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Two parties are too few


September 21, 2016

Next time you’re in your favorite local grocery store, take a little stroll down the breakfast cereal aisle. Plant yourself in front of the Cheerios section, and start counting. How many different varieties of “toasted oat cereal” do you find? Seven? Twelve?

According to Wikipedia, there are actually 17—including, of course, the inevitable limited-edition “Pumpkin Spice.” (There were seven others that have been discontinued.)

Similar scenarios play out across the store, of course, in the interest of gaining shelf space and squeezing out smaller competitors. There are at least 16 flavors of Lay’s Potato Chips, including regional variations, not counting the “wavy” and “kettle-cooked” sub-brands. Thirty-eight different dental hygiene products—toothpaste, that is—sport the Crest brand, including one with the catchy title of “Crest Pro-Health Advanced Extra Whitening Power + Freshness Toothpaste.”

As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “What a country!”

Now imagine this: what would happen if one day we suddenly found that we were restricted to only two different kinds of Cheerios? And what if those choices were not, shall we say, the most popular or palatable—Liver’n’Onions, say, or Crunchy Kale?

Consumers would be outraged! There would be chaos, riots in the aisles, cars burning in the parking lots! General Mills’ stock price would plummet! Congressional hearings would be called!

But this is pretty much the situation that most Americans settle for, each and every general election. Two parties. Two choices. Period.

(You folks in New York State have it better than most: the “fusion voting” system used in New York and a few other states at least allows you to vote for different brands, even if sometimes it’s the same product.)

How is it that in the United States of America—bastion of free enterprise, champion of consumer choice, empire of innovation—we should find ourselves in such a limited predicament?

The historical reasons are long and complex, of course, but the short answer has to do with the way we conduct our elections. In “first past the post” or “winner-take-all” systems like ours, a two-party system becomes almost inevitable, as political groups form coalitions to gain majority advantage. (The political science folks call it “Duverger’s Law.”)