2016 Elections

Feeling Left Out? Blame the Two-Party System.

U.S. political institutions should reflect the diversity of candidates and ideas.

Would it work elsewhere?

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

In the 10 days leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, I witnessed  a genuine democratic process that involved a good percentage of the state's voting age population (those coin tosses notwithstanding). Why then do so many Americans, and their politicians, consider their government to be broken?

The turnout at the caucuses was 186,874 for the Republicans -- an all-time record -- and 171,109 for the Democrats, second only to 2008, when there were 236,000. In that year, when Barack Obama triumphed, 16.1 percent of voting-age Iowans participated. In 2016, 15.7 percent took part. That's a big share of the population involved in a time-consuming process that often forces people to think about matters of little relevance to their daily lives. Some people went to see several candidates, sometimes traveling long distances. Some saw the same candidate more than once, trying to make up their minds. And on caucus night, as a first-time attendee, I watched hundreds of people engage in lively debate about candidates with their neighbors, trying to persuade the undecided and sometimes to reassure themselves. 

It was a powerful answer to those who say American democracy has been subverted by money and bureaucracy. It's alive and well -- in Iowa, at least.

The question is how to replicate a local system that helps educate candidates about people's needs and hone their messages and programs both across the country and throughout the government.

A common complaint of both Democrats and Republicans is that they feel underrepresented or unrepresented in Washington. Some of them assume that's because politicians are co-opted once they take office. Others feel left out because simply because they backed candidates who didn't win.

This disappointment is a symptom of what Arend Lijphart, the Dutch-American political scientist who wrote about patterns of democracy, described as a majoritarian democracy that "concentrates political power in the hands of a bare majority -- and often even merely a plurality instead of a majority." He attributed this flaw to the U.S.'s winner-take-all system and a process that is "exclusive, competitive and adversarial."  

In Lijphart's model, the U.S. system is antithetical to a consensus or negotiation democracy characterized by "inclusiveness, bargaining and compromise," a multiparty form of government found in some European countries. It allows even small parties to draft laws and see them passed. Sometimes, they can even contribute leaders to the executive branch, if a ruling coalition cannot be built without their participation. 

I live in Germany and see such a system in action. Of course, it couldn't be adopted wholesale in the U.S. That would require an overhaul of the Constitution, an impossible precondition. Yet thinking about how it could work could be useful as a mental exercise -- and a first step toward finding a solution to the underrepresentation problem. So let's imagine what would happen if the Iowa caucuses were a German nationwide election. 

As the Iowa campaign unfolded, I could see clearly that the U.S. has more than just two parties.  At rallies and caucuses, I was amazed to find how easy it was to recognize the leading candidates' supporters by sight, and without identifying symbols such as badges or t-shirts.

The groups were set apart by marked demographic and social divides, differences and behavior and clothing styles. A roomful of young people most likely could only have assembled to support Senator Bernie Sanders. A crowd of women and their husbands and kids? Most likely there for Hillary Clinton. A boisterous party probably was a Donald Trump crowd. A Ted Cruz audience resembled a church congregation, and Marco Rubio gatherings took on the aspect of business conventions. I'm oversimplifying, but after several days on the campaign trail, even the mood of different audiences was a giveaway: Sanders crowds were celebratory, Trump's backers let off anger but also seemed out for some fun, Cruz supporters tended to be sober and serious.

Let's imagine now that all the candidates/parties that received more than 5 percent support in the caucuses were then seated in an Iowa Parliament, here's what it would look like:

The Iowa Parliament

Distribution of seats based on the Feb. 1, 2016 caucuses

Source: Iowa Democratic and Republican parties

As a  result, the state would be governed by a coalition of a Sanders-led socialists and center-left Clinton Democrats, which together would control about 55 percent of the votes. On the right, a centrist party headed by Rubio, a Christian one led by Cruz and Trump's populists would be sufficiently represented to give their voters a voice. Clinton, on the strength of her party's narrow victory, would be Iowa's prime minister of chancellor, and Sanders would hold the second-highest job -- say, of economy minister and vice chancellor (the role that  Sigmar Gabriel plays as the junior partner in Germany's ruling coalition).

But as things stand, if Clinton wins the general election, the young Sanders voters probably will feel alienated because they wouldn't be represented in her cabinet. Similarly, Republican voters will be excluded from the executive branch and will express their discontent in Congress, resulting in continued gridlock.

Unlike the president's powerful role, the two-party system is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Maybe Americans should begin to recognize that there are at least five, perhaps more, potentially strong parties, represented by the leaders of the current presidential race. If they were formalized and represented in the Congress as parties, not as factions, coalition negotiations would probably become easier than they are today. Such an arrangement allows voters to understand more clearly who speaks for their particular worldview, and the deals between formal parties are seen not as backroom arrangements but as products of open negotiation and legitimate compromise.

This is a pipe dream, of course, but it's worth a thought.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.