On a Monday morning in September 1796, readers of the Philadelphia newspaper the Daily Advertiser learned that George Washington, after having served as president for eight years, would not seek re-election for a third term. The news that Washington, former commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention and first President of the United States – in short, an American demigod – would be stepping down probably overshadowed the content of his farewell address. The letter, first published by the Advertiser and soon reprinted by newspapers nationwide, also contained words of counsel for the fledgling republic. One noteworthy piece of advice Washington offered concerned the recent rise of a party system, which pitted Hamilton’s Federalists against Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. 

Washington warned that a party system could threaten popular democracy, but he acknowledged that the advent of an adversarial system of partisanship structure was perhaps inevitable. “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature,” Washington wrote, and it manifests itself “under different shapes in all governments.” Despite his visions for non-partisan government, Washington worried – and correctly so – that factionalism would take root in the District of Columbia.

The party system framework established by the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans still exists today. While the names have changed and third parties have occasionally experienced swells in popularity, the two-party system has dominated the American government for over two centuries. That American democracy has survived this whole time with a two-party system would seem to indicate that Washington’s concerns were ill-founded — but it also doesn’t mean that his cautions against partisanship were without usable wisdom.

In fact, Washington’s advice reflects present public sentiments about our current system. A March NBC/WSJ poll found that 38 percent of Americans “think the two-party system is seriously broken,” the highest public share since NBC/WSJ first posed the question in 1995. Only one in 10, feel that “the two-party system works fairly well.”

The two-party system is so deeply entrenched in our political landscape that it’s safe to say Washington’s non-partisan visions will never be achieved. That said, the two-party system, while it is the U.S.’s traditional model, is perhaps not suited for our hyper-polarized times. Though a multi-party system is a feature of many modern democracies, it has only a few historical precedents in the United States. On occasion, third parties have enjoyed fleeting popularity – sometimes even displacing a pre-existing party – but prevailing currents have traditionally borne American politics back to a two-party equilibrium. But such an electoral arrangement is not entirely alien to American political thought; it was actually promoted by James Madison, our fourth president and the chief author of the Constitution.

To counter the consolidation of power in the hands of a few, Madison advocated in Federalist Paper No. 10 the development of multiple “factions,” or parties, to represent the interests of a diverse populace. Like Washington, Madison recognized that non-partisan government was a pipe dream, as splintering into political groups is “sown in the nature of man.” Accepting this reality, the most realistic way to address Americans’ political interests would be to have a range of factions catering to them — thereby also diffusing power between a greater range of the population.

Like Washington, Madison’s visions did not come to national fruition. Madison feared the consolidation of power in the hands of a single party, which our two-party system has been largely successful in avoiding. That said, increasing numbers of Americans feel their voices aren’t represented through the two options that dominate our political scene.

The Democratic and Republican parties — presently at their most polarized in living memory — just aren’t cutting it. Two weeks before the 2016 election, 61 percent of Americans said neither party represented their beliefs. A natural remedy for this, of course, is the introduction of additional parties to the U.S.’s political stage. And a majority would be in favor: According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans reflected a desire “for a third, major political party.”

Our election system can be described as winner-takes-all: The congressional candidate who receives the most votes wins their district, and the presidential hopeful who receives the most votes gains all of a state’s electoral votes. The emergence of a major third party under such an arrangement is unlikely, because a vote for a third-party candidate is often perceived as a “wasted vote.” As such, a majority of voters hold their noses and go with the party that more closely reflects their interests, but leave the ballot box unsatisfied.

Encouraging the emergence of third parties, and in doing so providing the public with more viable political options to represent it, necessitates a reconfiguration of our election system. A proportional system — wherein splits in the electorate’s voting are proportionately reflected in government — would allow far greater freedom in one’s choice of party without the current risk of “throwing away” one’s vote.

Say you’re a Republican, but you worry that the party is becoming too conservative, and you’re sick of inane partisan bickering. Under a proportional system, you could vote for the moderate party that would inevitably emerge (parties of all stripes exist in countries with such an electoral system). If the 35 percent of Americans who identify as moderates were to vote with you, the “Centrist Party” would receive 35 percent of seats – perhaps enough to constitute a plurality.

The Founding Fathers were wise men who devised an electoral system that has functioned, even thrived, for over two centuries. They were also not infallible. By design, they left their American progeny with a malleable Constitution to be altered in accordance with changing needs. The Democratic and Republican parties are becoming increasingly polarized, and on their divergent trajectories leave more and more ideological real estate between them. It does not take a political oracle to recognize that this trend is unsustainable. If we are to improve American democracy, we must be receptive to propositions that will ensure its preservation.

Max Steinbaum can be reached maxst@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *