L. Sandy Maisel is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government and Director of the Goldfarb Center of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College and the author of American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction.
He answered a few questions at the OUP Blog, including:
OUP: The US has a strictly two party system, in contrast to many European countries, which generally have multi-party systems. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this, and could America ever have a multi-party system?L. Sandy Maisel: The easier question to answer is the second. It would be very difficult for the U.S. to have a multi-party system; many basic laws would require changing. For instance, most American elections are run in single-member districts, with only one winner. This system encourages two parties; systems in which more than one representative is elected at the same time, often by proportional representation, encourage multi-party systems. Similarly, our system with separation of powers and a single executive, a President chosen independently, encourages a two-party system. There is one big prize to shoot for, nor compromising with positions in the cabinets to those who contribute to winning coalitions. Changing either of these basic aspects of our institutional framework would be very different.
How one catalogues the advantages and disadvantages of a two-party system compared to a multi-party system depends on one’s values. Let me give some examples. A two-party system creates umbrella parties, in which party members are trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of the population, but most citizens like some of what one party stands for and some of the other. A multi-party system makes it more likely that citizens will find a party that is “right” for them — but then governing involves compromising among factions in a legislature. Some would see each of those variations as advantageous, others disadvantageous. In a two-party system, compromising is often done within one party; in a multi-party system, it is often done between or among parties. Which is better depends on an individual’s point of view.
Read the entire Q & A.--Marshal Zeringue