The Systemic Illusion of American Democracy

Why is the U.S. Political System Dominated by Two Political Parties? This is the first logical question that every American should ask immediately after they are potty trained. Conspiracy theories abound, but we don’t need conspiracy theories when the structure of the system itself is the cause of the problem. The answer to this question comes in two parts.

  • Plurality Voting Contributes to Electoral Dysfunction. At the congressional level, candidates in each district are selected by a plurality-based voting system, which means a candidate does not need a majority of their district’s votes to get elected; they only need more votes than any other single candidate. This seemingly mundane feature of the U.S. political system substantially contributes to the dysfunction at all levels within the system, which we will discuss in more detail later.
  • Winner-Take-All Congressional Seat Allocation Fuels Skyrocketing Campaign Financing. Seats in the U.S. Congress are allocated based on a “winner-take-all” system (a.k.a., “first-past-the-post” or “Single-Member District Plurality Voting”). This system artificially squeezes the field of political candidates into two big buckets (“Democrats” and “Republicans”) because the candidates know that any votes cast for a smaller party will be wasted since there can only be one winner for each district. In this context, only the candidates and parties with the most money can realistically win, which favors the largest parties and perpetuates their dominance.

Plurality Voting Creates an Illusion of Democracy Without Delivering Democratic Results. A plurality voting system creates an illusion of Democracy as the electorate goes through the motions of voting, but the basic mathematical result of most plurality-based elections does not actually deliver the democratic representation that voters think they’re getting. Instead, the candidates that win typically receive significantly less than 50% of the total votes. Let’s look at the following hypothetical election results to put this concept into perspective.

Election Results
Candidate A Candidate B Candidate C Candidate D Candidate E Candidate F Total
13% 19% 17% 21% 16% 14% 100%

Who won this election? Candidate D “won” because he had more votes than all the other candidates, but he only received 21% of the total voting population’s votes. Candidate D’s party “won” by receiving 100% of all the available seats from Candidate D’s district during this election. That means Candidate D goes to Washington to “represent” his district despite the fact that 79% of the voters in his district did not vote for him; and they may not have even voted for his party. Has democracy or representative government been achieved here? (Note: This is not a rare scenario; this type of scenario occurs in the United States during every election cycle.)

It’s Impossible to Achieve True Democracy with Plurality & Winner-Take-All Systems. You may sometimes hear brainwashed citizens and partisan political operatives say things like, “Sure, the U.S. political system is not perfect, but it prevents wackos and Hitlers from getting elected by keeping out all the riff-raff.” This is total nonsense. In fact, the reason virtually all industrialized nations today do not use plurality or winner-take-all voting systems is because it’s mathematically impossible to achieve anything close to meaningful Democracy with these systems.

The Destructive Impact of Plurality and Winner-Take-All Electoral Systems. These systems are decidedly undemocratic on many levels because they lead to fewer political parties, which means fewer voter choices; “tactical voting,” which creates artificial pressure to vote for the viable candidate (instead of the best-qualified candidate) to avoid losing political control of a district; more money flooding into elections; large numbers of wasted votes; gerrymandering to manipulate election results; far more temptations for political parties and their candidates to engage in election fraud; increased viciousness among candidate campaigns; less voter participation; widespread voter apathy; less responsive government officials; lower quality policymaking; less effective regulations; and a long list of associated problems.

Why Do We Have Plurality-Based Voting? Plurality voting was invented to solve a basic problem: voting gridlock. If the winner always needed a majority, then there would be chronic gridlock in the voting system because most elections that have more than two candidates or parties do not result in a majority victory for any particular candidate. Moreover, elections would not result in a clear legislative majority for any particular party, either, if the voting system itself did not distort electoral outcomes by squeezing all candidates into the two big buckets.

No Democratic Government Should Artificially Divide Its Citizens. That last point is important to understand: No legitimate, representative form of government should force or coerce any citizen population to artificially divide itself into two ideological buckets. The distribution of values and preferences throughout any large, free population will always be much more diverse than one or two parties could possibly represent. Yet, the electorate in the United States is artificially bifurcated during every election cycle into Republicans and Democrats because the toxic combination of plurality voting and winner-take-all congressional seat allocation distorts the entire U.S. electoral process.

Americans Feel Trapped. Imagine a country with only two restaurant brands: Pizza Glut and McDoogles. Both restaurants generally serve unhealthy food and neither of them are able to satisfy the full diversity of tastes within the population. None of the people would be happy staring at the same predictable menu options year after year for their entire lives. In fact, after a while, just looking at the same options over and over is likely to destroy their appetite and enthusiasm for going out to eat at all. Based on every major voter sentiment poll that I’ve seen in the past decade, this is the essential reality experienced by the majority of Americans who feel trapped by the two-party-dominated U.S. political system today.

The Solution: Proportional Representation. Unlike the U.S., nearly 75% of all democratic nations on Earth today have implemented Proportional Representation (PR) electoral systems and nearly 85% of the G20 have PR systems. PR is not the same as the “apportionment” concept that most American students learn in their school civics classes. The difference is huge: It doesn’t matter if your state is “apportioned” two senators and 30 representatives if none of them actually represent your interests because they are all squeezed into an ideological box called the “Democrats” or the “Republicans”. The solution to this particular problem is Proportional Representation, which allocates seats in Congress to governing coalitions (generally defined as “parties,” but they don’t necessarily need to be formal political parties) based on the number of votes that each party receives during every election.

America’s Future Depends on Meaningful Choices. The United States suffers from many domestic and foreign policy problems today. There are viable solutions available for all these problems, but until and unless the American people are given meaningful choices at the ballot box, they will continue suffering from the same heart burn-inducing menu options during every election cycle for the rest of their lives. Only with meaningful choices will America’s political leaders be held accountable for their performance in government; and only through meaningful accountability will the United States be able to effectively navigate the geopolitical risks and economic pitfalls that are looming on the American horizon.

About Ferris Eanfar

Ferris has over 20 years of experience in the field of International Political Economy, including leadership positions within technical, business, financial, media and government intelligence environments. If you want to learn more about Ferris, please visit the About Ferris page.