Parties and George Washington

If, as Adam Sith reports, Duverger’s Law is true of the US, then it is in virtue of the US having a plurality voting system that we are stuck with two parties, regardless of all other factors. Since plurality voting systems do not reward those who fail to get the most votes in a given election, there is no incentive for candidates to get more than 51% of the vote. In fact, the vast majority of races will involve several candidates that each can garner a fair number of votes, so generally 51% isn’t even required. Only a plurality is needed to win. And the same is true of the parties, though with them there is great pressure for compromise and consensus so that they can consistently achieve 51% in the legislatures.

But who stuck us with this plurality voting system? Did they not know that it would generate two parties and all of the problems that they come with?

The odd thing is that many of the founders who devised this system (a few post-founding changes aside) were opposed to parties and thought that they have largely negative effects. In this post, I want to consider one of the concerns George Washington had about parties, or at least one of those that he expressed in his September 19, 1796 farewell address. In my next post, I will consider some reasons why the founders nonetheless created a system of this sort.

Perhaps Washington’s gravest worry was that parties would obstruct the will of the people:

All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and Associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, controul, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities are distructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency. They serve to Organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force–to put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modefied by mutual interests. However combinations or Associations of the above description may now & then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, & to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

In short, the destructive nature of parties is owed to them influencing or controlling the government such that their wills–each of which always issues from a minority of the citizenry–supplant the will of the people. There are a number of interesting features of Washington’s concern: (1) he argues that all “combinations and Associations”, parties included, are generally destructive and potentially fatal to the nation; (2) he states that there is a “will of the Nation”; (3) he thinks that each party has a will which it attempts to impose on the nation; and (4) he claims that parties represent “a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community”.

Putting aside the question of whether there is a “will of the Nation” or not, I wonder if there is an internal inconsistency in this sort of view, at least unless it is articulated in a slightly different way. We could put it like this: what reason do we have, Mr. Washington, to think that parties exert a single unified will if your story about parties’ relationship to the nation is correct? Even if each party has a single unified will, shouldn’t it be undermined by factions internal to the party, such that the will that is exerted by a given party only represents “a small but artful and enterprizing minority” of the party’s members? And doesn’t the same go for this minority of the minority, and so on down the line?

The point of this objection is to encourage Washington to agree that the same mechanism that occurs at the nation-party level would have to occur at the party-faction level. This is a friendly objection, since it only reinforces–or perhaps amplifies–Washington’s concern. The net result is that even fewer people are wielding all of the influence! Either way, it seems plausible to me that Washington is right that this is roughly how parties work. Whether it is bad that parties work like this is less clear.

Where you end up on this issue probably depends on your views on procedural justice. If you think that our voting system is an attempt to provide a procedure that generates results that are by definition just, fair, reasonable, desirable, or whatever, then you are in favor of pure procedural justice in this context. Simply because the voting system is of a certain kind and is maintained without interference (e.g. without corruption or cheating), the candidates that it generates are the right ones. And if these candidates form parties, then that is a contingent feature of our nation that doesn’t undermine the moral status of the voting system–the procedure–and its outputs, unless it prevents the system from operating normally.

If, by contrast, you think that our voting system is only an attempt to consistently generate just, fair, reasonable, etc. results, and there is nothing necessarily right about its results however it is constructed, then you are in favor of perfect procedural justice in this context. You think that there are independent metrics which can be used to measure whether the outcomes of a voting system are the right ones. And you probably think that there could be many different ideal voting systems, all of which are ideal in virtue of generating the right type of results.

Of these two camps, Washington seems to belong to the former. His central claim is that it is bad that parties’ existence results in the will of minorities supplanting the will of the people, whatever else happens as a consequence. Parties undermine the will of the people and this in itself is bad. In fact, Washington does not even suggest that there is a possible world where parties have positive effects. For him to be so forceful here and not even consider this possibility gives us good reason to believe that he is firmly in the pure procedural justice camp. Were the will of the people allowed to flow unadulterated through our voting system, the results would be ideal, or so he seems to think.

I think that there is something to be said for Washington’s position here. If you think that the state owes its authority and legitimacy to a kind of contract it has with its citizens, that one of the terms of this contract is that the state respects the rights of its citizens unless they forfeit them, and that one such right is the right to be adequately represented in all legislative processes, then you probably think that there is an important sense in which the will of the people should be allowed to manifest itself, whatever this amounts to. Self-determination is itself valuable, regardless of its effects, because it is a presupposition of the contract that provides the moral foundation of the state. So if parties erode the procedure that allows citizens to exercise their self-determination, and thereby erode the full manifestation of the will of the people, then they are bad and perhaps should be restrained or eliminated.

Thus though maybe Washington would grant, if pressured, that there could be extreme circumstances where the will of the people is misdirected or bad to such a great degree that it threatens to outweigh the value of self-determination, his position seems to be that, in essence, this possibility is doubly moot. Morally it is moot because the bad effects of the nation having a bad will could never even in principle outweigh the value of the nation’s citizens manifesting this will. And, perhaps more importantly, practically it is moot because the parties always have worse wills than the nation since they are motivated by their own limited interests. Indeed, in a case where the nation has a thoroughly bad will, I suspect that Washington has trouble imagining how the parties in that nation would somehow float free of the broader currents.


John Adams once wrote:

There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.

The US has only two major political parties. The Republicans and Democrats have consolidated their political power. They have the money, the media coverage, and the voters. This has been the case for most of our short history and will probably be the case for the next half century. At least.

That there are only two parties is built into the political system.

The US voting system is a plurality voting system. Voters can only vote for one candidate and the winning candidate takes all. There is no prize for second place.

Contrast this with proportional voting systems: partly list, mixed-member, or choice. In a closed party list system, parties present a list of their candidates. Voters cast their vote by party. Parties then win seats based on the proportion of their votes they win. If, in a five-seat race, a party wins 40% of the vote, their top two candidates will win a seat. In an open party list system, voters will vote by candidate rather than party. Of course, there are different methods which determine how the proportion of votes map to who will take office — the earlier example being a bit simplistic. What’s important is that there is a prize for second place.

Mixed-member systems are hybrids. In this model, half of the legislators are elected by plurality contest, the other half are elected by party list. We are assured that this is considered one of the hottest systems by those in electoral design.

Choice voting, or single transferable vote systems, ranks candidates by voter preference. A threshold of votes is set (by various possible mechanisms), and if a candidate meets that threshold and has more votes than their competitors, they are elected. If no candidate meets the threshold, then the last place candidate is eliminated and the votes for the last-place candidate are transferred to the next choice. This process is more complicated and depends on several implementation details, but is nonetheless interesting.

We’ll probably cover these alternatives later in more depth. Again, what’s important about these systems is that there is a prize for second place.

Most proportional voting systems offer parties a set of incentives that will not result in two parties. In proportional voting systems, one can win seats without winning the popular, electoral or whatever vote. It can be better for a party to win second place than to compromise or build coalitions with rival parties. Not so for parties in the plural system.

Suppose you reside in a country with a plurality voting system. You’re a politician looking to 
stay in office, err, save the world. There are three parties. The greens, the purples, and the yellows. The purples are coming in hot with 40% of the support. But the greens and the yellows, your very own party, are not doing so badly with about 30% support respectively. I mean, 30% isn’t so bad, but in your system, since 30% is less than 40% and winner takes all, it looks like you and your comrades will get 0% of the seats. So, you could take the complete loss, or compromise and build a coalition with the greens. Note that if you lose, there’s a good chance that the purples will bend the political rules in their favor, perhaps by re-drawing districts, leaving you waiting for the debate invite, or decreasing the probability that your favorite demographics would vote.

Voters in a plurality voting system will also experience the pressure to compromise. Instead of voting for their favorite candidate, they may judge that it will be better to vote for a bearable candidate who has a higher chance of winning. For example, though many voters may have preferred Stein to Clinton, they voted for Clinton instead — because she had a chance. The same goes for those voting in the Republican primaries, who may have preferred Kasich but were forced to vote for Cruz or Trump because of their higher chances of winning.

The force to compromise has historically been strong enough to pressure parties into fusing with others. As the Whig party lost its place as a major party, those remaining Whigs joined the Democratic party. Similarly for the People’s party, 50 years later. Apart from taking some votes from major parties, third-parties have been nothing more than a footnote for the last century.

This is Duverger’s law.