About “Duopolies”

A quick-off response to a minor twitterstorm about the US electoral system. It seems good enough to publish.

Hello, you two.

I would like to interject here. I am someone who has studied the problem you are exerting your brains over, at something beyond the usual liberal university blather.

The problem is with the entire idea of electoral or representational politics. This has a huge tendency to settle into a “red door/blue door” dynamic. Red party slightly progressive, Blue party slightly conservative, both totally committed to the status quo. In American politics they have the usual colours reversed.

In the history of British parliamentary systems there are plenty of examples of new, independent parties emerging and taking over government. In Britain, the Labor party displaced the Liberal party. In the west provinces of Canada, the NDP displaced the Liberals.

But what happens then is that they settle into a new duopoly. The problem is that unless an independent party can generate massive support, all it does is pull votes away from an existing party and usually gets someone elected its supporters did not want. The independent party then becomes the new barrier to new parties and soon turns establishmentarian.

There is a large movement in Canada and some other British style democracies based on the idea that adopting a proportional voting system will solve this problem. That is, instead of single member constituencies, the seat count for each party is based on the vote count. There are many methods of achieving this, which I will not get into here.

A quick look at proportional systems shows that this does not work. You still have one big blue party and one big red party, with some smaller parties lining up on either side. In some cases it is worse than that, with a “grand coalition” clogging up the centre.

I am less sure about how it works in American style systems, but in some of them new parties are able to gain control without much trouble. What happens then is that they soon become the new establishment or there is a coup or they are subject to foreign pressure. Specifically in the USA, extreme measures are taken to discourage third parties which only a truly massive effort could overcome.

The question I would ask is this; if you could mobilize enough power to overcome this get a new party into office, or to take over one of the existing parties, why bother dealing with it at all? The logical thing would be to force changes to the rules or better yet, force a new constitution or theory of governance.

This gets me back to the real problem and its solution. People need to get away from electoral politics and toward direct democracies. The trouble is, in the past century there has been a huge effort worldwide to force electoral systems and to dismantle the direct systems which were once becoming established.

Of course we do not have a lot of experience with direct systems governing large, modern states. Implementing them will require a lot of trial and error. To repeat, bringing such a system about would require a massive effort, with near unanimous support and a skilled leadership.

To conclude, a massive effort could collapse a duopoly but would likely just lead to a new duopoly unless there is a plan for something else.

The best thing to read on this topic is “Against Elections” by David Van Reybrouck

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