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Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop

Bob Zadek
21 min readFeb 6, 2020


So far the Iowa Caucus Disaster has been compared to…

  • A carcass
  • A dumpster fire, and my personal favorite
  • A water-damaged phone whose owner is trying to reboot it with the questionable rice hack.

Thankfully, this one hasn’t been blamed on the Russians. But there’s a growing anxiety that our democracy has deep problems.

Forget the Iowa Caucus — could the real problem be two-party democracy? Is it time break the duopoly, or as my next guest, Lee Drutman, calls it, the “Two-Party Doom Loop”?

A healthier system might grant far-left voters some representation without forcing the Democratic Party to sacrifice Bernie Sanders — one of their most popular figure-heads — on the altar of winner-takes-all electability.

Drutman notes that whatever the reason for Tuesday’s chaos, it has come at a bad time for American democracy. We are living in one of the most polarized political environments in our history. In his new book,Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, Drutman traces our evolution from what was basically a multi-party system (including conservative southern Democrats and liberal coastal Republicans) to a true two party system.

This has made compromise nearly impossible and raised the stakes of our elections.

Lee, a senior Fellow, Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation and writer for Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and the New York Times, joined me live to discuss the way out of the vicious cycle of polarization we’re in.

BUY THE BOOK: Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America


Bob Zadek: Perhaps one of the more accurate ways to characterize life in the United States is that our free and open society has given us all lots and lots of choices. We have enormous choices in variety of where to live, how to entertain ourselves, how to spend our money, what kind of clothes to wear and on and on and on. All of the important aspects of life.

We are provided with lots of choices except one, perhaps the most important one: our governmental system. Have you ever wondered why in a country that prides itself that thrives on honoring the freedom of all Americans to do as they wish so long as they don’t harm another, we are given so much freedom except in politics?

We are limited to two political parties. Well, yes, of course, there are other political parties, but as we all know, the structure of political life in America is such that there is very little — close to no hope — that any political party other than the democratic or the Republican body will ever be able to influence life in America. Have you ever wondered how we got here or who said we are to be limited to two bodies? The irony is nobody said it. Well then it must be the law. Nope, it’s not the law. It just is.

Can anybody believe that limiting choice in who governs us? Limiting choice to just two political parties is healthy for America? Nobody, yet the system is almost impossible to change.

This morning I am proud to welcome the show Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the reform program at New America Foundation think tank.

He has just written an important book called Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: the Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America. Finally, a scholar has chosen to identify that the two party system, that total absence of choice, as an important issue. It is my hope that Lee’s book will start a discussion in America that will lead to redirecting us from the doom that Lee fears into a multi-party system, a system which most of the rest of democratic world has. Lee, welcome to the show this morning.

Lee Drutman: Great to be with you Bob. I’m excited to talk about this book.

Background: A History of the Two Party System

Bob Zadek: Now, Lee, give us some background, how did we get to the two-party system. It’s not done by statute. It certainly is not in any of our founding documents. It was an anathema to the founding generation. So here we have a system that nobody can really defend except the very few in power in the two political parties who benefit. So only those small beneficiaries can defend it. So tell us, how did we get here?

Lee Drutman: Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start. We’ll start with the framers, who were doing something that was quite radical at the time by writing a constitution to set up a system of self-governance. And they were quite concerned about political parties. They thought that if you had political parties the country might well split in half and become ungovernable. So they set up a system of governance that would decentralize power — a bicameral legislature plus an executive branch plus the judicial branch plus federalism. The idea was that it would make it very difficult for political parties to form.

The other thing that they did without any debate or discussion was that they basically carried forth the tradition of plurality voting, which was a 1430 British countryside innovation.

Whoever gets the most votes wins. That turns out to be the voting system that is most likely to generate just two parties because if only one winner can emerge, then third parties become spoilers and all the energy goes to the top two parties.

I think had they understood what they were doing at the time, they might’ve thought differently about it, but they thought that they were going to make political parties obsolete through this decentralized political system. Now, in many respects, the system succeeded for about 200 years. We had just two political parties for most of our history, but those two parties were really these broad overlapping coalitions that didn’t really stand for much. In fact, throughout most of American political history, the critique was not that the two parties were too far apart.

It was that they were too similar.

Now, to your first point, it is certainly the case that Americans didn’t really have much meaningful choice. In fact, they even had less meaningful choice. It was harder to know what the parties actually stood for. But it sort of worked with our system of governing, which requires this broad coalition building and broad compromise. And so it kept the American political system broadly stable. Well, now we have a new and distinct period in American political history — a genuine two party system that has no overlap and really stands for very different visions of America. And they are both roughly equally represented in Washington. So that every election is basically a tossup in which power is up for grabs.

This is a very dangerous situation for our democracy because it raises the stakes of every election to this impossibly high point in which everything becomes emotional to the extreme.

It has also created a set of bizarre incentives in which both parties are in a position where they want to have this narrow but elusive majority. So it means that they are demonizing the other side to the extreme and whichever party is not the majority party is refusing to compromise, which makes it impossible to get anything done in Washington. So we have this extended gridlock in which nothing can happen and no public policy can be made, with these occasional moments of unification in which state policy moves in a very extreme direction one way or the other. We have an electorate that is going crazy and we have no resolution in sight.

This whole process is what I call a “doom loop” because it is continuing to escalate and escalate to the point where we’re losing a sense of shared fairness — a sense of legitimacy. And that’s what democracy depends upon.

We have to acknowledge that we have disagreements, but that we have a fair way to resolve those disagreements, and that is rapidly disappearing. I’m very worried about a legitimacy crisis in the 2020 election. The breakdown of the foundation of our democracy and the two party system is responsible for that.

This a new development — in having two distinct parties, but there is no going back. We are in an upward ratchet, a feedback loop, a doom loop.

The only way to break out of that doom loop is to change that electoral system that the framers accorded unthinkingly and to reform the way we vote and join most of the rest of the advanced democracy world and have a form of proportional representation in which multiple parties can get representation and voters can have more choices and everything no longer has to be this zero sum all or nothing winner take all high stakes emotional battle that is driving us all crazy.

Bob Zadek: We’ll get to an important part of your book, which is the solutions, but I’d like to offer to you and our listeners two observations about the two-party system. First, when I was growing up, I went to summer camp and the highlight, at least for me was the color war. In the color war, which was towards the end of the eight week summer camp season, the entire camp from the kindergarteners through the counselors, was divided totally at random into the green team and the white team. You ate together, you sat together and there was competition athletic competition, singing competition and the like, to see who won the most events and you kept score and that was it. That was the highlight. The point I’m making is when we were divided up, instantly everybody on the green team kind of didn’t like those on the white team.

They became instant enemies for a short period of time. Not that it was anything mean spirited, it’s just they were on the other team. It was totally random, but it caused this polarization in a wonderful experience. I mean it was positive in the competition, but it was totally random. That’s what politics feels like today. Now as to the randomness, the second observation is that on prior shows I have analogized or labeled the political parties as nothing other than marketing cooperatives. They are a group of disparate people with different beliefs who get together in a cooperative. Because if they work together, even though their beliefs are not aligned, they will get the Holy Grail that is elected office. An example of that is the democratic party. In the democratic party, minorities in general, blacks in particular, are an important component.

They vote overwhelmingly democratic. Even though many aspects of traditional democratic politics such as the importance for public education and eliminating school choice is harmful to many members of the inner city, especially the black community. And we can go on and on and on. So here we have the Democratic Party and the same can be said of the Republicans, which take positions that are harmful to some of the members, but they suck it up for the goal of getting elected. So the two party system forces people to align with others who they wouldn’t otherwise align with. Nobody has to hang out with people or be aligned with people they don’t agree with. Every type of political belief has a home in a multi-party system. So Americans are forced to make an absurd choice of supporting a party they might not agree with for 40% of the time because they disagree with the other party 45% of the time.

That’s not the way political life should be in America. So Lee, how much do you think this is the result of the polarization, the two party system? Because you identify it as sort of really occurring somewhat recently. I think you identify 2010 is when it really got baked in. After you explained the significance of the 2010 election, how much of that is a function of external events such as social media, and the breakdown of mass media into a lot of components and nonpolitical factors, so that the baking in of the two party system was external and not political?

Lee Drutman: Let’s start with the color war point, which I think is a very important point. What your summer camp did is it replicated a well known psychological experiment called the “minimal group paradigm,” which has been done many times, in which researchers put people into two arbitrary groups and turns out that they start to really dislike each other when they’re set into two groups. But interestingly, when you put people into three or more groups, people don’t hate each other as much. It’s just something about this binary condition that seems to really drive people against each other. Good versus evil, black versus white. Something in our brain appears to have this kind of us versus them switch that gets turned on and turns us against each other. But it only gets turned on when there’s just two groups.

Now, to your point about the parties being these motley coalitions in which people make compromises in order to support one party or the other. There are a couple important points there. One is that the parties actually are more diverse than they sometimes appear to us because we only see them at their very top level, and the political figures who represent them in Washington. This is important and I think one of the reasons why we would be better off as a multi-party system because I think there is much more diversity in this country than gets represented in a fight between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump.

However, this diversity within both parties, which are still somewhat big tent parties, creates a real challenge for the party leaders. How do you keep all these folks happy and aligned with your side? And the way you do that is by reminding your voters that the other side is even worse. You see this on both sides. You see Democrats obsessing about Trump and turning Trump into the devil. But you saw that with Republicans and Obama.

The way to unify a party is to find a common enemy. This is why you see so much negative partisanship in American politics and so much lesser of two evils-rhetoric. You might not love our side, but the other side they would destroy the country.

This turbocharges that “us versus them” “green versus white,” “red versus blue” thinking, and it really drives us all crazy and makes compromise impossible.

I think politics is all about compromising and nobody gets everything that they want. And you know, politics is about building coalitions and about making tradeoffs. But I think the, the question and the real difference between a multi-party system and a two party system is when those coalitions and compromises form. Do they form before the election, which is the case in the two party system or do they form after the election, which is often the case in a multiparty system, in which you have some form of coalition government. I think it’s much better for them to form after the election because if they formed before the election, voters can’t send clear signals to what it is that they want most.

They have to make an awful lot of tradeoffs before the election, whereas after the election, parties can say, look, here’s how much support we have for this set of positions and then bargaining can occur based on that. I think it’s important to recognize that compromise and coalition building are inherent in politics. But the two-party system actually makes it much harder to be a part of governance. They make them part of pre-election campaigns and both sides get locked in and they get turned against the other side. And that’s when the real danger to self-governance happens. The other question that you raise is the question of how we got here, which is a big part of my book.

2010: Solidification of the Two-Party Animosity

Lee Drutman: You talked about social media and media fragmentation and other external causes. I actually don’t put that much stock in those explanations. I think that a lot of the change is a function of the nationalization of politics and the long realignment of the parties post civil rights in which the democratic party became the party of cultural liberalism and the Republican party became the party of cultural conservatism. That was a long process that really I think hit its culmination in 2010. It started in the 90s with the cultural war politics to really reach a level of saliency.

For decades prior to that you had a long period of divided government, which had its problems, but there was a sense that the Democrats were going to always be the party that was representing the House of Representatives and the Republicans were gong to win the Presidency most of the time. So both parties were able to work together because they weren’t trying to win this narrow majority. The other thing in that period from the mid-sixties, really up to about 1992 was that you had within the two-party system a multi-party system. You had liberal Republicans who were a little bit more libertarian particularly on the social issues. You had conservative Democrats who were a little bit more populist. On any given issue you could build a different coalition.

So things didn’t break down into this binary condition. However, liberal Republicans began to go extinct. Conservative Democrats began to go extinct, and that process played out in the 90s and the 2000s. And by 2010, it was completed so that we were left with really just two parties, conservative, Republican and liberal Democrats and everybody else was forced to either get on board with one of those two parties, or just throw up their hands and say, nobody represents me, our political system is broken and I don’t have a vote.

Bob Zadek: You make two important points. When I made reference to compromise and you pointed out the difference was whether a compromise was pre-election or post election, that’s an important correction to make. And I was without realizing it, referring to the absence of compromise post-election. The other point is that when you pointed out that there were parties within parties, I can remember there were the blue-dog Democrats who were Democrats who from the South who often voted with Republicans on certain issues. The point being, I think that’s a reflection of those days in the last half of the 20th century, there was less control by party leadership of how members of the house voted and they were given more latitude.

Southern Democrats, who had longevity and therefore they were committee chairs, could vote the way they wanted — very differently from Northern Democrats, and still survive within the party. I think that’s an important difference. Right now there is this lock step voting because as you said, politics became very nationalized, which means I think that leadership in the House had very rigid control over the membership through a lot of institutional tools which they had. Therefore, disagreement within the party post-election really didn’t happen that much.

Reforming the Two-Party System Process

Bob Zadek: We have a free market system more or less, but we are sensitive to distortions in it, and we have a body of law called antitrust law, which prevents the establishment of monopoly power. We don’t like it when institutions with governmental help establish a monopolistic system which imposes its will upon the public. So we abhor accumulation of power. Yet in the most important area, which is the exercise of our political rights, we tolerate both our monopolistic power in the two party system and the accumulation of enormous power in the two party system such as who establishes the rules for the national debates and who gets on ballot access, etc.

All of those important political rules are decided by those in power, the two party system. So we have a system that we should, one would think, naturally abhor, and yet we tolerate it. In your book you offer some suggestions about how to undo the two party system. Given that it has now through the tools that I’ve mentioned baked itself into the system, it is very hard to change. Give us some idea of what a different system might look like and give us some idea how listeners who right now presumably are worked up over the two party system, might they participate in the change?

Lee Drutman: Let’s start with some alternatives to understand what things could look like.

This weekend Ireland is holding elections. Ireland is a democracy. It has had a system of multi-winner rank choice voting for almost 200 years. There are two concepts in there, multi-winner and rank choice voting. Now folks may be familiar with rank choice voting because it is a system that is actually used in several cities in the Bay Area — San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley — and it’s a system in which rather than having just one candidate, you can rank your candidates in order of preference. That means that if you want to support a Libertarian candidate, you can support a Libertarian candidate first. And then if that candidate gets eliminated because he or she doesn’t have enough support in the first preferences, your vote gets transferred to a backup choice.

So you get to vote your heart and then you get your vote to actually matter. This would certainly help third parties get a foothold. In most cases, places in the U.S., including in the Bay Area, rank choice voting is used for single-winner elections, which means that the votes are re-tabulated until a majority winner emerges. That’s better than the plurality system that we have. It is also a system that is used in Australia and a few other countries around the world. Ireland has a multi-winner version of rank-choice voting in which rather than representing a single district, legislators who go to their parliament come from multi-winner districts, typically about three to five members. And that creates a form of proportional representation and a multi-party democracy in which you don’t have to get 50% or a plurality of the votes to win.

You can win with a 17%, in a given district if you have a five-member district. The fundamental principle of proportional representation is that parties should be represented in a legislature in proportion to their popularity and the electorate. So if the libertarian party were 15% of the electorate the libertarian party could get 15% of the seats in the state legislature. Now that’s not the system that we have. We have this antiquated system that most of the world has left behind long ago. We have plurality, single winner elections.I think we could decide that we want to leave it behind. When it comes to voting, we are stuck with a very antiquated technology.

Now, what could folks do about it? California has an initiative process and if folks wanted to get involved in a campaign to change California to a proportional system for its state legislature, I think that would be a wonderful idea, as well as bringing it to local municipalities as a proof of concept. So I think there are plenty of rooms for activism. I mean, you are certainly right, change is probably not going to come out of Washington, although I’d note that there is a bill called the fair representation act that as a few co-sponsors including I believe for O’Connor who’s a Congressman from the Bay Area that would create the system for the entire country. It would start in States like California, which have innovators in political reform. I think there is tremendous opportunity there.

California’s Voting Process: A Success?

Bob Zadek: Now in the Bay Area where it has been in effect for awhile, are voters aware of it? Are those voters feeling more enfranchised than voters in other parts of the country? And if yes to the second question, why isn’t this sweeping the country like wildfire at least initially in local elections?

Lee Drutman: It is starting to gain tremendous momentum. Maine has become the first state in the country to use it statewide for its federal elections. There are more and more cities that are adopting rank choice voting. New York City just became the largest city to pass a citywide initiative to bring rank choice voting. So it certainly is catching on.

I think are a lot of folks who are now understanding that the problem with our politics is that we have an electoral system that makes it very hard for third parties to compete. Now, at the city level, most cities are pretty much one party dominant or nonpartisan. So it doesn’t have quite the same effect as it would have as a state or national level, although it has led to campaigning that is a little more civil and, and cooperative. Voters tend to tend to like it once they get used to it because it allows them to express the full range of preferences rather than having to just pick one candidate. So I think it is catching on and I think as we understand how much of an existential danger the two party system is to our continued to experiment in self-governance, I think we will see even more attention and organizing effort behind electoral reform.

Changes to the House of Representatives

Bob Zadek: In the House, which really is I think where the change would be felt the most under your system, each district would send not one member to Congress, but three members, which would mean the population in the House of Representatives would increase dramatically — from 435 to some other number. If I’m not mistaken, the founders originally envisioned a representative representing 40,000 Americans. If we had that system today, we’d have a couple of thousand members in the House. So in reality, by increasing the number of voters that are represented represented by one member of the house, we are really diluting the importance of one vote. Wouldn’t the system you discuss in your book result in a much larger member or membership in the House?

Lee Drutman: There are two ways you could do that. You could combine five existing districts into one. So for example, California has about 50 members of Congress. Instead of having 50 districts, you could have 10 five-member districts, which means you might actually be able to elect a Libertarian from the Bay area. Now you could also make the House larger — I recommend increasing the House to about 700 members in the book, although I certainly would be open to something even bigger.

Although, just as a matter of practicality, I’m already talking about some pretty radical changes here. On the original vision for the House, the 1789 vintage of the House at 65 members each, representing 30,000 constituents, Madison proposed an apportionment amendment in which he proposed that for the first hundred members there would be 30,000 constituents. For up to 200 members, 40,000 constituents. And then over 200, we would have 50,000 constituents. Now, today it’s 765,000 constituents per representative. So it went a lot higher.

For a good portion of American history, the house actually did continue to increase its size with each census as the country grew bigger. So it went from 65 members to the 435 we know today. That was in 1911. The country has almost quadrupled in size and population since 1911 and the size of the house has stayed the same. So I think if we want to have a house which is better set up to represent the diversity of the American people, and contains members who are closer to the people, think a bigger house is a great idea and I think it pairs quite nicely with a vision of a multi-party democracy.

Bob Zadek: After 1911, we stopped increasing the house. Was that by decision or nobody knows why, because continually increasing the membership in the house seems healthy because it gives the vote more value. It values each voter more so than not increasing the number of the house. So was there a conscious decision or was it practical? There was no more room for chairs?

Lee Drutman: Some people thought that 435 was enough. A lot of that impasse came from the fact that there were a lot of fights over how to apportion the new seats. Nobody could agree on that. And eventually the forces of the status quo prevailed. There was a concern by some of the more conservative rural members of the house that their power would be weakened if we continued to increase the size of the house.

Bob Zadek: So it wasn’t random. There was a calculation about not giving these voting citizens any more power than they have. They have too much already kind of mentality. Oh my goodness. Well that’s painful to hear.

Voter Impressions of Democracy

Bob Zadek: To the average voter who, let’s say typically will agree with some of your party’s positions and disagree with others — how would a voter in multiparty democracies experience a difference in how they vote and who they voted for?

Lee Drutman: Well, in multiparty democracies voters tend to feel better about the system of democracy because they’re more likely to find a party that represents them a little better. I think there might be a libertarian party in the U.S. If we had a multiparty system. It might be a 10–12% party. In most multi-party systems, there are parties that are classically liberal, who want restrained government spending, but supportive of immigration and giving people freedom to express themselves in their private lives. I think you would more likely see a party like that.

Bob Zadek: In the enlarged House there would probably be, as Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist, there would be Democratic Socialists, and Green, and Independent, and Constitutional Party, and Libertarian, and Labor Party, etc. So if you were in a minority in what you believed, you would at least have a seat at the table. You wouldn’t have dominance, but you would feel represented. And most of the country I fear feels like a nobody in Washington or in state houses represent them. Wouldn’t that be healthier in that even if you didn’t, your beliefs didn’t carry the day, you would have a seat at the table? Isn’t that a laudable goal in itself?

Lee Drutman: I absolutely agree. And if you look at polling about two thirds of Americans say that there should be more than two parties. So certainly the people want that. I think another important part of a proportional system, like the one I’m describing, is that your vote matters no matter where you live. You don’t have to live in a swing state or a swing district in order for your vote to count. So if you live in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley or many parts of the day area, you are in a blue district and a blue state and your vote is totally irrelevant. Parties don’t care about it. Nobody’s campaigning for your vote. Nobody values your vote. In a proportional system, your vote matters no matter where you live.

People complain about the low turnout rate in the U.S., well, people are not dumb and they know that in most places it doesn’t matter and they don’t have choices they are excited about. If we moved to a proportional system, voter turnout would shoot up in this country.


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