Coalitions win elections — and not based on ideology

It is a common myth that the United States has two parties.

Oh sure, technically speaking there are only two major, organized parties that matter in the United States. Due respect to the other parties out there, until and unless they start actually electing people to office and making decisions, we aren’t really going to expand our definition of what the party system in this country is to include more than two.

That said, we actually have dozens of parties in this country. The difference is that this thriving multi-party democracy of ours exists within the two parties.

Confused? Don’t be.

The reason we have two official parties is because of the type of electoral system we have. In the United States, in order to win a candidate must find a way to get to 51 percent in order to guarantee that they will win, and so groups of people who share a lot of things in common group themselves together in an attempt to get that 51 percent.

Over time, several small but differing groups come to an agreement with each other, unifying themselves together based on some common goals and principles. The other side does this as well, both attempting to grow enough to be able to win a majority of the voters. Thus, two parties are born.

But inside those parties are groups of very different people. A number of sub-parties, if you will. The Republican Party alone has at least a half dozen that I can easily identify off the top of my head.

Which is why even if you killed the Republican Party, as so many people would love to do, nothing would ultimately change. After a period of unchallenged dominance by the Democrats, a counter-coalition would form under the banner of some other party devoted to beating the Democrats, and it would be similarly ideologically diverse and full of conflict.

This has already happened half a dozen times in our history. It will always be this way so long as we have the particular electoral system we have.

Which is why the constant desire by some to create a “real third party” will never, ever work. The nature of the political system we set up naturally creates two parties. The only thing that could truly produce multiple, pure parties would be a move toward some kind of parliamentary, proportional representation model like you often find in Europe.

But would that change anything?

Even if we switched to a system that awarded a percentage of legislative seats to each party based on the percentage of the popular vote they received, we would still likely have two “parties,” only this time they would be governing coalitions of many small parties instead of organized parties. For anyone to lead a government or legislature, that person would be forced into creating a broad coalition to govern. That coalition would consist of a number of parties working together in a coalition.

So no matter what you do, you have to deal with the fact that you are never going to have a narrow, activist party command an outright majority, and in order to ever impact the policy, you are always going to have to join together with people who agree with you some of the time, but not all of the time. Your choice is simply whether it is within one party, or as a coalition of factions.

Which is why I find so much of what is currently happening within the party as useless nonsense.

The irony is, in our system it is easier for a more radical, activist leader to rise to the top and be elected. You are never going to see a member of the National Front elected president of France, but a hard-right Republican president is not a difficult thing to imagine happening.

Because in America, politics isn’t about ideology, as much as everyone keeps telling you it is. Instead, it is about identifying with voters and personality. Relating to people and understanding what they care about is the key to winning votes, which is why a communist or the reincarnated ghost of Adam Smith could get elected in this country if they understood the voters, and related what their ideas were to what those voters cared about.

So you won’t find me weighing in on whether the Republican Party needs to get more conservative or more moderate. That is a false choice. In my mind, both parties need to stop the ideological food fight and start relating to voters again.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.