trend: in a less polarized political environment, Congress could reinvigorate its committee system and thereby reclaim its rightful position as the primary policymaking branch.
Unfortunately, all the examples of multi-party presidentialism that we have strongly suggest that it would not work that way. A multi-party U.S. Congress might not be as polarized as it is today, but it would still be divided between two chambers with very different compositional bases, and each chamber (but especially the House) would likely be fractured along several partisan lines. Presidents would almost inevitably attempt to take advantage of the leadership vacuum created by this fragmented environment and orient Congress’s affairs around their policy goals and ambitions. Here, it is crucial to emphasize that the growth of executive power in modern times is by no means a phenomenon unique to the U.S. As Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule point out, it is evident to varying degrees across nearly all advanced democracies, including parliamentary ones. The rise of complex bureaucratic government — what political scientists call “the administrative state” — has given the executive branch various inherent advantages over the legislature, and presidents and prime ministers around the world have used these advantages to grow their own influence and sideline legislative bodies. There does not appear to be anything on the horizon that can reverse this decades-long global trend.
Given the necessarily outsized role of the executive branch in the modern administrative state, it seems unrealistic to think that any modern national government can be centered around the deliberations of its legislative branch. Instead, the best we can hope for is a national legislature that is strong enough to periodically assert its will and preserve various checks on the executive, something that can be accomplished either under a parliamentary system (in which the executive is drawn from within the legislature and depends on legislative support for survival) or a two-party presidential system (in which the legislature can be sufficiently unified to stand up to the executive when it is controlled by the opposite party). In a multi-party presidential system, on the other hand, the ingredients necessary for a robust legislative response to executive overreach are far more likely to be absent. When such systems last, therefore, they almost always feature a dominant executive branch.
Some might respond that the benefits are worth the costs, i.e., that having more than two options in congressional elections and a more multidimensional politics inside Congress is desirable even if it leads to a stronger presidency. But that assumes that the introduction of multipartyism into the U.S. Congress would result in a functional, durable equilibrium. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that such an equilibrium would not emerge. As already noted, American presidents lack many of the tools that presidents in other countries have used to push their policy agendas through fragmented legislatures. Moreover, unlike the national parliaments of most countries, the U.S. Congress features two chambers with lawmaking powers that are nearly equal but whose seats are apportioned in very different ways. This raises the serious possibility that the introduction of new parties would exacerbate compositional differences between the House and Senate, making it even more difficult to pass laws than it is now. Imagine, for example, if the House featured a substantial percentage of lawmakers from urban coastal districts affiliating with a new Progressive Party while the Senate, with its well-known rural bias, featured a high percentage of members from an American First Party. Or, perhaps more likely, imagine a scenario wherein the House (elected by proportional representation) features multiple parties, but the Senate (which, under the U.S. Constitution, can only be selected via single-member elections) features just two. Under both these scenarios, the coordination problems involved in passing legislation would be vast, and a president with limited constitutional powers would have an exceptionally difficult time organizing coalitions to overcome them. The most probable outcome, therefore, would be even greater disorganization and paralysis in the national government, and even greater alienation and frustration among the American people. These circumstances would seem to make a democratic collapse even more likely than it is today.
If a Multi-Party Congress Isn’t the Solution, What Is?
Given the very real potential harms described above, transforming the U.S. Congress into a multi-party legislature is an exceptionally risky proposition, even if one believes that these are desperate times calling for desperate measures. Stated simply, the national institutions set up by the Constitution are just not well-suited to accommodate multiple political parties (some would argue that they are not particularly well-suited to accommodate just two parties either, but that is water under the bridge). We do not have a parliamentary system that could allow for a relatively efficient policymaking process amid a multi-party legislature, nor do we have a presidency with sufficient powers to form the legislative coalitions necessary to make multi-party presidentialism work. Given our existing institutional arrangements, it appears that preventing the national government from sinking into even greater levels of dysfunction requires having only two congressional parties.
Rather than running toward reforms that would further fragment national institutions, we should instead be seeking solutions that would permit the development of a more unified national government, one in which political actors are more rather than less capable of overcoming institutional barriers to policy change. There are a variety of reforms that could be made within our existing constitutional order to advance these goals. Abolishing the Senate filibuster is an obvious and relatively easy first step, and one that the vast majority of those in the reform community agree upon. Other reform proposals specifically target fragmentation within political parties, a recent phenomenon of major adverse consequence. The legal scholar Richard Pildes, who has written more about political fragmentation than anyone else, advocates changes in campaign finance law designed to encourage donors to send their dollars toward formal party organizations instead of interest groups or Super-PACs. Ray La Raja and Jonathan Rauch have advocated giving party leaders a greater say alongside primary election voters in the selection of party nominees for elective office. Such reforms would strengthen traditional party organizations, making it more likely that party caucuses would act as unified blocs in Congress, thereby facilitating a more functional policymaking process.
Proponents of a multi-party Congress will likely not be satisfied with such reforms, since they do not squarely address the phenomenon which they see as the largest threat to American democracy: the rise of strong binary partisanship. While they are probably wrong in their view that it is the largest threat, there is little doubt that it is a troubling and highly problematic feature of our modern politics. To the extent that addressing it requires adopting electoral reforms leading to a multi-party system, advocates would do well to focus on reforms aimed at facilitating the development of multipartyism at the state rather than the national level, at least at first. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, state governors often have greater formal powers than the American president, and it therefore stands to reason that governors may be more effective in dealing with multi-party legislatures than presidents would be in dealing with a multi-party Congress. Perhaps more importantly, state constitutions are much easier to amend than the U.S. Constitution, raising the possibility that state electoral reforms (such as proportional representation in state legislative elections) could be paired with constitutional changes to state government institutions that would make multipartyism more feasible. The most obvious such changes are reforms that would introduce parliamentary features into state governments. The acclaimed legal scholar Sandy Levinson has commented that it is unfortunate that the American states have not exploited their roles as “laboratories of democracy” to experiment with parliamentarism. Along these lines, the best way to introduce multipartyism to Americans would be to couple it with parliamentary or quasi-parliamentary government (as western European countries do) at the state level. If the state-level experiments are successful, multipartyism will spread to other states and a discussion will inevitably ensue about whether and how to incorporate it into our national institutions. If they are a failure, they will at least have occurred “without risk to the rest of the country,” as Justice Louis Brandeis observed in regard to the general consequences of state experimentation when he came up with the democratic laboratory metaphor.
Unlike such hypothetical state-level experimentation, however, the adoption of proportional representation for congressional elections would be a huge national risk. There is a good possibility that it would cause what little vitality remains in our national policymaking institutions to disappear, paving the way for an irreversible breakdown in our constitutional order. Let us not take this risk when other paths out of contemporary difficulties are available.