American Politics, Explained by the Simpsons and a French Guy

A recent poll suggests that a majority of Americans think that there should be a third political party besides the Democrats and Republicans.  Of course, technically, there are other parties: remember Jill Stein and the Greens or Gary “And what is Aleppo?” Johnson and the Libertarians (and, in his defense, how many Americans do you think actually still remember the answer to “what’s Aleppo” anyway? However, these parties never really do much to displace the top two, and even in the past when new parties have emerged in America, it’s been along with the decline in another party, so that only two major parties operate at any given time.  Even though many people might want a multi-party system, like those that exist in European countries such as Germany or Italy, creating such a system in the US is a lot harder than it may seem.  In my political science classes, I like to explain the two party system to my students because it gives me an excuse to play one of my favorite Simpsons clips:

For everyone who held their nose to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton because they couldn’t stand the other intuitively understand Homer’s logic. So did a French guy named Maurice Duverger.

***Warning! Political Science Ahead: Buckle Up and Ride Along***

Ok, so let’s back up.  When you go to vote for your Representative to Congress (or look up the names on your local ballot online so that you can pretend that you voted if one of your friends asks), the election is for one seat; that is, regardless of how many people are running, only one person will win and get to serve.  In political science jargon, the United States is divided up into “single member districts.” (Hey, I’m not the one who comes up with all these terms; I just get to use the jargon so that I can pretend to be smarter than everyone else [that’s pretty much 80% of academia]).

Each Senate seat, and the seat of President of the United States, can also be considered as single member districts: there’s never a situation where two or more people are both awarded the same Senate seat or some kind of co-presidency (imagine if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to share the presidency – note to self: pitch idea to major TV networks).  Furthermore, the winner of these elections is simply the person who gets the most votes (or, in some cases, the person who gets the majority of votes, even if there has to be a runoff election for that to happen). This way of deciding the winner of an election is called “winner take all” (makes sense) or “first past the post” (I should know what a post is in this context, shouldn’t I? You see, posts…ok, let’s just move on).

In the 1950s and 60s, a French sociologist named Maurice “The Space Cowboy” Duverger noticed that when political systems had these two features, they tended to be two party systems. Duverger laid out the logic behind his observations, which is why it’s known as Duverger’s Law and not “some isht that just happens.” It’s best explained by an example.

Suppose we start out with three parties running for a Congressional seat: the Whigs, the Beards and the Ironic Mustaches (yes, I used to live in a hipster neighborhood, why do you ask?).  Each party is supported by roughly ⅓ of the voters in the district. If they remain separate parties, each has about ⅓ chance of winning the election (or, more importantly, a ⅔ chance of losing).  But if, say, the Beards and Mustaches combined forces, the new composite Facial Hair party would have 66% of the electorate and would be a shoe-in to win.  Even if we start with more than three parties, the same logic follows: it would be in the best interests of the parties to combine until one party had enough support to win outright, and because all parties know this, they will all continue to consolidate until you get two parties. (Why don’t you get one party, you may ask. Well, once a coalition party has a majority, it doesn’t need to add any other parties – there would be no extra benefit to winning the election by a higher percentage, and i would be costly to have to split up the benefits of winning among more people).

Beyond giving me a solid 5 minutes of content for my lectures each year, what’s the “so what” of all this? Basically, in order to actually get a real third party in the US, and not just occasional nutty billionaires who like charts (not to be confused with nutty billionaires who likes walls) we’d have to radically change the way we ran elections. Other countries have done this through systems such as proportional representation: imagine that instead of voting for individual candidates, everyone simply voted for their favorite party, and the total vote percentage that each party got translated into how many seats that party gets in Congress. That way, if the Green party only gets 5% of the nation’s vote, it still gets 5% of the seats in Congress, instead of the 0% it gets now.

Such a system could be implemented, although it’s hard to see many states going for it anytime soon if only because it’s so different from the system we’re used to (and different from the system that put our current elected officials in office, meaning they won’t be in a hurry to change things). Until our elected leaders collectively change their minds or there’s a large enough groundswell of public support for a multi-party system, Kang and Kodos remain our two choices.

279 thoughts on “American Politics, Explained by the Simpsons and a French Guy”

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