Leon Epstein on two-party competition

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Fun fact: in the old days (around mid-century), reformers wanted to replace proportional electoral systems with single member districts because they thought single member districts produced a two-party system, and a two party system gave the electorate a clearer choice between prospective governments and was thus obviously superior from a democratic perspective.

This fun fact comes from Leon Epstein’s classic comparative study, Political Parties in Western Democracies, which I’ve been revisiting for a personal project. It’s out of date in some respects (it was published exactly fifty years ago) but still useful, and some of Epstein’s tentative predictions have turned out well. For example, when Epstein was writing, a lot of political scientists (Epstein cites the particular influence of Robert Michels and Maurice Duverger on this line of thought) still thought that the development of socialist mass parties (e.g. the British Labour Party and the German Social Democratic Party) would continue to drive the evolution of party systems across the free world — encouraging nonsocialist opponents to develop large participatory membership organizations, etc. Epstein thought it was more likely that socialist mass parties were just one possible political expression of the industrial working class’ enfranchisement, there were various tendencies that could block or reverse their influence on party systems across the political spectrum, and they were probably a historically transient phenomenon rather than a persistent feature of advanced democracies with universal suffrage. All of that turned out to be correct, and I think he pretty much nailed the normative and practical considerations driving the transformation of socialist mass parties into de facto catch-all parties too.

There’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I’ll try to post some more interesting bits in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy this passage from which the fun fact above was taken:

The second reason for regarding two-party competition as a norm lies in the belief that it is the simplest and likeliest way to have effective democratic government. Partly this is a matter of thinking that voters should have a clear-cut choice between prospective governing groups and that this is possible only when there are but two parties, one or other of which regularly emerges as a majority to be held accountable for managing the government. There is also the point that the government itself might be more stable when majority party support is almost automatically provided by two-party competition — particularly in a parliamentary system requiring continuous majority support in the legislature to sustain the executive in office. So strong is the belief in the usefulness of two-party competition in this situation that changes in parliamentary election systems, usually from proportional representation to single-member districts, have been advocated in order to try to substitute two parties for several existing parties. Whether such an engineered change is practical or even desirable without other more fundamental socio-political changes is open to doubt.

…Whether or not two-party competition is natural, or more natural than multi-party competition, the believers in its desirability want to engineer its establishment. The existence of issue-dualism is not necessary as a foundation for their position. Instead, they may seek to manufacture this dualism by creating two-party competition. Within limits, this is perhaps possible, as may be seen in the way that the two American national parties manage to channel the opinions of a large and diverse nation. The limits are that the two parties must be loose and accommodating rather than strictly doctrinal on every issue. Thus, with each party containing many adherents who on certain issues agree with the other party, the parties are unlikely to present clear-cut policy alternatives. But this is not at all what advocates of two-party competition want. Part of their argument for two-party competition as a desirable norm is that it provides a clear-cut choice between groups standing for opposing policies. Certainly, this is what the responsible party school is talking about. And it makes a good deal of sense. Without each of two parties representing definite policies, much of the advantage of two-party competition is lost. Two-party competition might still be more desirable than the multi-party variety, simply by providing a choice between two potentially governing parties rather than between several parties none of which could secure a majority to govern alone. This advantage is sufficient for those, like the author, who believe that elections are democratically meaningful even if simply between competing candidates, or groups of candidates, but it is not enough for those who insist that each group of candidates, as the representatives of a party, must stand for clearly distinguishable policies. It might be impossible in a diverse nation like the United States to secure this result and still have only two parties. (p.56-58)

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